Music is My Life: Episode 056
Huey Lewis and the News on His Hearing, the Power of Love, and More
Huey Lewis came to prominence in the 1980s with such ubiquitous mega-hits as “I Want a New Drug,” “The Power of Love,” and “Hip to be Square,” among so many others. But before that he was really living the life of a musical Forrest Gump. As a kid his mom took in Billy Roberts as a boarder: the guy who wrote “Hey Joe,” lived with Huey and his mom and taught Huey to play harmonica.
In this wide ranging interview he shares similar whimsical anecdotes about playing soccer with Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of Black Sabbath, going clothing shopping with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, and politely declining an offer to play on Elvis Costello’s first album.
With his backing band, the News, Huey has released 10 albums over the years, including Weather, which came out in 2020, and may unfortunately be the last. Huey now suffers from a hearing disorder called Ménière’s disease, which affects his inner ear and can trigger hearing loss and dizzy spells. He says he now has difficulty just hearing notes.
But before the 10 albums, before the fashion lessons from Thin Lizzy’s leader, before “where you goin’ with that harmonica in your hand?” there was his dad, who hosted jam sessions in the local park, and insisted Huey and his brother learn time.
Huey Lewis: Well, my old man was a doctor by profession, but his passion was music. He was a drummer and a piano player. We had a set of drums set up in the living room, and he loved big band jazz. And he would just blast it. I mean, loud. And then he’d put us on the drums, me and my brother, and he goes, “You’ve got to learn time.” So it started right there. And then when my parents split up, my dad got me guitar lessons; Visitation rights and guitar lessons was his day. And I took guitar lessons from Rolf Cahn, who was a great Carter Family-style picker in Berkeley. And he would convince me to go away to prep school. And then one thing led to another. Then at prep school, I picked up the harmonica, etc.
Pat Healy: Can you still play that kind of fingerstyle picking?
Barely. First position stuff.
Well, when you write, what do you use as your main rhythm?
Usually, I co-write with the boys, and they write it. They bring the whole progression in or something else, and then we’ll just mess around with it. But most of the musical ideas start with Chris and Johnny. Although several songs have simpler stuff we’ve done. But it’s really a collaborative process with us. We are, as a band, one songwriter. None of us is really an accomplished songwriter all on his own. And our best songs literally are contributed in all ways by all of us. We’re a real band in that sense.
Speaking of Chris, I don’t know which Chris you’re talking about, but Chris Hayes …
Yeah, that’s right! She says hello, by the way.
Oh, I love Bonnie Hayes. She’s so terrific. First of all, she’s a great musician. But she’s such a sweet person, and so generous, and talented. And she loves it [at Berklee] too.
Yup. She’s actually heading up the songwriters masters program we’re launching.
Good. That’s great. There’s no better. There’s no better. She’s written a few killers.
Yeah. Okay, so to go back to what you were saying before, music was always in the house, and your dad would have these jam sessions. And I believe I heard you once say, people like Dizzy Gillespie would show up.
[Laughter]. That’s a different story. Dizzy Gillespie showed up with my mother one night, or one morning, for breakfast.
Okay. That is a different story. This show just took a different turn …
My old man was a jazzer. And so, my dad would run little jam sessions in a local park. My mom would make spaghetti, and they’d drink red wine … I mean, they just would jam. The kids would just run around and screw around when we were young kids. So that was kind of my, I looked at it, that looks like fun. The first thing that really hit me, though, was my old man took me to the Monterey Jazz Fest. And Joe Williams and the Count Basie Band did “Alright, Okay, You Win,” right? And I remember the Basie Band came out and played a song. They were just amazing. And we were in the fourth row. And shoot, I must’ve been 11, I guess, or something, 11 or 12. And it was just amazing to look at that big band. And then Joe Williams came out, and he was elegant. And his voice was so … it was like butter, man. It was so good. And he sang, and I said to myself, “Man, I would love to do that. That’s what I would love to do.”
So that was the crystallizing moment there, the Monterey Jazz Fest?
First one. I didn’t decide I was going to do it. I just knew, that was the first glimpse of, “wow, that is cool!”
And did you do pickup bands before Clover?
Yeah, let’s see. Now I go to school, right I’m in school, and my dad gets me guitar lessons and then convinced me to go to prep school. So now I go to prep school in New Jersey. And my mom had a boarder, who was a guy called Billy Roberts, who wrote “Hey Joe.”
