An interview with Bill Gibson, drummer for Huey Lewis and The News

bill gibson, drummer, huey lewis and the news

So, Bill Gibson, what did you do with your nine years off?

The Huey Lewis and the News drummer laughs. The band’s last studio album, Plan B, came out in 2001. Its newest album, a collection of Stax Records covers called Soulsville, makes its American debut on Nov. 2, 2010. Gibson laughs because he was busy during his nine years off. For starters, Huey Lewis and the News played on the road every year – a lot. Gibson also wrote music at his home studio in Northern California in anticipation of the day when the band records a new album of original music. (“The jury is still out,” he says.) Most importantly, he raised two daughters, one of whom is following her father into the music business. Singer/songwriter Liv Gibson, 19, just wrapped a four-track demo and has been accepted at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she received a scholarship. “You’re going to hear about her,” Gibson says on the phone, his daughter within earshot. “She’s far more talented than her father.”

Support. Bill Gibson has been lucky to have it his entire life. I know this because, thanks to a fortunate confluence of only-in-2010 events, Gibson has been gracious enough to grant me a wide-ranging, 40-minute phone interview to talk about the band’s newest album, Soulsville, the history of Huey Lewis and the News, the drummers and bands he respects most and how two parents gave a child the support he needed to launch a successful music career.

‘Hammering nails’
Born Nov. 13, 1951 in Sacramento, Calif., Bill Gibson was 12 years old when he began playing drums. His father was an architect by trade and a frustrated jazz drummer by night. Ed Gibson took his son to the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Concord Jazz Festival and raised him on big band jazz – notably Art Blakey and Buddy Rich. Young Gibson saw The Beatles play twice. When Bill was 14, his father bought him his first drum kit. “He took me to see Dave Clark Five and said, ‘Look at that guy. You can do that. He’s a carpenter. He’s just hammering nails,’” Gibson said. “He instilled a lot of confidence in me.” From age 14 to 20, Gibson practiced six hours a day, working to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional musician. His parents allowed him to live at home until he was 22. This was back in the era when children actually left home before age 27.

“(My father) was my biggest fan,” Gibson said. “He was so proud of our success, both he and my mom. They were so instrumental in giving us the confidence to keep going. (My father) said, ‘Go ahead and follow your dream.’ He always thought I was the best drummer he’d ever seen. I’d say, ‘Dad, believe me, there’s this other guy. I’m not the best drummer in the world.’ He’d say, ‘Oh, yes, you are.’”

Ed Gibson passed away last year.

Bill’s mother, Phyllis, is 85 and “sharp as a tack.” She’s the one responsible for Gibson’s singing chops.

As anyone who has spent more than 10 seconds around any band knows, not many drummers sing a Capella, which Bill does. Phyllis Gibson led the church choir, which practiced at their home. “I was always singing as a kid,” Bill said. Huey Lewis and the News’s a Capella skills, which would eventually lead to an invitation to sing on “We Are The World” (more on that later), became a way for the band to differentiate its sound onstage, and bond off it. After road gigs, the guys would retire to the hotel and sing doo-wop tunes for anyone who would listen. To think, these guys used to be rivals.

huey lewis and the news, read newspapers

The beginning
Bill Gibson attended Edna Maguire Junior High School in the seventh grade along with an eighth grader named Hugh Anthony Cregg III, whom the world knows as Huey Lewis. The extent of their relationship at the time was that Gibson was aware of Lewis’s existence, and no one else in the school knew who the new kid Gibson was. He joined his first band at 15. He played his senior prom instead of attending it. The young drummer was heavily influenced by Buddy Rich, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell, Bobby Colomby from Blood, Sweat and Tears, Bill Champlin from Chicago and hometown favorite Bill Bowen. Gibson, Mario Cipollina and Johnny Colla joined a band called Sound Hole, which played a lot of R&B covers, and later played some rock. Gibson also joined a new wave punk group with Jefferson Airplane bass player Jack Casady. It was called SVT. Meanwhile, Lewis and Hopper played in a rival band called Clover. Clover broke up. Sound Hole broke up. Guys from both bands performed at a weekly jam called “Monday Night Live.” At first it was for fun. Then the guys started to write songs. They recorded a few. The demo was good. Manager Bob Brown walked into their lives and said let’s get you boys a deal. A band was born.

