With this joyful album, San Anselmo's Johnny Colla gets to do what he never got to do as a member of Huey Lewis and the News — be the lead singer.
Throughout his long career as one of Marin's finest professional musicians, Colla has always been content to take a back seat in the vocal department to frontmen like Lewis and, before that, Sly Stone and Van Morrison when he played in their bands. It's remarkable that someone who can sing as well as Colla has never been up front, but then again he's been fortunate to play with some of the best singers of his generation. Can you imagine anyone saying, "Excuse me, Van, but I'd like to sing 'Brown-Eyed Girl.'"
Colla has played sax and guitar, sung backup vocals and written songs for Huey and the News since the band's first record deal in 1979. He also produced, engineered and arranged many of the group's hits. This album, the follow-up to his debut solo effort, 2002's "Lucky Devil," was inspired by the a cappella songs — oldies that Colla arranged — that were and still are a popular part of the band's live shows. The 11 tunes on "I Hear Voices" — chestnuts like "Let Me In," "Slow Twistin'," "Little Bitty Pretty One" and "A Lover's Question" — are songs the band sang backstage to warm-up but didn't make the final cut and get in the show.
His isn't the only voice on "I Hear Voices." He gets able backup vocal support from his wife, Christie Colla, and local stars Larry Batiste, Ashling Cole, Bryan Dyer, Gabi Wilson, Tony Lindsay, Daunielle Hill, Sandy Griffith, Claytoven Richardson and Kenny Washington.
Colla originally conceived of this as an a cappella record, but thought better of it and brought in stellar musicians Steve Lucky on piano, Henry Salvia on piano and accordion, guitarist Ric Wilson, upright bassist Terry Miller, drummer Alan Hertz, Johnny Bamont on baritone sax and trumpeter Marvin McFadden.
Baby boomers who fondly remember the golden oldies on "I Hear Voices" will undoubtedly have a lot of fun singing along. And that's fine, just as long as they don't forget that Johnny Colla's the lead singer on this album.
Gary Graff, Oakland Press, Detroit:
Johnny Colla, “I Hear Voices” (Way Out West): The guitarist and saxophonist from Huey Lewis & the News can sing, too — quite well, as evidenced by these harmony-laded covers of well-chosen early rock, R&B and doo-wop songs as well as Colla’s own “Naturally.”
Mark Gould, Soundwaves Magazine:
Johnny Colla’s Still Hearing “Voices” By Mark T. Gould: He’s co-written a slew of hit songs, many of which have become rock and pop standards; he’s played with arguably three of the most distinctive singers of the generation, and, for Johnny Colla, it’s still all about the “voice.”
“Every human voice is a unique instrument, and it's not limited to the voice box,” said the long time guitarist/saxophonist/singer with Huey Lewis & The News, about his new solo project, ‘I Hear Voices.’ “It's the chest and head, the shape of the throat, mouth and nasal passages, and the resonance all these elements create; the body is the instrument.
“We each have a ‘sound’ as unique as a fingerprint, and although you can ‘put on’ a different voice, when you're done you always just sound like you. Throw personality and passion into the mix, and the human voice becomes even more unique,” he added.
His new release overwhelmingly confirms that, combining distinct voices, led by Colla, in what were originally conceived as a cappella arrangements of the Beach Boys’ “Our Prayer,” Clyde McPhatter’s “Lover Please,” Chubby Checker’s “Slow Twistin’,” Queen’s “Crazy Thing Called Love,” and Ben E. King’s “Save The Last Dance for Me,” among other chestnuts. Colla then tweaked the project with spare instrumentation, thereby creating a unique take on how the right voice can really make a song come alive.
And, believe me, Colla is proof positive of that fact. The co-writer of such well-known hits as “Power of Love,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “Workin’ For a Living,” and “If This Is It,” as well as an excellent, yet distinctly different, earlier solo album, “Lucky Devil,” he’s admittedly always had a soft spot for the human voice, and having previously worked with Sly Stone and Van Morrison, while still going strongly after about three decades (!!) with Huey Lewis, he knows what it takes to make that most human of instruments sound so special.
“Well, I've certainly worked with some of the best, between Van, Sly and that whacky, way-out ‘We Are The World’ session back in the 80s (which included Huey & the News, among a virtual “who’s who” of popular singers) . . . but ‘best’ is not the way I look at it,” Colla said. “I think ‘passionate’ might be a better choice. Passion and emotion.
“Ray Charles and Hank Williams quickly come to mind, simply because their voices draw you in to the lyric; they ‘sell’ it, you believe it, and when you hear them sing a tune they didn't believe in it becomes immediately evident.
“Marvin Gaye and his many personas, Gladys Knight, Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Otis Redding, Chrissie Hynde, Van Morrison; all passionate singers, yet some of them don't have terribly attractive voices. There are nuances you can't fake; you know the real deal when you hear it,” he added.
“Then, there are specific moments,” Colla observed. ”Teddy Pendergrass's ‘If You Don't Know Me By Now’ may be one of the most personal, passionate vocal performances on record, with Gladys Knight's ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ a very close second. This is the stuff that hypnotized me growing up, and I would have given my right arm to be a fly on the wall at some of these amazing recording moments.”
And, for his own singing voice? Well, it’s taken a close, equally talented family member to help him bring it all out.
“I'd say I'm slightly lacking in character, but folks seem to think there's enough there to qualify me as a singer. Thankfully I'm developing more with age; I didn't like the sound of my own voice the first 25 years of my life,” he said.