And my parents were split up. And he played harmonica, so one of these little braces. And he had a bunch of harmonicas. And he gave me a bunch of harmonicas. So I took them back to prep school and stuff, and I played a little bit in prep school. And I graduated from prep school at 16. I was a year young because I’d skipped second grade. And my old man said, “Alright, you’ve done everything.” He’s the one who wanted me to go to prep school, and “Now you did, and you’re great.” And I’d been accepted to Cornell, and I was going to play baseball. He was like, “There’s only one more thing I want you to do.” I said, “What’s that?” He says, “Don’t go to college. Not yet.” I said, “What? Dad …” “No, no, no. Take a year off and bum around Europe.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah.” So he made me do it. I took my harmonicas, hitchhiked across the country. I actually stowed away on an airplane, which is a whole other story.
Yeah, that is insane. I think I need to hear a little bit more about that. How on earth did you do that?
There were no computers. The easy answer is, in those days, there were no computers. Everything was handwritten. Tickets were handwritten. There was no security at all. I think airports were wide open in those days. It was a long time ago. This is 60 years ago!
So were you in a huge case, or did you just sneak in with the baggage guys, or …?
Well, what you did was, in those days, there were no computers. So when you buy a ticket, it would go in a jacket. And on the cover of the jacket would be written your flight number and your seat number with a special silver pen. And you’d write flight number, seat number. And then you’d go into the waiting area, and there would be a podium there. What you were meant to do was you give the gal at the podium your ticket. She would open up the folder, and tear the deal out. And then all you have is a receipt and the folder, and go onto the airplane.
Well, this guy taught me that if you could get into the enclave (which you can because it’s wide open) early … First of all, you get your own folder, and you get your own special pen, which you can find in any one of the empty gates. All those drawers have all that stuff in them. And you take the folder, put LHR, which is London, and take the middle seat over the wing, and put that seat number on there. And now, over in the corner, they won’t pay any attention to you. Pretty soon, it gets filled up. And now all that these people have is this booklet. So now when you go on the airplane, they just look at your seat number, like that.
So now, go on the airplane and take a different terrible seat, not middle seat, another crappy middle seat. Not your seat, in case you get caught, and you say, “Oh no, I’m seat C3. I’m up there” or whatever.
And as long as the flight isn’t full, boom! So this guy taught me this as I was hitchhiking across the country. So I go to what was then Idlewild Airport, Kennedy Airport, and I hung out at TWA forever. Somebody else pretended that you could actually stow away with the mail, the Post Office would fly, and you’d go with the cargo flight. But I tried that, and that was a nonstarter. So now I go back to TWA and I hang out until the end. And I see the same ticket counter guy the next night. And he looks at me like, “Dude, what’re you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m trying to get the thing. I don’t have any money. I heard you can do blah, blah, blah.” He says, “Wait until I get off at midnight and I’ll show you.”
And when he got off at midnight, he gave me one of the envelopes and handwrote the silver pen thing on it. And said, “Go get ‘em.” And that’s how I busked my way through Europe. Played with different collections and stuff. Actually had a big concert in Seville when I’d lost my passport, and I’m playing in the streets trying to make 25 bucks so I can get my passport back—because the embassy needed 25 bucks for a passport. Now these kids throw this big concert for “Huey and Los Blues,” with a guitar player called Michael—I can’t remember quite his last name. He was an Australian kid. We’d do this little concert that went down a storm. And I thought, “whoa,” the bug had kind of bit for me. That’s the second time I felt like, you know what? Not only do I want to do this, I can!
Then I went back to Cornell for sort of five minutes over a two-year period. But I joined bands. I played with another guy called Ken Lipschitz. We did coffeehouse stuff. Then I joined a band called Slippery Elm, and we did sort of FM radio hits. But meanwhile, San Francisco had exploded. This was 1969, maybe. And so, I called my dad, and I went to class sort of five minutes over a two-year period. But this was a tumultuous time with the takeover, the SDS and the takeover of the Afro-American Student Society and all that stuff, so you could take pass/fail. You didn’t really have to do anything. And so, I made it for two years, and then finally, it caught up with me. I called my own man. I said, “Pops, I’m dropping out. I’m going to be a musician.” He went, “Whatever. You know what you’re doing. I made that deal with you. Go ahead.” So I did.
