Blacks Break Tradition by Playing ‘Minimum Wage’ Rock

By Brian L. Covert
Tribune Staff Writer

Brian O’Neal of The BusBoys may appear like just another outrageous, eccentric rock star in his hot pink jacket and orange socks, but the similarity ends there.

Besides being the chief songwriter for a rare rock ‘n’ roll band whose members are mostly black, O’Neal has defied tradition by establishing a unique brand of music he calls “minimum wage rock ‘n’ roll” — an ode to the American working class.

Sitting in his dressing room after a show at Harrah’s casino, O’Neal admitted that things have changed since the band started out in 1979 playing at Los Angeles-area rock and new wave clubs.

“I think our stage show has become more visually oriented and will increase so even over the next couple of weeks,” he said. “It’s gotten a little more sophisticated from the time we played Madame Wong’s (an L.A. club), but the energy and thrust have been raised.”

The BusBoys show at Harrah’s includes some theatrics satirizing black-white race relations between songs, like when the lanky O’Neal performs a short skit as a “shoeshine boy” scurrying about.

But the rest of the show is pure rock ‘n’ roll, with a touch of reggae, blues, 1960s boogie rock, heavy metal, new wave and some jazz.

O’Neal, whose musical training stems from his childhood days, sings lead vocals and plays keyboards.

He is backed by lead guitarist Victor Johnson. A tuxedo-clad Reggie Leon helps out on vocals and does dance routines to the band’s music.

Rounding out the group are drummer Steve Felix, bassist Greg French and keyboardist Mike Radi.

O’Neal says The BusBoys’ shows have succeeded in crossing the racial barriers associated with rock ‘n’ roll, a type of music that caters mostly to white audiences.

“I just do what I do. A lot of old people like it, a lot of young people like it, a lot of blacks, a lot of whites,” he said. “That’s just a testament to me how well-received the concept is in our performances.”

The BusBoys’ shows, for the most part, are an extension of the group’s two albums: a biting satire with social and racial overtones, a showcase for talent and a good time.

The BusBoys’ 1980 debut album “Minimum Wage Rock & Roll,” earned the band the paradoxical reputation of a novelty group spouting some serious underlying social statements.

Songs from that album include “There Goes the Neighborhood” (about a white family moving into a black area), “KKK” and “Johnny Soul’d Out,” about a kid who leaves rhythm and blues to play rock ‘n’ roll music.

The theme of the band’s second album, “American Worker,” released in 1982, was a call to the nation’s working class, with more emphasis on the band’s musical talents.

The album’s songs, which include “Opportunity,” a spunky reggae tune, “New Shoes” with a bopping 1950s style and the more mellow “Last Forever,” helped to establish The BusBoys as truly original artists.

It was The BusBoys’ originality that also helped the group land a cameo appearance in the movie “48 Hrs.” starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte.

O’Neal says it was a “rock attitude” that got him started writing such material but stressed that his musical interests have since grown.

“I listen to a lot of different kinds of music: a lot of pop, a lot of R&B, a lot of jazz. So, I love all kinds of music. This is just where I wound up,” he said.

O’Neal, who grew up in Gardena, a middle-class suburb located about 15 miles south of downtown L.A., says he encourages artists from all schools of music to expand.

“I think everybody should just do what they feel like doing,” he said. “There’s a lot of cross-referencing and cross-pollination influences anyway.

“So, rather than say there should be more rock groups or black rock groups, just encourage them musically to go forward. Just do what you feel like doing and do it great. That’s the bottom line.”

O’Neal said in retrospect, he does wish some aspect of the band’s exposure had been different.

“I wish that certain things had gone differently in reference to the way the band’s been handled on record. Not so much production, just the marketing. I’ve always felt that the band has not been exploited to its full potential in the marketing sense and in the costs to our records.”

But with a new record and possible videos in The BusBoys’ future, O’Neal remains optimistic.

“You just take the good with the bad,” he said. “Keep your sights set on what you want to do and continue to get great.

“Keep your talents and your music and your goals alive. Then you won’t lose track of what you’re doing.”