“A couple things happened to me during the making of ‘Voices,’ he recalled. “First, I caught a nasty virus on the road, had a dramatic coughing spell, and did some possible damage to my voice box; my voice hasn't been the same since. The good news is, I kind-of like it! It gave me more of that character I keep talking about!
“The other event happened right when I was actually cutting vocals in my basement studio at home,” he remembered. “One day, I took a break and came upstairs to stir the soup pot, empty the garbage or some such multi-task, and I asked my wife, Christie, who sings on four of the tracks, to come down and hear what I was working on.
“She's a classically-trained singer, Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels. She said I sounded good, the pitch was great, good performance, nice treatment, but she didn't like the sound of my voice when it ‘thinned out’ on the higher notes,” Colla recalled.
“Of course, I took slight offense and said something to the effect of ‘this-is-rock-n-roll-and-a-guy-just-sings-and-it-comes-out-and-that's-the-way-it's-done.’ But she got me thinking . . .
“I went back and listened, and she was right! I took the time out to pick the rough spots and sing from my throat rather than from my mouth, and it really changed the texture of my vocal. It also came as naturally as if I'd always sung in this fashion; in fact it is more natural than the bad habit I'd developed of ‘pinching’ higher notes.
“I'll never live that down with her,” he joked.
And, with that in mind, how would Colla describe the voice of Huey Lewis, a man with whom he has worked for so many years?
“Huey's got an instrument/voice as unique as any,” he said. “I think I am most impressed at how much better he’s gotten over time. We were screaming and hollering on our first record, and by our fourth album he's crooning ‘It's As Simple As That.’
“What followed? The ballad for ‘Oliver & Company’ in '88, and a duet with Gwyneth Paltrow in 2000,” Colla observed. “We've been writing, producing and singing together for so long I think our styles have simply rubbed off on each other. For years we wrote for ‘what was missing,’ in other words, what haven't we done? Nowadays, it's simply finding a hook Huey can buy, then try and wrap music around it that fits the lyrical sentiment; not as easy as it sounds,” Colla said.
“On the other hand, we've recently put together a very good tune, and production played a major part in it; a refreshing change for me. Not bad, and it ain't over!” he added. “Among "the boys" Huey describes his voice as ‘the Mack Truck,’ Colla said, “but I believe, through the years, he's found some subtleties he didn't know he had. Hard to believe, but we've all gotten better at what we do!”
Give just one listen to the remarkable “I Hear Voices” and you’ll know that, for Johnny Colla the “Heart of Rock and Roll” is his voice.
Johnny Colla’s “I Hear Voices” is available through his web site, www.johnnycolla.com
Armijo High School Alumni Newsletter:
Suisun City’s own Johnny Colla (class of ‘69) just doesn’t stop! As most of us know, the Armijo Alumnus is a founding member of the mulitplatinum-selling band Huey Lewis and The News (over 30 million records sold!) But not many of us know he’s quite a singer in his own right! Johnny now tells us he’s released his second solo CD entitled “I Hear Voices!”
Besides co-writing most of HLN’s biggest hits, through the years Johnny has also been responsible for choosing, arranging, and cutting the demos for HLN’s live a cappella segment. Though he tried to talk his bandmates into releasing a “pseudo-a cappella” CD many times over the years, HLN never seemed to get it done. Last year Johnny decided finally to pick his twelve favorites and do it himself.
Colla's collection of 50s-60s “soul-pop” classics leads us through familiar oldies like The Tymes’ “So Much In Love,” The Sensation’s “Let Me In,” and The Majors’ “A Wonderful Dream,” only stepping out of the period for a stunning version of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Also included is Johnny’s original, slightly reworked demo of “Naturally” that he pitched to HLN over twenty five years ago, landing on their album “Fore!” . . . Pretty cool stuff!
For more information on Johnny and how to purchase “I Hear Voices!” simply go to www.johnnycolla.com and navigate to the “Listen and Own It” page. You can also find some fascinating pictures of Johnny’s rock bands from his Armijo days like “The Furlanders,” “The Yewess Army” and “Cottonmouth” on his “Photographic Journey” page; lots of old familiar faces there, and how many high school dances did you go to when one or the other of his bands were playing?
Pacific Sun Spin Of The Week:
Johnny Colla: "I Hear Voices" by Greg Cahill: You may know Johnny Colla as a founding member of Huey Lewis and The News, one of the biggest bands to emerge from Marin, for which he held down guitar and sax duties. But Colla, a San Anselmo resident, is a solid singer, songwriter, arranger and producer.
This is his second solo album (the follow-up to 2003's Lucky Devil) and it's a swinging, swaying sonic love letter to the soulful R&B that drew Colla to music as a kid and shaped his career as a member of a hit pop act that gained fame by going against the grain of 80's electronic dance pop.
The album kicks off with a gorgeous cover of the Beach Boys' wordless a cappella tune "Our Prayer," with Colla and his wife, Christie, singing all the parts. There are strong covers of the Tymes' 1963 hit "So Much In Love," Curtis Mayfield's "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" and Bobby Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One," among others. There's also a rendition of Colla's 1986 News hit "Naturally." The songs, supported by a strong cast of Bay Area players (including News guitarist Chris Hayes, pianist Steve Lucky, keyboardist Mike Duke, ten gifted gospel singers and a four-piece string section,) are sparsely arranged and convey all the sweetness of the originals.
Prepare to be charmed.