Then I came back to California, joined a big 10-piece bluegrass band. It was fun. We used to go busk in Fisherman’s Wharf. We’d make a couple hundred bucks, really, some nights. But of course, there were 10 of us. It was really fun. We had a big double bass. Sean [Hopper] played a big double bass. And three of those guys were members of a group called Clover. And then Clover recruited me and Sean, the double bass guy, who also played keyboards, in that band. And that’s when we started.
Wow. You’ve been with Sean forever. I knew he was in Clover, but I didn’t know he even predated that.
Yeah. I can’t even do the math. It’s too complicated.
So wait. I want to touch back quickly upon this guy who wrote “Hey Joe,” what’s his name again?
Okay, so had he written that, and then he was boarding at your mom’s house?
Yeah. That was folk. I mean, Jefferson Airplane were a folk band that got electric. So were the Dead, really. I mean, the Dead were kind of a bluegrassy band. And then they got electric. But he was a folk type. Dylan was the rage. That was that thing. And he wrote quite a few songs. And I think he’d written it by then. I don’t know. And then I think there was a publishing problem or something. But he’s credited now with the song. And he wrote it.
Wow. That’s amazing. And you mentioned the Dead. Were they kind of in your social orbit at that point too
Yeah. The Dead were amazing. I mean, the Dead were amazing. What they did, they kind of took a jazz approach to rock music. I mean, they didn’t know where they were going. Their songs lasted forever. Man, I mean, there were some jams that were really, really fantastic back in the day. We’d go to the Fillmore and see the Dead, Sons of Champlin, and Moby Grape. Wow. Those were some good bands.
Yeah. How many times do you reckon you saw the Dead?
I’m not a Deadhead. But I’ve seen them at least 12 or 20 times. I sat in with them a couple times.
When was that?
In Oregon, first time. Let’s see. In Eugene. And they were really sweet. It’s kind of a funny story, actually. They asked me to sit in. I was up there because Ken Kesey had written a play, and he wanted me to play a part in this play. It was just kind of a theater kind of a thing. And I’m a huge Ken Kesey fan. It was coinciding with the Dead’s concert and all that. And he wanted me to play Elvis Presley in his play, which is funny. I had a costume and all. It was fun. And I love Kesey. Babbs and the whole Prankster thing.
So I was up there. And now, so the Dead said, “Hey, you want to sit in?” I said, “Sure.” And I can’t remember if I had a harmonica or they gave me one. But now, they said, “And here’s an amp and a microphone, and okay.” So, it was huge. There’s 50,000 people out there. So yeah, no problem. And then they said, “Here.” They put these in my ears, these two. I said, “What’s that?” They said, “These are your monitors. You’re going to hear me over it.” I said, “I am? What’s that about? Okay.” And they had this thing where they had microphones where they could sing in the microphone, and then they could also press a button, to just talk in the microphone to everybody else without it going outside. So that’s going on sometimes.
So they put it in my ears, and I was not used to in-ears anyway. And I cranked the amp up or put the amp where I thought it should go, and I started playing, and I can’t hear myself. I can hear everything else, because they don’t have enough harmonica in here. And the amp’s feeding back, apparently. And now I begin to hear it, and I’m going, “Oh, what’s wrong?” And as I go to fix it, I looked around, and Jerry has turned around. We’re playing the Stones thing [hums tune], and now Jerry turns around, and the stage is out here [gestures], and he’s in back with his back turned, working on my amp, getting me a sound. And he spent the whole song getting me a sound. It was so cool. Jerry Garcia was a very sweet guy, and super smart, man. Super smart. And he was really the spokesman for the whole generation. He really could articulate what was going on there. “Rampant intellectualism,” he used to say, you know?
Yeah, and you met him earlier too. Was he a family friend, or …?
No, no. I didn’t. My mother is a big Deadhead. My mother knew a lot of people. But I went away to prep school. My mom was a hippie, one of the very first hippies. One of the very first Deadheads—pals with all of them. And my dad … and I was only 12, and he thought it would be a good idea if I got out of there. I saw very little of my mother. And I went to prep school for four years. Neither one of my parents has ever seen the place. But we reconnected, my mother, of course. But in those days, she was living in the counterculture with all that. She was the biggest Deadhead that ever lived, my mom.