As Gibson tells it, everyone in the band quit their jobs on the same day in 1979. Gibson quit SVT. Saxophonist/guitarist Johnny Colla, who was playing with Sly Stone at the time, quit that band. Lewis quit delivering yogurt. You read that correctly. Huey Lewis was delivering yogurt. Keyboardist Sean Hopper returned from filming the movie Heaven’s Gate, which he had just wrapped.GuitaristChris Hayes quit playing with Merl Saunders and his sister. Bassist Mario Cipollina dropped all of his other gigs.

Brown called the band to his Mill Valley, Calif., home on Mt. Tamalpais. Five guys crammed into Gibson’s VW bug. Lewis drove separately. Brown, who had been managing Pablo Cruise, told the original six members of the band – Lewis, Gibson, Colla, Hopper, Hayes and Cipollina – it had something special. He promised to pay the guys $50 a week out of his own pocket.

Huey Lewis & The American Express turned out to be a pretty good investment.

huey lewis and the news, soulsville

Soulsville
Huey Lewis and the News, as the band would become known in 1980, has had one manager throughout its existence – Bob Brown. Brown was on vacation in Mexico listening to the Stax Records channel on an Internet radio station when he conceived the idea for Soulsville. Song after song, Brown could hear Lewis’s voice singing. Brown returned to the U.S. and told the band that it should release an album of Stax covers. “The way he put it was, ‘This might be your last shot at getting something out there that can get a rise out of anybody,’” Gibson said. “We agreed.”

The band dove into the Stax catalog, listening to every song the label ever released. The guys made a strategic choice – no chestnuts. No popular songs that have been covered to death. No “Try A Little Tenderness” or “Knock On Wood.” They went for lesser-known tunes and found a selection of excellent songs. The closest thing to a chestnut on Soulsville is “Respect Yourself,” originally recorded by The Staple Singers. The new version is a duet with Dorothy Morrison, who plays Mavis Staples to Lewis’s Pops. You might recognize her name. In addition to being a gifted vocalist, Morrison wrote “Oh Happy Day,” which was made famous by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Soulsville was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, with an intentional tip of the cap to the musicians who had come before them. One of the original Stax co-engineers, Jim Gaines, engineered and co-produced Soulsville. Memphis brought the Bay Area band back to its roots. WDIA in Memphis is one of the most famous black soul stations in the country. It was the first to be programmed by black management. WDIA’s sister station was KDIA in Oakland. Lewis, Gibson, Colla and Hopper grew up listening to KDIA, which played Stax tunes. “We all grew up loving black soul music,” Gibson said. “James Brown was our hero when we were 14 years old.”

Neck deep in success
The band has experienced many high points through the years. Grammy Awards. American Music Awards. Hit videos on MTV. Twenty million albums sold. Successful national and international tours. The album Sports, which was a smash success. Truth be told, Gibson still does not know why Sports hit so much harder than the others. “I have no idea. I really don’t,” he said. “I think it’s just right place at the right time. It was a timing thing and we had a sound that no one else had. In the early 80s it was all this poppy, new wave-ish, all-over-the-map stuff. Why it was so successful, I don’t know.”

if this is it, buried in sand, huey lewis and the news, video

Huey Lewis and the News was one of the first bands to full capitalize on the rising popularity of MTV. The band made tongue-in-cheek videos that were as lighthearted and fun as its music. Gibson still remembers the day at Santa Cruz Beach when the band recorded what was perhaps its most memorable video – If This Is It. (I have posted the link here because no embed is available.) Here’s how that video shoot went down: The crew dug a giant hole in the sand, gave the members of the band crates to sit on, surrounded the guys with plywood and covered the plywood with sand. It was an optical illusion, of sorts.

