New Bern rock star Steve Hill dies from a lung battle with cancer
New Bern drummer Steve Hill’s life of torturous pain has ended.
Known as “The Doctor,” he was found dead at his home in rural Pamlico County early Aug. 18 — ending 53 years filled with fire and grit.
The highs were 37 years on the rock-n-roll stage and the lows were more than 25 operations in 28 years from a leg shattered in 50 places during a fiery early-morning 1993 van-crash on I-85 in Gaffney, S.C.
He was returning with his band Johnny Quest from a performance in Atlanta.
“He never tried to show his pain, because he didn’t want others to feel sorry for him,” said Rebecca Wheeler, a first cousin who lives in Bridgeton.
Hill’s final 11 months were personally tragic — the deaths of his mother and stepfather within weeks of each other in late 2020; followed by his diagnosis with aggressive lung cancer early this year.
It metastasized with tumors throughout his body. Chemotherapy and radiation became another of his medical regimens.
Still, he played on — sitting in for a high-rhythm blues song at the Brown Pelican with Big Jim Kohler and Friends in May.
Added to those events was a crushed hand in a moped accident several years ago, which left small screws permanently inserted in his fingers.
But he played on.
Tributes, photos and videos poured onto his Facebook page with news of his death. A Sun Journal Facebook request for thoughts brought responses from throughout the state and as far away as Ireland
Hill’s reputation as a rhythm master with drum sticks never diminished.
Frank Scheper played with Hill in his first band (River City Rockers) and his last (Zen Pirates) and they became close friends.
“There was a 1997 story in Rolling Stone which said Steve Hill was the hardest-working drummer on the East Coast,” Scheper said. “He was always there when you needed him. He played through the pain.”
Frank and his wife, Julie, have been helping Hill with his home life and doctor’s appointments since his cancer diagnosis in February.
“He knew it was terminal,” she said. “But he was determined he was going to fight.”
She said that spirit was how he came to be known as The Doctor, or Doc, after the crash.
“He got that name because it could never put him down — the health issues and all the accidents. He just never quit,” she said. “People would say ‘The doctor’s in the house.'”
Award-winning bass player Mike Sandvig grew up in the same old Cherry Point Road area as Hill, but never knew Hill played drums until both were much older. The two performed in The Jim Kohler Band, an all-star collection that included guitarist Justin Castellano.
“Oh, we blew the doors off,” said Sandvig, now with the I-42 Band. “That guy (Steve) was such a natural talent and it was such a pleasure to play with somebody who knew how to play like that.”
Stephen Judge, owner of Schoolkids Records, in a message from Ireland, said, “He was the funkiest drummer I ever knew and a beast behind that kit. He could get any crowd going full-on. The music lived through him and I am lucky that I was able to feel that through me.”
Also not forgotten was the man beneath the rocker image — his kind and compassionate nature, tempered by a sometimes-over-the-top zest for life.
“Doc was a huge light of life, a man who had battled so much over his life and was so strong and brave — one of the strongest and bravest men I’ve ever known,” added Judge.
Bobby Hurff, founder and lead of New Bern’s Peace Soldier Band, recalled Hill’s willingness to jump behind the drums to help a band in trouble.
Peace Soldier was a day away from one of Hurff’s annual Rockin’ for Relief for Homeless Veterans concerts and came up without a drummer.
“Steve just said, give me a playlist,” Hurff recalled. “And he never missed a beat.”
The crash that changed Steve Hill’s life
Hill’s defining life moment was the interstate wreck that nearly snuffed out his life at age 25.
Years later, playing with another top touring band Hobex, he told bass player Andy Ware about it — waking up in a field, with fire all around and the van upside down in the middle of I-85.
“He looked down and his foot was 180-degrees facing the other way,” Ware said. “He had to literally wrench his crushed leg around straight again. The doctors said if he hadn’t done that, he would definitely have lost his leg. That dude has gone through some unbelievable stuff.”
The crash happened early on a Sunday while Johnny Quest was returning to North Carolina from a Saturday night gig in Atlanta.
A visiting doctor, scheduled to give a lecture in Greenville, S.C., who was told of an incoming wreck victim with massive leg trauma, ditched his lecture and performed the emergency life-and-leg-saving surgery.
Ware said the leg was not Hill’s only wreck trauma. He developed a bad infection later, which Ware said was due in part to Hill trying to return early to the physically intensive job as a drummer.
“Steve pushed it a little. But he needed to work,” Ware said. “How much of a statement about needing some sort of health care system was that when a guy has to go back to work because he’s a musician and doesn’t have any health insurance. So, he had to go back to work.”
Hill also received shoulder-socket trauma and had lifelong rotor cuff problems.
Ware tells the story of Hill playing a three-hour show with Hobex in Wilmington and band members noticed him moaning as he broke down his drum set.
Hill took off his shirt to show the band an incision and dozens of fresh staples.
“He had rotor cuff surgery the day before,” Ware said. “At that moment I knew that I was in the presence of one heck of a tough dude, as well as one of the most kick-a** drummers I had ever played with.”
Steve Hill: Self-taught rock-n-roll star
Julie Scheper tells a story that Hill related to her.
He was small, shy, and not particularly popular with girls at New Bern High.
Hill bought a drum kit, assembled it, taught himself to play and gathered some friends to perform Beatles songs in a talent show.
“He looked down and these girls that never even knew he was alive were screaming and jumping up and down,” Julie Scheper recalled. “When he came down off that stage, he said I am going to do this for the rest of my life.”
And Hill kept his promise.
Hill earned his first money in 1983 with Dave Pryor’s River City Rockers, along with Danny and the late Paula Anderson.
“We were in dire straits for a drummer,” recalled Pryor, now the leader of Ravenz Bru. “We had gone through four in about six months. We put an ad in the (Sun Journal) and he called me. He sounded like a kid. His father brought him because he didn’t have a license.”
The band was somewhat amused at first by this little fellow.
“He just knocked us out,” Pryor said. “When we were through, I said, well thanks for trying out.”
Danny Anderson and the others were astounded he wasn’t offered the job on the spot.
“I said I’m going to let him get home before I call him, I don’t want his ambitions to get too lofty,” Pryor said.
An hour or so later, Hill was a professional.
“We had to fudge on his age sometimes to get him in clubs,” said Danny Anderson, also now with Ravenz Bru. “We were amazed of his talent. We gigged together for about three years.”
Hill’s band resume included River City Rockers, Stormtrooper, The Velt, Johnny Quest, Hobex and Zen Pirates.
Charlie Hall can be reached at 252-635-5667 or 252-259-7585, or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook at Charlie Hall.