So when you started playing in Clover, though, I’d imagine she was probably a huge fan of that band, right
She was a fan of mine. She was a mother, after all. And she’d wear always stuff, either tie-dyed, she made tie-dyed Huey Lewis stuff and all that. She was just totally supportive, big fan. She was funny.
That’s funny too, because the music that you did with the News isn’t necessarily something that lends itself to the hippie expression, but …
That’s a really good point! You’re hitting on something very interesting there, because it’s not just music. Music’s involved, but music is one part of this pie. It’s really a connection in kids, and it means different things to different people at different ages. For kids, it’s a way to say, “Hey, I’m a Phish person,” or “I’m a whoever I am.” It’s an identity. And then for older folks, it’s somebody they want to relate to and who speaks their language. It’s how you relate to them, and who the other audience members are. Because with the Dead, there’s people in those audiences that have been to more shows than Jerry Garcia. I mean, seriously. There’s relationships there that are as long as that now that Jerry’s been gone for whatever it is. It’s that way.
I remember Bill Walton’s wife told me, “Oh, do you know the Grateful Dead?” Because we were watching a basketball game. I said, “Yeah, I know them a little bit, probably because we’re in the same neighborhood and everything.” She says, “Oh, Bill’s just a huge fan.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of people are fans.” She says, “Yeah, I don’t really care for their music, but they’re really great people. And they’re family …” And so, that’s all part of the whole thing. And that’s what pop music is. I mean, it’s communication with an idea. That’s why being too precious with it is kind of crazy, for what we do. I mean, music is music. And there are serious musicians. But this is folk music, what we’re doing.
Yeah. Tell me about that in regards to Clover, and then with the News. When you had joined Clover, you joined something that preexisted. But then when you went and started the News, or the American Express, it seems like you had a pretty clear cut vision from the get-go of what you wanted Huey Lewis and the News to be.
Yeah. I mean, it was kind of guitar relief for me. Johnny and I were the first two guys starting it. And I said, “Saxophone and harmonica. Let’s do that. Let’s go that way,” as opposed to [electronic noises], that kind of stuff. But Sean and I ruined Clover. Clover was a really good country rock band. No, honestly. And Sean and I joined that band, and we were on a James Brown kick for some reason. We were listening to KDI over there in Oakland, and James Brown was having hit after hit after hit. And we knew every word. Forget the music, it was just a groove. “Funkin’ for Fun on the One.” Boom. But we knew every nuance of those songs. So we added that element to the thing and really confused the situation. We were too difficult to digest originally, and with us in the lineup, it was just chaos. And so, we tried for a couple years, and I think we ruined that band.
I like that interpretation. But then also, I’ve heard you say that punk rock kind of blew your chances too, that you guys landed in London on pretty much the day that punk rock became a huge thing.
Our timing wasn’t great. But I loved the punks. They weren’t conforming to anything the record companies were telling them they should be. They were just saying, “Hey, we don’t care. I’m going to sing my own songs my own way. I’m not very good, but I don’t care.” And I thought, wow, what a relief. Instead of trying to make yourself attractive to a record label, just thumb your nose at them, which interestingly, is what the Dead did in the very beginning and all that. And that was the switch that hit for me. Well, I just went to Marin County when Clover broke up and surrounded myself with my favorite players, and we did it for fun. It was all for fun. We had a Monday Night Live thing. And it was just a kick. There was no question about whether we’re going to do this or do a demo or any of that junk. And it just started to take off. It was very organic.
And if I could backtrack a little bit, I think I remember you saying something about Phil Lynott was very influential in helping you kind of find your … We talk about expressing ourselves through things other than music. I think you said he taught you how to dress.
Yeah. Oh, he dressed me out of his closet.
“Put this on! You need a scarf. Here, here, try. No, no, put it like this.” And we’d go to Kings Road to shop for clothes and stuff. And he’d buy stuff for me and dress me up as if I was part of his band. But I learned so much from Philip. I mean, I learned everything about how to be a star. How to treat people, your fans, how to treat band members, how to treat crew members, how to treat journalists, radio people. He loved being a star. He just loved it. And it’s one of those things where it can really be obnoxious when people are coming at you all the time. And you have to know that there’s a way around that, which is, talk to them and say, “Hey, I cannot sign all your autographs. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Our new record’s coming out, whatever. Here, take a picture. See ya.” But Philip was just brilliant. He was so brilliant. I still miss him. He was my mentor. And nobody could touch him onstage. Best hard rock band I ever saw.