“I just remember it was so hot sitting down in there. They kept having to wipe our face because we were sweating like pigs,” Gibson said.

The highpoint of the band’s 30-year history, as far as Gibson is concerned, was when it sang on We Are The World in 1985. The song, which benefited the poor in Africa, was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, produced by Quincy Jones, and sung by the crème de la crème of the music world.

“That was an incredible moment,” Gibson said. “We had just won a couple of American Music Awards. We were on the moon, just grooving. Then to be in that room with all those people. You look down and there’s Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan. When we did the chorus part and right in front of us were the Jacksons, and right next to us was the Pointer Sisters. There’s Harry Belafonte. You were looking at people who were the best in the field. To be included in that was just an incredible honor for us. We were the only full band to be asked to be in that, because Quincy Jones happened to like us a lot, and he knew we all sang. That’s why the whole band was asked to be there.”

Thanks, mom.

huey lewis and the news, group photo

A drummer looks at 60
Last year Gibson, 58,  suffered a supra ventricular tachycardia, or irregular heartbeat. A supra ventricular tachycardia also is known as an SVT, which was the name of the band Gibson was once in, which he acknowledges is just weird. Gibson said he was sitting on his couch one day when his heart started racing; he knew he needed treatment. He now takes medicine for the condition, has not had a repeat incident and says his health is good.

So what turns Gibson on these days? Music-wise, not a lot, with rare exceptions such as Foo Fighters. “Love them” Gibson said. “I got a chance to meet them and hang out with them a few times. They’re great guys. I love Taylor Hawkins.” Gibson also digs the work of drummers Dennis Chambers of Parliament/Funkadelic, Dave Weckl of Chick Corea Elektric Band, Jeff Porcaro of Toto and Steve Gadd. Gibson praised Chambers repeatedly.

In the coming year, the band will probably tour to support Soulsville, most likely starting in England in the spring, followed by tour dates in the United States. Nothing has been finalized. Soulsville comes out Tues., Nov. 2 – election day in the U.S. At a recent Huey Lewis and the News show in Valley Center, Calif., where the band played tracks from Soulsville — which sounded great — Lewis joked about having to play “The Power of Love” again, as if he did not want to. You can count Gibson among the music fans who like hearing a band’s new music just as much as its older hits.

“For me, (new music versus old music) is a 50-50 deal,” he said. “Audiences like to hear what attracted them to the group in the first place. I’m always in for their new stuff. I can rate where they are – if they’re getting better, or (if) they weren’t as good as they used to be.

“(The Power of Love) is one of those songs where you have to play. People always say, ‘What’s your most favorite song to play? What’s your least favorite song to play?’ There’s a couple songs, frankly, that I wouldn’t care if I ever played again. We’ve played them so many times. That’s not one of them. ‘Power of Love’ is not one of them. I still enjoy ‘Power of Love.’ I like that song.”

And what’s his favorite song to play?

Gibson quickly replies, “Anything new.”

Joe Donatelli is a journalist and the author of “Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy.

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Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Laurel Nelson

    Joe! Thanks so much for posting this! What a great article! As a lifelong Huey & the News fan (who recently had multiple Huey songs played at my wedding reception), I really enjoyed the article!

    And I’ll tell you what–I’ve seen more sheer joy and excitement when the Power of Love is played in concert than any other song at any other concert, ever!

  • Sue Donatelli

    Thanks for the entertaining interview. Loved the part about the support he received from his parents and how he is now doing the same for his daughter. And We Are the World is 25 years old! Great column.

  • Nicole

    Nice reporting! Call you please try to offend Hall and Oates for me?

  • Art Vandelay

    You exposed the seedy world of HLN.org and it’s crazy inhabitants. Pitch forks and lynch mobs are mobilizing as we speak. You’ll never work in this town again, I’ll see to it myself!
    Great article, mate. As is the original concert blog.

  • SJM

    Very nice!

  • Jen

    I agree with Nicole that Hall and Oates should be the next subject of reportage.

