The Beat Goes On
By Jon Lewis
story: Jon Lewis photos: Brent Van Auken
WALES-BORN DRUMMER STEVE JOSEPH TEACHES WITH PASSION
His students rarely know what to expect when they sit down for a lesson, but one thing they quickly learn—with Steve Joseph, they’re dealing with a drummer’s drummer.
“He’s unique,” admits Jesse Ajamian, a senior at Foothill High School who has been taking drum lessons from Joseph for five years. “He flows. He’s just got a great style. He really knows his craft, that’s for sure. He’s just a great all-around player. It could be any style of music and he knows what to do.”
Jesse, who is focusing on jazz fusion drumming, pays Joseph a compliment that is music to any teacher’s ear: “Every week, I look forward to my lesson.” Joseph’s enthusiasm for drumming began when he, too, was a boy. He grew up in the city of Swansea on the southwest shore of Wales, and by age 13, he was a member of the Swansea Sea Cadets marching band, banging out a two-quarter march on the snare drum and picking up pointers from his uncle, who was a drummer.
However, as with most teenagers growing up in the United Kingdom in the early ’60s, Joseph fell under the spell of a certain mop-topped quartet out of Liverpool that was raising a fuss with tunes like “Love Me Do” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”
“I wanted to be a rock drummer like Ringo Starr. He had a big influence on me,” Joseph, 61, says of the former Beatle. “He was one of the most influential drummers ever. He was very significant in getting young kids to drum.”
It wasn’t just the Beatles that had Joseph setting up a drum kit in his parents’ parlor and playing along to Rolling Stones and Hollies records—or driving his teachers crazy by using his pens and pencils as drumsticks—it was the whole emerging scene. “The ’60s was the most incredible time to be living in the UK with all the new bands. Everybody wanted to be a musician,” he says. “I wanted to leave school and be a drummer in a band.”
His parents had other ideas. “They said this isn’t a proper job, but it was what I was doing—how do they say it over here, ‘24-7’? I would play for nothing, but after a while you realize mother wasn’t going to buy you another pair of drumsticks…”
So Joseph embarked on a career as a professional musician, first as the drummer for a six-piece soul band called Lott 13 —“I’d like to have a pound for every time I played ‘Mustang Sally,’” Joseph says—and later in a band called Liquid Umbrella.
Outfitted with a Ford Transit van—the must-have mode of transportation for any serious rock ‘n’ roller—Joseph and his bandmates hit the road, often making the 250-mile drive from Swansea to gigs in London’s thriving club scene.
“We traveled all around the country like the Beatles,” Joseph recalls. “It would be cold and we’d stop for a bit of tea and a burger or something.” Joseph’s band began making inroads and getting noticed. Early highlights included opening for Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames (whose drummer, Mitch Mitchell, went on to play with Jimi Hendrix) and more significantly, on a personal level for Joseph, the chance to play the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the small basement venue where the Beatles made their mark in the music world.
“It was a very big thing for us at the time,” says Joseph, recalling that the young musicians were more determined than starstruck when they found themselves on the same stage that spawned John, George, Paul and Ringo. “We were strong and hard-headed—we thought we were going to make it, too.”
The steady gigs and his obvious talents started to get Joseph noticed, and soon he was sitting in with big names like Dave Edmunds and Joan Armatrading. A big milestone was the chance to open for the Graham Bond Organization, a rock band that featured Ginger Baker on drums. (Baker went on to star in Cream and Blind Faith and is considered one of the most influential rock drummers of the 1960s.)
“That really changed my life. He was a massive influence on me, and I got in a few lessons from him as well,” Joseph says. Later in his career, Joseph signed with Charisma Records as a composer and session musician and worked with members of Genesis and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Joseph and his wife, Wendy, moved to the United States in 1984 and settled in Redding 10 years ago. He still mixes gigs into his teaching schedule, but it’s his role as an instructor that has students singing his praises these days.
“His stories are amazing,” says Scott Davis, a drummer who played with The Myriad and recently toured with the Christian rock band Project 86. Davis says Joseph uses a unique, free-flowing style of teaching. “He’s just an incredible guy. He’s very generous, just great people.”
Foothill High band teacher Mitch Bahr says Joseph is a rare combination of performer and instructor. “He’s a consummate professional and one of the most polite individuals I’ve ever been around. There are a lot of musicians you come across in life that are really talented but kind of abrasive and not really willing to pay it forward. Steve is a double threat. He’s an excellent drummer and an excellent teacher.
“I’ve never had a kid take lessons from Steve and not be totally inspired,” Bahr says. •
www.welshdrummer.com (530) 223-3943