He took you under his wing basically in the waning days of Clover then, right?
During Clover. Clover supported Thin Lizzy’s tour. And the very first night, our very first show was in Oxford. And the curtain was down. It’s a small place. Not small, but those theaters, what, 3,000, whatever they are. And so, it’s a funny story, man. This is our first show with Thin Lizzy. We got 25 dates booked and we’re told, “Hey, don’t expect a soundcheck until the tour gets going. And furthermore, it’s going to be tough, because they’re all Lizzy fans.” And we’re billed, by the way, as “support.” So, first show, the curtain is down. They just got off the stage [with their soundcheck], and we’re struggling to get set up, get our amps working and everything. Okay, we think we’re kind of okay.
And then the curtain’s down. We’ve got nobody to introduce us. And while the curtain’s down, we’re hearing suddenly, we’re taking a little too long, maybe, or whatever. Not very long, but a little bit. [And we hear clap clap clap-clap-clap] “Lizzy! Lizzy!” Right? And our road manager, Frank Martinet, comes out, and he’s never introduced the band or anything. He’s just the road manager. But we don’t have anybody to introduce. So Frank goes like this: “How’s it going?” He goes, “Well, Thin Lizzy’ll be right out.” They go, “Waaa!” He says, “But first, here’s Clover!”
Yeah. And they go, “Boo!” And we started playing. And it was all we could do to get through, I don’t know how many songs, like a 35-minute set. When we finished, it was just brutal. I walk off and stand in the wings of the stage with Philip. And he’d watched the whole thing. And he goes, “Could I have a word with ya?” I said, “Sure.” “Come on. Come into my dressing room. Let me give you a few tips.” And he just started right in on me and said which songs, and this. He was just fantastic.
That’s amazing, though, that he singled you out, because you weren’t even necessarily the head guy.
He liked the harmonica. He wanted me to play harmonica with him and stuff. But I don’t know why he singled me out.
That’s great. I like that, because it’s like he just saw something in you. There’s some story about the guys from the Clash watching Joe Strummer play for the first time and be like, “He’s got the wrong suit on, but he’s got the right idea.”
Yeah. No, no, right, right. I think there was some of that, actually. Because then I played on his solo records and stuff. We had a wonderful relationship. In fact, I was producing some stuff on him when he passed away. And Chris played on that stuff, and we cut it with the band. And his managers asked me would I do it. I said, “He’s got to be healthy.” And they said, “He is.” I said, “Okay, fine.” And he was. And he flew over, and he was great. He was charming. Nobody could be charming like Philip. And we spent a week… And he had been lazy for a long time, and not sung up in his range, sung lower in his range. And I’d placed these songs, one of which was a Clover tune. But we placed them kind of up a little bit, in a higher range. And he was struggling with that, because he hadn’t sung up there for while. So, we didn’t get any real vocals yet. We got some rough vocals that show the song, but they weren’t master vocals by a long shot. And his visa came up in seven days, so he was going to come back. And he went back and passed away.
Ugh. That’s tragic. I mean, if you said, “He’s got to be healthy,” you obviously knew he had struggles.
He had a problem. He loved to have fun, man. Philip would take anything. But he was indomitable for a long time. He was stronger than any of that stuff. But then he wasn’t.
Yeah. So, when Clover’s opening up for Thin Lizzy, place for me just a little bit when the Elvis Costello thing happens.
Clover’s opening for Thin Lizzy, and we make our record. We recorded at Rockfield in Wales, which was really cool, man. Way out in a funky studio where Dave Edmunds did all his stuff. And in the next studio over was Black Sabbath with Ozzy. And we played soccer and stuff. We had fun. But Jake and Dave—Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, went partners on Clover. Dave was already managing Graham Parker and the Rumour. And so, they went partners on us. And Jake was managing Nick Lowe. And they went partners on us. And they said, “Let’s form a management company.” And then they had the idea to phone Stiff Records, and then they found Elvis. So they said, “We need a band to make the record.” So they used Clover’s rhythm section. Mickey Shine, John Ciambotti, Sean Hopper, and John McFee played wonderfully on that record. And they cut that record in two weeks at Pathway Studios. Nick Lowe produced it. And they just played it and just, the dial’s on, and then just put it out. And it’s brilliant. It’s unbelievably brilliant.
