A Conversation With Johnny Colla – Part 1
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the incredibly talented Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis & The News. Our conversation covered his entire career, including his early days playing with Jack Blades in Rubicon to his time playing with Van Morrison and Sly and the Family Stone. And of course, we discussed his influential role as a founding member of Huey Lewis & The News, a band that has been making great music for nearly 40 years.
Below is part one of my interview with Johnny. Part two can be read here.
You started off in a couple bands and wound up playing with Van Morrison. What’s the story behind this?
I played with Jack Blades, Kelly Keagy and Brad Gillis in this band called Rubicon. The band broke up. They wanted to start a rock band, so we made a demo tape. At the time, Huey and I had a little something going but we weren’t quite sure what it was. And Jack Blades was extremely jealous because every night I’d go out moonlighting with Huey in the city, playing harmonica and sax. Well, I think I made the right decision because it’s 2014 and I don’t have to wear spandex.
We had a little band here in Marin County called Sound Hole. Like every other band, like Huey’s band Clover, we were all here living in Marin County trying to get a record deal and none of us were doing so successfully. Like any other place, it was a friendly rivalry. We’re all playing the same clubs. We’re all playing for the same people. Writing songs. Making demo tapes. Trying to break out.
We caught the attention of Van Morrison’s road manager. As you know, Van is a big rhythm and blues fan, always has been. And Van had just canned the Street Choir. He broke up with his girlfriend, he canned the whole band, he had nothing going, and he was just kickin’ around Marin County looking for something, trying to figure out what the next thing would be. His road manager brought Van to one of our shows and he said, “Let’s give it a try.” So, we had a few rehearsals and he took us on the road for a handful of college dates.
What was the music scene like in Marin County at this time?
Marin County was a hotbed for…after the Summer of Love exodus, all the hippies decided to go live in communes. And all the rich ones who, for instance, were in musical groups, moved to beautiful, affluent Marin County – including Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead. And Van Morrison had gotten wind, so he came here. The list goes on and on. Marin County was the place to be. Every night you could go to a club and some rock star would be there up on the stage. It was quite a magical time.
I lived in Sacramento Valley and caught wind of what was going on over here in Marin, found a girlfriend and ended up moving over in this direction. And as they say, the rest is history. That’s what led me to my band Sound Hole. And that’s what eventually led to my friendship with Huey, which started Huey Lewis & The News.
You also worked with Sly and the Family Stone. What was that experience like?
I did. Sly lived in Northern Marin County. I was out of a job at the time. A keyboard player friend of mine and I had gotten unceremoniously kicked out of the band Sound Hole and I was home lickin’ my wounds trying to figure out what my next move was gonna’ be and my friend landed a gig with Sly. He came home every day telling me how he was making money and one day he called me up and said, “Hey, they just canned the trumpet player. I told Sly all about you. I told Sly you went to the same junior college that he did and he’s itching to me you.” So my buddy John came by and picked me up at my house. We went up to Sly’s little castle on the hill and five hours later I was in the band.
You’re a saxophonist and a guitarist. Were you always multi-instrumental?
Yeah, I guess I was. When I was a kid – like everybody else’s story – bam, along comes The Beatles. Every kid in the United States wanted to be in a band. I was no exception. Realistically, that was probably 1964 or 1965.
I talked my parents into buying me a bass guitar because, for some reason, my buddy played guitar and we felt we couldn’t have two, so I played bass. I picked up the bass guitar for that band. The second band comes along and I talked my parents into buying me an organ so I could be an organ player. The third band comes along and I’m playing guitar and sax. And that’s kind of the way it went. It’s what led to me becoming a guitar/sax player.
How did you and Huey wind up naming your band Huey Lewis & The News?
When Huey and I got this thing going and we were trying to figure out the lineup, we kind of had a band together but we went through many names. We were flirting with calling ourselves The Meteors. We were flirting with calling ourselves The Fools. And eventually we landed on American Express but somebody was smart enough to make us change our name last-minute to Huey Lewis & The News.
