Huey Lewis and the News are household names – selling more than 30 million albums worldwide. The first household for Johnny Colla, the band’s saxophonist/rhythm guitarist/singer/songwriter since its inception in 1979, was in Suisun City.
Colla, born in 1952, played clarinet at Crystal Elementary School and learned piano at home. He commandeered older brother Dino’s record collection and also soaked up influences from his uncle, who introduced him to 1940s and 1950s country music, and his cousin, who hipped him to soul.
As a freshman at Armijo High School in 1965, Colla met Robert Koehn and the two became fast friends. Koehn played guitar, Colla obtained a bass, and with two other members they formed The Furlanders, Colla’s first band.
“We were just pulling songs off the radio like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Heart of Stone’ and the Young Rascals’ ‘Good Lovin’,’ ” Colla said. “Robert Koehn, my best friend, running buddy and guitar player extraordinaire, was working on ‘Sleep Walk,’ but I don’t think we ever tackled it.”
All that survives of The Furlanders are pink business cards they had printed.
Cary Schultz, a neighbor of Koehn’s, was in a band called The Curbstones, who were a little older. They wore Beatles boots and Colla still wonders where in Fairfield they obtained them. When The Furlanders and The Curbstones broke up, the Yewess Army was born.
“Cary liked the blues and we were writing original songs and playing pretty heady stuff for sophomores in high school,” Colla said. “Then I discovered Sons of Champlin and eventually I got the idea to add a horn section. I got these two locals, Andres Abarra and Lach Loud, and I’d say that was the beginning of the end for the Yewess Army because Cary didn’t like the direction.”
Besides rock bands, Colla played in school bands and under Armijo High director Ray Lindsey he blossomed. Lindsey gave Colla the chance to switch from clarinet to oboe, which got Colla out of the all-girl clarinet section. He also introduced him to another instrument.
“Ray Lindsey put a sax in my hand for the first time,” Colla said. “He gave me (Sousa’s) ‘The Washington Post’ and I learned it in four days.”
At Vallejo Junior College (now Solano Community College), Colla met musicians from around the county and was enthralled by bands such as Vallejo’s Arm and Hammer. He eventually joined Cottonmouth.
“Cottonmouth had been together for a while and had a wonderfully eclectic song list,” Colla said. “Ricky Lowe (later in Laser Boy and Time Bandits) and I would play lines together. I’d play alto sax and he’d cover the second part with his guitar.”
After Cottonmouth, Colla joined Sound Hole and played with them for four years, but it all came crashing down in 1976.
“Me and keyboard player John Farey were unceremoniously fired at Bozo’s Bus Stop in Fairfield after playing to a packed house. I was crushed because I felt we had something unique,” Colla said.
Fortunately, they both fell upward as they later recorded the album “Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back” with Sly and the Family Stone. Afterward, Colla’s musical career involved playing with numerous groups including Rubicon (whose members later formed Night Ranger), and eventually hooking up with Huey Lewis. The rest, as they say, is history.
Colla realized he’d “made it” when he was driving his green 1968 Camaro and heard “Do You Believe in Love” on KFRC.
“I had to pull over, crank it up, and the hair stood up on my arms,” Colla said.
Now preparing the 30th anniversary box set of the band’s multiplatinum “Sports” album, as well as mixing an a cappella version of his 2012 solo release “I Hear Voices,” Colla is focused on the future, but might be interested in a nostalgic musical trip down memory lane.
“I probably would get together with Cottonmouth again because they had such great tunes,” Colla said. “I loved Ricky Lowe’s and (singer) Bob Gridley’s taste in music. If I was a little more retired, I would jump on that in a second. That would be fun to take a crack at some day.”