Elvis was sweet as pie. He asked me if I wanted to play on a couple songs. But we had been touring like crazy, because our record contract was £10,000. We had two weeks off, and I had my girlfriend over. So I said, “Hey, if I’m only going to play on a couple songs, I’m going to go tour around Europe.” And Elvis happened out of our same management thing with Jake and Nick Lowe and the Damned and all that. And I watched all those punks. Elvis is not a punk, but you know. And it was just a wonderful, formative time for some. Great to see. I learned all my chops, that’s where they started.
So you go back to Marin County, and you form Huey Lewis and the News, or, like I said, the American Express …
Right. And we’re playing Monday Night Live, and then Nick Lowe calls me and says, “I think I just stole one of your lines. I wrote a song, and I think I owe you.” I said, “Ah, whatever. I don’t care. You don’t owe me anything.” He said, “No, I really want to make it right.” I said, “Tell you what. Get me a roundtrip ticket to London.” “That’s fine. You know that roundtrip ticket? How about if you use it and come play on my record while you’re over here?” I said, “Sure.” So, they flew me to London.
Meanwhile, to backstep one more time, with our little Monday Night Live band that we weren’t calling Huey Lewis and the American Express yet. We were just calling it Monday Night Live band. A local studio owner tried to get in. Our shows began selling out … it was in these smaller clubs, but just selling out. There’d be lines around the block and stuff. And so, this guy offered us free studio time. Pat Gleeson, the great synthesizer guy, played with Miles [Davis] and all that stuff. And then gave us some free studio time. And for a laugh, we cut a disco version of “Exodus” that we called “Exodisco.”
I have heard this!
Okay. And so, I have that as a tape, as a little cassette. So now, I said, “Sure,” to Nick Lowe. So I fly to London. I go straight to the studio. We cut “Born Fighter,” one of his songs, with Nick Lowe, and I played harmonica on it. And then Edmunds cuts [my song] “Bad is Bad.” Nick had told me he wanted to cut “Bad is Bad.” I said, “Sure.” So, Edmunds cuts “Bad is Bad” with Rockpile, with Terry Williams on drums live, and harmonica. It was fun, so much fun. We cut those two things. And then the record company comes down to hear the songs and stuff. And oh, they love everything, and they’re great. And then there’s kind of an uncomfortable silence, and I said, “Do you guys want to hear something funny?” They said, “Yeah.” So I put “Exodisco” on, right? And the record company goes, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. I mean, that could be a hit.” I said, “Really?” He says, “You want to make a deal for that?” I said, “Sure!” He says, “Okay, come see me tomorrow.” And he leaves.
So I say to Jake Riviera, who was there, I said, “What do I do, Jake?” He says, “Here’s what you do: You ask for £3,000. And then they’re going to want you to amend it somehow, I guarantee it. Tell him you’ll do it, but they have to pay for the studio time, and you want the £3,000 pounds right now!” And so, that’s what I did. I went in there, and bingo! I got a check for £3,000 and sold “Exodisco.” Now I go back to the studio, and first of all, I call the boys up, the Monday Night Live, and I say, “Guys, guess what? We got a singles deal for the Monday Night Live band.” So now I go back to the studio, because they wanted me to sing a little more on it. I said, “No problem. Just, you got to pay for the studio time and give me the check.”
So I go down there. So I go back to the studio to get the master. This is analog now, right? This is two-inch tape. And because it was a demo that we’d done, they have no tone reel. They lined the machine with this tape. And then we cut the song on the end of the tape. So now when they go to align the machine, they by accident go too far and erase the song, erase 15 seconds or 30 seconds of the song. And I go, “Tragedy.” I say, “Oh my God. What have you done?” But they said, “We’re so, so sorry.” I said, “I just made a deal for this thing. I’m going to have to rerecord it. I’m going to need five days’ studio time. I got to sing it.” They go, “Okay, we’ll do it. We’ll give you five days.”
