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

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.