.Bonnie Hayes: A life in music as a songwriter, teacher and musician

Bonnie Hayes has been making vital contributions to the Bay Area’s musical community for most of her life. Like many local musicians, Hayes said she owes much of her success to the time she spent at the Blue Bear School of Music, both as a student and teacher. 

In high school, a friend told Hayes about the Blue Bear School of Music. She started lessons with Richard Strauss, one of the school’s founders. “In our first session, he taught me what chords were, showed me the blues scale and how to lay down a rhythm with my left hand. With my inquisitive nature, I soon exhausted his knowledge and moved on to David Austin, who taught me basic jazz theory. My brothers, Kevin and Chris, took lessons too, which led to Sweetmeat, our first band, playing instrumentals written by Chris, a hell of a jazz guitarist.”

Hayes went on developing her skills in cover bands and enrolled in San Francisco State’s music department. “I began teaching at Blue Bear too. Then, I got hired to play keys in a band opening for Bob Seger on a national tour. I noticed he headlined shows, paid his crew and the opening band, stayed in nice hotels and took everyone out to dinner on money he made writing songs.”

On that tour, Hayes saw the Sex Pistols perform. “I realized you didn’t have to sing well, or play in tune, to make it. You just say what you want to say.” Back in San Francisco, she took songwriting classes at Blue Bear with Steven Savage, another founder of the school. They began collaborating. “He’d send me lyrics and I’d compose the music, until I got the hang of writing on my own. I started The Punts, to play my songs with my brother, Kevin, on drums and Chris, who also played with Huey Lewis and The News, on guitar.”

An album on Chrysalis records that didn’t satisfy anyone led to the band’s demise. Hayes moved to Los Angeles and got noticed as a songwriter. Bonnie Raitt cut two of her tunes—“Love Letter” and “Have A Heart”—on her Grammy winning album, Nick of Time. Bette Midler, Robert Cray, Huey Lewis and Adam Ant all recorded songs she wrote or co-wrote. 

After the birth of her daughter, co-writing in LA lost its shine. Hayes moved back to the Bay Area. “I was raising my daughter and teaching kids. Blue Bear’s youth programs were the perfect intersection of those two goals. We started summer camps in San Francisco and Marin, which included a ground-breaking five-day songwriting program for tweens and teens. 

“We’d have 20 kids in a class with me, Bill Spooner from The Tubes and Susie Davis (Those Darn Accordions) teaching, with help from young folks who’d been students and ‘graduated’ to student teaching. The kids wrote songs, recorded them and put together a live performance in five days. From there, we created an All-Star program which gave kids a chance to play venues like The Fillmore.”

Hayes took promising students into her home studio to produce demos. “I always made demos for my songs,” she said. “I got into digital recording early. I couldn’t afford to pay some guy 500 bucks every time I wanted a demo, so I set up a studio in my home.” Ultimately, she branched out into producing other artists, mostly local acts, as well as the Gospel Hummingbirds’ Grammy-nominated album, Steppin’ Out, with Jim Pugh, who founded The Little Village Foundation. 

“I (was head of the songwriting department) at Berklee (College of Music in Boston for) nine years, but I have a built-in boredom factor. When Blue Bear asked me to run their East Bay campus, I moved back to California. In the meantime, I realized day-to-day program administration isn’t for me, so that role will go to Tennessee Mowrey, who got his start at a Blue Bear songwriting camp. 

“I’m still teaching songwriting at Blue Bear in San Francisco and the East Bay, directing the songwriting masters’ degree program at Berklee Online and authoring an undergrad course for them about writing songs on keyboard. I’m also playing gigs as a side-woman here and there, to get my keyboard chops back up. Mostly I’m having fun, seeing friends, eating the beautiful California produce, hiking, swimming and reading constantly.” 

For more information on the Blue Bear School of Music and the songwriting classes given by Bonnie Hayes, visit bluebearmusic.org or call 415-673-3600. 

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