So I took the master quarter-inch and put it onto two tracks of the multi-track, and then I sang on another track, mixed it down again to a quarter-inch, and figured that was the master. I know I lost a generation, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a hit. And then with the rest of the time, we cut three other songs, one of which was “Tattoo (Giving It All up for Love)” from Philip Lynott. And those three songs got us our manager and our record deal, for the most part.
That’s amazing. Did you know right from the get-go that you didn’t want to have anything to do with this “Exodisco”?
No, I mean, I knew it was a novelty thing. I mean, should we try to spend to rerecord it and all that? Eh, you know. I mean, I knew it wasn’t the future, you know? I was starting to think, wait a minute. We can really make a band here. And I’d been kind of thinking it for a while. Since Clover broke up, I had to do something. And I played with the different cats around town. I played with [Nick] Gravenites for a long time, and I played with some different cats around town. But I really wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to sing. I never got to sing much.
How did you find that chemistry with Johnny and Chris and the rest of the guys to really form something?
Well, I’d always admired Johnny and Bill. And so, that was a no-brainer. And Sean, I knew from working with. Sean was wonderful and has got big ears. The only two missing pieces were Mario and Chris. And Mario came along because he was in the same band. Johnny, Bill, and Mario were in Clover’s rival band. So I said, “What about Mario?” They were a little reluctant, but we got Mario in the band. And then I met Chris at a friend’s house. And Chris was, in retrospect, really the key, was the final piece of the puzzle. But what a huge piece of our puzzle Chris Hayes was. It was funny, because when I first saw him with my friends, he looked like he was 11 years old and diminutive. And so, my friend, he said, “What are we doing?” I said, “I’m getting a band together. I need a guitar player.” I said, “All I need is a guitar player.” And he goes, “What about Chris right here?” I said, “Oh, Chris?” “Yeah, Chris Hayes.” “Huey Lewis. How you doing? You play guitar?” “Yeah.” I said, “No kidding. You want to come up and jam?” He says, “Sure.” So the next day, Hayes comes up, and he’s got his little hollow body guitar up here [motions to show how high he’s wearing his guitar]. He’s a jazzer. He’s got his guitar like this. But he could play, man. Wow, could he play.
And so, over the course of the time, we got him to lower the guitar one notch at a time. And then we got him some guitars. And then Chris and I wrote together. And we wrote some good stuff. And Johnny is the same way. I mean, Johnny I had the same sensibility because we grew up in the same place. He plays horn. I play harmonica. I’d always admired him and knew we had the same sensibility. And interestingly, we have a really good blend, him and me. Our voices are interesting. I’m a baritone. He’s a tenor, probably. And he sounds like a higher version of me, in a way. The more we worked together, the more we began to sound like each other. It sounds kind of creepy. I mean, when you put up vocal tracks by themselves and you go, “Wow.” We begin to pronounce words the same way, where maybe we didn’t at one time.
So “Johnny Colla and the News” is going to be the next iteration, right?
If I can’t sing, it sure would be nice to have somebody do the songbook. I mean, since we lost Mario, and now we lost Chris. Chris retired about, oh shoot, almost 10 years ago. So we worked with a couple guitar players. Our bass player is a guy called John Pierce, who we got from LA who’s a session guy. But we knew him because he made some records in Northern California, we met him. And I mean, he’s just brilliant, and fun. And the thing about being in a band is it’s the other 22 hours that are so difficult. Our music’s not that hard. You can figure it out. But you’ve got to be there and wanting to be better all the time at the same song, playing the same song every night, trying to get better at it. It’s not for everybody. It really isn’t. Touring and all that. But John is brilliant. And we got better then. And then we have two guitar players, Stef Burns and James Harrah. And both are brilliant. We have to use two because we’re their second gig kind of thing. But they’re both brilliant. But the fun part is when you’re singing the songs or you’re listening, even, how the songs, the material, takes on a little different hue with a different instruments, with a different musician. How it rolls that way. And it sounds fresh again. It’s kind of all you need.
Nice. And so, have you been able to do some rehearsal here and there with the guys?