  • Corporate Mom

    Joe – great article on HLN. And thanks for making Bill the focus of this article – it’s nice to see him out front.

  • John B

    Thanks for a well developed article about Bill and the band. I’ve followed Huey & the News for over half my life and read some fresh stuff here. Oh, the new album, which has been available for preview online, is as terrific as one would expect.

  • Jana Hill

    I’ve loved HLN’s music for a long time. I especially love the cd “Hard at Play”.
    Whenever I hear Bill’s drumming begin on “Build Me Up”, I want to start dancing, even when I’m driving in my car. Lifts my spirits every time.
    Sorry to hear about the heart problems, hope all is well.
    Jana Hill, Eugene, OR

  • JC

    Huey Lewis And The News is that kind of group that always is ignored by the critics, only because they were great in the Eighties. But they weren’t an eighties group, they didn’t use make-up, shoulder pads or strange haircuts. They were and are a great Rock’n’Roll band.

  • Victor Donatelli

    Joe great job. Seating in a $59.00 hotel room on my 38 wedding anniversary
    Mom is at home and sent me the link
    Love You
    Dad

  • Bob Bures

    Good job on the piece. Also liked your piece on Deer Creek State PArk. If you want a Cleveland conection for your next piece, Neil Geraldo, Pat Benetar’s husband, is from Parma. Joe Walsh gained first fame with the James Gang in Cleveland. Joe Vitale and his wife Susie, still living in Canton, recently released a full length book about his years in music with Joe Walsh, the Eagles, Crosby Stills Nash & Young just to name a few. The book is well written, in a conversational tone that really makes you feel you are conversing with Joe, another true Italian. Keep up the good work and keep your eyes open. You never know where you might find an interview or story.

  • PEGGY MCRAE

    GREAT INTERVIEW MEET YOU AND GOT A PICTURE TAKEN WITH YOU ,JULY 9TH CASINO NIAGRA,IN NEW YORK STATE. GREAT CONCERT . STILL LOVE THE OLDER STYLE OF YOUR MUSIC BETTER. BUT LOVE ANYTHING YOU GUYS SING. HOPE TO HEAR AN ALBUM OF THE OLD STYLE TO. WOULD REALLY LOVE TO MEET HUEY TO, HE WASNT THERE WHEN YOU WHERE AT THAT TIME. MAYBE IF YOU GUYS COME BACK TO NEW YORK, CENTRAL NEW YORK WOULD BE AWESOME. WELL KEEP ON ROCKING. YOU GUYS ARE #1 AND HAVE BEEN FOR 27+YEARS AND ALWAYS WILL BE.

  • Frank Schnyder

    Thanks for this! I’ve been a hardcore fan for about 27 years. When do you see a Bill Gibson interview? He deserves more recognition – probably has the best time of any drummer – just solid – like a machine with a soul!

  • Michele Govea

    I really enjoyed reading Bill’s bio. It is very motivational and inspirational. He had some great experiences and a lot of support….I love that! This band was meant to be created. They should have called themselves 1979 News hehe. When band members come from humble beginnings, many forget where they came from and the struggles they endured, but this band appreciates fans and they are respected by all ages!

    I just can’t picture Huey delivering yogurt …. well, different jobs and experiences bring new energy to future endeavors! TY for sharing your story Bill……Michele, Chicago! See you in March!

  • Rick A

    Aloha, I just Seen Huey Lewis and the News on Maui, They played a Concert for All State Insurance Co. Awesome show. Got to talk with Mr. Bill Gibson and got a picture with him, Just wanted to say thank you very much for being so polite an taking the time to say hey and have a chat. Aloha and Semper Fi.

  • Julie H

    Having hung out with Bill a couple of days back in the 80’s in Kona after a Hawaii concert it’s good to hear he’s ok. Great group, and where is Nick Lowe these days?