Musically, what were those first years like in the band for you?
Huey and I were fast friends. We were in the mutual admiration club. We were hanging out every day and night together. Hopping in the car and jamming as a sax/harmonica horn section.
When we really got the band going, got a batch of songs together and started becoming a group, I didn’t play guitar in the band. I think it was our manager’s suggestion. He said, “Do you play anything else?” I said, “Well, yeah. I know my way around the guitar.” So, I didn’t really start playing guitar in a band until we started Huey Lewis & The News.
And it should be said, tongue firmly in cheek, I still don’t play guitar (laughs). It gives me something to do while I’m singing two-part with Huey. We always have a ringer playing all the lead stuff. I never considered myself a guitar player, really. It was never more than something to do on stage while I sang and it served as a wonderful songwriting tool – still does.
Speaking of songwriting, you’ve co-written several of Huey Lewis & The News’ biggest hits, including “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “If This Is It” and “The Power of Love.” What’s the songwriting process like for you?
I don’t know that there’s a formula, which is a good thing. There are lots of formula bands out there.
Several times Huey will come up with a hook, something that he likes, something that rings with him lyrically and I’ll try and wrap music around that. “If This Is It” was a good example, or a strange example, I should say. I really had the tune fleshed out. Originally I had the lyric, “I wanna rock, I wanna roll” (laughs). That was my demo. And Huey took that one, found a hook for it, polished up the lyrics and that’s how that one came about. There’s no formula really.
“Heart of Rock & Roll” started as…we had just finished a show in Cleveland, Ohio. We jumped on the bus and we were all jacked up because we had just killed Cleveland – best show of our lives up to that point. We’re on the bus driving to who knows where and Huey goes, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a tune. The heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland.” I looked at him and said, “Keep workin’ on it” (laughs). So literally, he sat down in the bus and started pounding his knees to create the beat he had in his mind and he’s singing, “The heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland, and from what I’ve seen I believe ’em.” And I went, “Yeah, there’s something there. Keep workin’ on it.” I was sort of directing this whole thing.
Then Mario jumped in and started working with Huey on it, so I left them to their devices and kept it in my back pocket. This is absolutely no slight on Mario but he really isn’t a songwriter. So, it was no more than a couple weeks later when I said, “What’s going on with that tune?” Huey said, “Well, nothing yet.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got an idea.” I put some music together and the song was finished. A key part of that was also Chris Hayes’ guitar part, even though he’s not credited, so I’d say he was instrumental in getting that song all the way there.
In the same breath, I’m not credited on “I Want A New Drug.” That’s Chris Hayes and Huey Lewis. But if you listen to the tune and you take the horn line away, there’s not a whole lot of song left there. So, we do a lot of that tit for tat stuff and I’m perfectly fine with it. No reason to look back.
That’s how it happens. There’s no formula. If anything, Huey and I have more of a formula now than we did in the ’80s. We write most of the stuff since Chris is no longer in the band. We have no agenda anymore. For example, there are bands out there that pretty much write the same song 30 times throughout their careers. At this point, we have the opportunity to write whatever we want. We write for ourselves now, not a record label.
The chances of us having a hit on the radio are zero to none. And I’m perfectly fine with that because it’s actually more fun to write for each other as a band and feel like you’re part of something that’s still evolving after more than 30 years, rather than trying to write the same old formula pop song that works for your band.
Sure, we could write another Sports but it would just be something like Sports. Sports was released in 1983 and it was a piece of magic. But no one in the band has a desire to replicate that. We write what makes us feel good today. I also prefer to write stuff that’s age-appropriate, if you know what I mean.
I say this in a good way: We don’t fit in today any more than we did in 1984 or 1986. We barely fit in then. We weren’t like the formula pop bands. We went the other way. We wore trendy ties, kept our hair short and wrote songs that had a little more to say than “I’ll love you till the end of time.”