Colla sings like a demon on "Lucky Devil"

By Richard Freedman, Vallejo Times-Herald, Sept. 6, 2002

Johnny Colla has been on top of the Mountain. And he's certainly chiseled his
fortune out of the rock of wages. And, though firmly entrenched in his 25-year
role with Huey Lewis and the News, the ol' dog isn't done scratching his
musical fleas. Which is the backbone of "Johnny Colla: Lucky Devil," the
songwriter/guitarist/saxophonist's debut solo CD.
"I don't care about selling a lot of records," Colla said. "It's about
singing your own songs and maybe saying something that strikes a chord with
somebody. That's really what it's about."
Colla, with color photos and CDs along for the ride, hit the Bay Area media
freeway to peddle his new wares. It's not something he's used to after years
with one of the world's most successful rock bands, but he willfully accepts
the door-to-door route.
It tests the memory to realize how long it's been since the Marin County
resident had to hawk his considerable talents that have produced "The Power of
Love," "If This is It," and "The Heart of Rock and Roll."  "I do feel a bit
like a barker from Barnum and Bailey," Colla said, grinning. "Actually, it
kind of humbles a guy."
Colla's quest was to release "Lucky Devil" before he turned 50. He beat the
July 2 deadline by five days. "I was hell-bent on getting this thing out
before that day," Colla said. "That was really most important. It was my
birthday present to myself and it was an exorcism I had performed on myself."
The CD wasn't the end-product of mid-life crisis, Colla insisted. That
happened 10 years ago. "Turning 50 didn't mean much to me," he said. "The big
revelations of how amazingly lucky I've been happened when I became 40."
A "serendipitous life in music" started, Colla said, when he "fell into this
band" after telling Lewis "you need me" five years before The News was even
born. "Huey and I played in rival groups, so I would come and see his group
and he would come and see mine. I'd play with his band and he'd get up and
play with mine." Though each musician's band broke up, "we were still
buddies," Colla said. In 1977, "we conspired to start this little rock band
and have a couple of fun years."
Thousands of gigs and millions of record sales later, Huey Lewis and the News
are still in demand. The 20-week tours and 300 gigs a year, however, have been
replaced mostly by corporate, casino, state fair, or winery engagements,
including the Sept. 26-29 shows at the Historic Mountain Winery in Saratoga.
The pay is still good, the travel significantly less. "Getting on stage is
still a lot of fun," Colla said, noting that HLN's "bad habits of the past"
have surrendered to "working out, eating great, playing golf, and hanging out
in the sun by the pool. The venues are smaller, but we're still having a good
time," Colla said.
Though Colla said he "loves this job and everything about it" as sideman for
Huey Lewis, the years of travel had strained his personal life. "To know
you're the most popular band in the world at a given moment was a bit
overwhelming," Colla said. "I don't think I ever let it go to my head. Maybe I
spent too much time on my career. At that moment, it was for all the right reasons."
When The News started to become Old News a few years later, "we're not
selling as many records and not being embraced like we were and that was a
little scary," Colla said. Still, he added, "it's lonely at the top and the
bottom. But it's pretty comfortable in the middle. I actually enjoy my life
and my musical career more now than I did back then." Fame, he said, "has a
way of alienating you in your own backyard. People look at you differently. I
really didn't like that part of it. I'm glad the fame went away, but I could
use the fortune."
It wasn't until Lewis took time for other projects - including a bit role in
"Sphere," filmed on Mare Island - that  gave Colla time to think of expanding
his own creative world. "It was a time of reflection for me," he said.
Colla was a sideman for Sly and the Family Stone and Van Morrison before
settling with Lewis, so he figured it was time to pan some solo gold. "I
thought, "Maybe I'll attempt to make my own record," he said. "It took a
while, but I finally got it out."
"Lucky Devil" does have a few HLN overtones, but it's not impossible to
escape since Colla played a major role in most of the Huey Lewis recording sessions.
"If there are any similarities, it's probably because we've been hanging
around and yelling at each other for 25 years," Colla joked.
The only song that points to Lewis is likely "Second Chance." Colla said.
"That was written with The News in mind," he said. "It wasn't a great demo at
the time I pitched it to the band." Still, most of the songs - from the
autobiographical "Over and Over" to the hard-driving, Stevie Ray Vaughn-like
riffs of "Letter of the Law," - are all Johnny Colla. The songs range from
heartfelt ballads to soul and rockabilly. "There were just a lot of tunes I
wrote that don't fit Huey and the News," said Colla, who hit a brick wall
pushing his product in the industry. "You write to Nashville, or send them to
a publisher, and they can't seem to find a place for them," Colla said. "But,
thinking these are good songs, maybe I'm the guy to sing them on my own. Some
fit me more than somebody else out there."
If the initial pressing of 2,000 units sells, great. If not, so be it, Colla
said. He still has a great gig with Lewis, and a Family that includes
13-year-old son, Ryan, 14-year-old daughter, Allison, and his wife, Shannon.
"I'm at the point where I don't like to be away from my family too long,"
Colla said. "It all goes by so quickly. You come home and your kids are an
inch taller."
And don't think Colla didn't learn from his younger days at Armijo High
School in Fairfield. It wasn't always easy, since his dad, Guido Colla, was
mayor of Suisun City. "I had to watch myself," Johnny said. "I was still a
rebellious kid. I think I learned to hide things well." Still, Colla said, "I
had this wonderful upbringing. I felt like I was Huck Finn. I had a ball." And
that ball keeps on Rolling. And rocking.