  • Michele

    Been a fan
    of the band
    you see
    since 1983

  • Pat Banfield

    Back in 1974 Lewis’ band had a concert scheduled for Marquette, Michigan. A small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I figured they’d cancel since they were on MTV and had their huge Album. Bigger & better things were happening. Who needed to come to a town of less than 20,000 people? But, there they were and what a thrill to see them.. During the concert Huey said something like “We gave our word we’d be here and I’m glad we came”. Loved them ever since. They’re coming back to another small down Escanaba, MI in May. We’ll be there!

  • Hi Pat,

    I think you mean 1984. There was no MTV in 1974. But it’s a great story. Enjoy the show.

    Joe

  • Miles Fowler

    Great story Joe! Just saw Huey in Milwaukee the other night. I took my mom. We had a blast! they still got it.

    FYI  Nick Lowe is still as popular as ever. I just saw him open for Wilco earlier this year.

  • Thanks, Miles. They put on a great show. Nick Lowe and Wilco? Sounds like a winner. Just caught Wilco for the first time this year. Great live show. 

  • Jan

    Nice story. I used to play the drums myself, and Bill Gibson was one of the drummers I tried to copy. I like his simple, straight-forward, no-nonsense fills that never messed up the actual beat. The beat is always there, as thight as ever!

  • Thanks, Jan. I’m no drummer, but I’ve heard similar comments from others.

  • DaveH

    Funny and true. Except that people in the hills and on the beach also have to deal with helicopters and occasionally the spotlight ends up in their backyards. They are hardly exempt.

  • I lived in the hills for a few years, and near the beach, and it was not an issue in either place. But I did not live in ALL of the hills and near all of the beaches, so I will take your word for it, Dave. Thanks.

  • Hi, Sue. What does this mean?

  • brian o

    all of this is true except the pilates part. we’re all doing hot yoga nowadays. good stuff

  • Ha. I am so behind the times.

  • Gisele

    Actually, Joe, I also live in a house in the hills, and still have plenty of police helicopter activity. It’s true- it’s just part of life in L.A….

    As is Pilates, which I still do ;-)

  • Oooh, the Pilates – Hot Yoga war heats up! Thanks, Gisele.

  • Jared Meyer

    Nice work. Question for you: …”eating free-range animals that died (with dignity) of natural causes.” Is that really an option in LA? If so, where is it offered?

  • Brian Huntington

    Westwood here. No police helicopters but Medical choppers landing at UCLA all the time. I have to pause whatever I’m watching until they pass over.

  • Feel so sorry for you, Brian…

  • Will_Brodhead

    Humor son, humor.

  • Hi, Jared. All animals served organically in Los Angeles restaurants died while reading Proust in a hammock in the Central Valley. For their whole lives they were fed nothing but grass, water, Chilean cabernet, and they received plenty of sun. The song “In The Arms of an Angel” is usually playing. Non-smart-ass answer: Fig & Olive (which is fancy) has a new farmer’s menu I hear is pretty good.

  • I know. It’s never a space ship.

  • There but for the grace of God go I…

  • Christiane Galle

    I left LA for Hawaii and I couldn’t help a smile, reading your article. I do think of LA fondly, lots of my wonderful friends are there.

  • Thanks, Christiane. Would gladly trade you our copters for your soothing rhythms of the lapping surf.

  • Jared Meyer

    You got me. Very funny. You’re good. Very good.

  • downshift

    Best part of LA is you don’t need an alarm clock. There’s a courtesy leaf blower at 6am, 7am, and 8am. Each cheerfully undoing the other’s work.

  • Ha. True. I like when the loudness of the garbage trucks duels with the loudness of the leaf blowers. For 10 minutes every week I feel like I live in NYC.

  • Brian Huntington

    Joe, I will DESTROY you.

  • Hellby

    The best was when the power went out in July ’06 because of the heat. It felt like it was 339 deg. F on the upper level of my apartment building. I fell asleep in front of my open door, only to be awakened by helicopters every two hours. It took about an hour and a half of praying I wouldn’t die because my blood was boiling to fall back asleep. But, again more helicopters. I almost threw myself onto the 101. I am glad I didn’t, because I love LA!

  • Nice find. Thanks for sharing.

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