Beat goes on for musician battling cancer
From the moment he first picked up a guitar, Herb Stephens was in love.
And, for almost as long, the Winston-Salem community he has called home for the bulk of his life has been in love with him. Stephens has been a fixture in the local music scene and beyond for decades, playing regular gigs on Sundays at Milner’s American Southern Cuisine & Cocktails and Emmanuel Baptist Church, and performing for audiences far and wide as a member of Envision.
“He’s the local hero of musicianship. He’ll never tell you that, but he really is,” declared Michael Thomas, Envision’s founder. “…His musicianship is so keen. It’s so strong. He’s got this tremendous flair and style when he plays. He’s just so comfortable.”
Stephens began playing guitar as a youth at the behest of local blues player Ronald “Big Ron” Hunter, who first introduced a young Stephens to the craft.
“I used to ride my bicycle 14 miles to Germanton just to play a guitar, so he was the sole advocate for me ever touching a guitar,” he related. “That was the only time I got to touch a guitar.”
Even as a youth, Stephens says he recognized the value of being musically skilled.
“I just knew if I learned how to play, it’s something you can’t take away from a person,” said the father of two. “I always had something that I don’t have to worry about money.”
The Fairmont native dabbled in auto repair and carpentry as well, but says music was his true passion.
“The love of music,” he said when asked of his motivation to keep playing year after year. “With all the hectic stuff going on, you grab your instrument, you can forget everything. When I’m playing with other guys … it’s a super feeling, a real high. You don’t need anything else.”
Over the years, Stephens has belonged to a number of bands, playing everything from blues to jazz, top 40, R&B and punk rock. Envision has more than 300 songs in a variety of genres in its repertoire, and Stephens says he likes playing them all.
“It’s all styles – that’s how you work. If you’re one style, either you’re lucky or you don’t play that often,” he remarked. “I could play every weekend if I wanted to, and most times I do.”
For over two decades, Stephens has juggled a busy schedule, working full time as an IT consultant by day and playing gigs in the evenings.
“They say ‘You’re burning the candle on both ends.’ I was burning both ends and in the middle,” he said. “I was playing until 12 midnight and then in the morning going to work on servers.”
Stephens’ hectic workload came to a screeching halt in January, when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. The disease weakened his bones, causing painful rib fractures, and made it difficult for him to sit or stand for long periods of time.
“I was in stage two and they say there’s only three stages,” he said.
Thomas and his fellow Envision members took the news hard, but even in the face of adversity, his friend and mentor was there to comfort and guide him.
“It was heartbreaking to hear something like that. It’s always hard to hear when something bad happens to good people, but he said, ‘Don’t worry – I’m going to get through this,’” Thomas said of Stephens. “He took his time reassuring us.”
Stephens underwent aggressive chemotherapy treatments and had to be sidelined from his work – all of it – for over six months.
“We missed him terribly,” Thomas said. “…I’m thankful for the guys who stepped in. They’re talented as well, but there is just no one on earth like Herb Stephens.”
Stephens’ fans came out in droves to support him in his time of need.
“I think I’ve gotten over 70 cards at least,” he recalled. “There were three to five coming every week.
“It let me know if I died, it’d be a lot of people at my funeral,” he quipped. “That’s the first thing that I thought about. I said, ‘Dog, they’d have to have it at the coliseum.’”
In early June, Stephens underwent an autologous procedure, where doctors removed healthy stem cells from his bones, killed his existing marrow and replaced it with the new cells, effectively putting the disease in remission. Stephens has suffered massive weight loss and is still working on getting back to his old self, but says he is on the mend.
“I’m fine and I know how to keep it at bay,” he declared. “It’s something I’ve got to live with, and I live accordingly.”
Though he has decided to retire from his IT work, Stephens’ music schedule is quickly gaining steam. He returned to his regular gigs with The Charlie Culbreath Trio at Milner’s three weeks ago and, on July 27, he took to the stage with Envision at the Summer on Trade downtown music series, making his first local appearance with the group since his illness.
“It was a huge outdoor concert; it was very successful,” Thomas said. “Everybody was so happy to see him – you could just feel that. It made us feel good to see how much he was missed and how much everybody loves him.”
After being away from performing for so long, Stephens said he approaches his craft with a renewed fervor.
“I’m a totally different person,” he said. “I want to express myself more.”
Now that he’s getting his strength back, Stephens says he is eager to make the most of his time. He’s already planning for a solo CD that he hopes to release later this year.
“I’ve played on a lot of other people’s CDs. I want to do one for me, for sure,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Thomas said he is thrilled to have Stephens back in action.
“He’s my hero, my mentor,” Thomas said. “I’ve just learned so much from him, not just about music, but about being a good, honest, hardworking man.”
Stephens performs with The Charlie Culbreath Trio on Sundays from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at Milner’s, 630 S. Stratford Rd. Envision will again perform in the Twin City on Saturday, Aug. 10 at the Piedmont Circle Reunion. For more information, visit www.envisionnc.com.