I tried. My hearing got pretty good. I tried. We called a rehearsal, and then of course, my hearing crashed three days before rehearsal. And I tried but I couldn’t hear anything. I tried that one more time, and the same thing happened. But I’m on a pretty good run right now. And I’m hoping. I don’t know. I have to be realistic. I mean, it’s a longshot that I’ll be able to fire up with the band and play a big venue. And the PA system, level’s the devil with what I got. If it’s loud, it goes cacophony for me. So, we’ll see. I mean, but it’s important to remember that there are people worse off than me. I mean, really the worst part about it is initially, the first couple years, I felt so bad for letting the boys down, right? I mean, I’m not that great a singer, but I’ve always been reliable. I’ve got a voice like a Mack truck. So now, I’m suddenly not reliable. So I felt terrible about not just the guys in the band, but the crew. These guys, we’ve been together for almost 40 years, all of us. So it’s just, that thing is terrible.
The fans, I feel bad about. And now it’s three years down the road, and all the crew’s okay. Everybody’s sort of okay. But I can’t even enjoy music. I’m a jazz buff. And I play jazz and cook. And man, that’s as happy as I ever get. And now I can’t play. Music’s not part of my life. It’s terrible.Level’s the devil with what I got. If it’s loud, it goes cacophony for me. — @HueyLewisNews on the current status of his Ménière’s disease Click To Tweet
That is devastating. But I’m sure, with the human condition, that you do gravitate towards something else, right? To fill that void.
Well, we have a Broadway show, a musical, that we’re trying to get to Broadway, which is really good, I think. What you do is you stay busy and you stay creative. And you need stuff to look forward to. That’s what I do. So, I have several irons in the fire at the moment. It’s called The Heart of Rock and Roll. It’s not about Huey Lewis and the News. The original story’s set to the music of Huey Lewis and the News, à la the Mamma Mia! model, not the Jersey Boys model. It’s not about us, but it uses our music. And we put it up in San Diego for six weeks. Got great reviews and sold out, standing ovations every night. We were about to get a theater on Broadway and fortunately did not, or the COVID thing would’ve wiped us out. And so, we’re waiting. And that will be a really fun and gratifying thing, when and if that happens.
And again, the exciting thing about that is all the songs are Huey Lewis and the News songs, which means they’re not all written by Huey Lewis and the News. Maybe two-thirds of them are written by us. And they’re all handled completely differently. The musical director’s a guy called Brian Usifer, and he’s brilliant. And he did, well, lots of shows. He did Kinky Boots, I think. He did Frozen. But he’s brilliant. And he handles the songs and gives them all completely different settings than ours. He zigs when we zag, and just did that so wonderfully. First of all, it’s refreshing to hear all these different changes, these songs handled in a different way. And next of all, when you hear the body of work done that way, not by all these different singers and stuff, you realize there’s a thread that runs through there. And it’s really weird. I mean, admittedly, it’s my lyrics, sort of. But it’s more than that. And the songs that are outside songs that we cut are in the fold, and it’s interesting. So there’s a personality there, a band personality that we have that we don’t even know about, you know?
Yeah. I imagine seeing your work done that way presents something you wouldn’t have been able to see by just continuing what you were doing, playing those songs, if you hadn’t done this.
Exactly. And some of them are completely rearranged. Some of them are sung by women. I’ve been working pretty hard because we had changed lyrics minimally, you know what I’m saying? So, they had to make me a producer, because I had to look after the music. I didn’t want it to be a joke. Having said that, because I’m a producer, they got to listen to me on every front. And so, it’s really been a wonderful creative experience. I mean, we’ve been working on it for years and years. But I think it’s really good, and it’s pretty exciting.
Give me a quick sample lyric change.
Lyric change. Okay, let’s see. [Singing] Well, “Here comes this guy, whoa, yeah. A feeling I can’t deny.” A feeling I can’t deny, maybe? I don’t know. She sings it all from a woman’s point of view. I sang it, “hit me like a hammer.” I mean, they’re different. And little stuff. “If This Is It” at the very end, I had to change a couple things. We wrote a new song, Johnny and I and Brian Usifer, the music director called “I Want to Be Someone” that’s the centerpiece of the whole piece. And that’s really centered around the character, so.
And we got some television. I got a TV show we’re developing. This is not very far along yet, but it’s very exciting, because the guy, the producer involved is a big deal. And I won’t even tout it. But the idea is that it’s a romantic comedy where episodes are based on one of our songs.
I remember when we spoke before, you were talking about how you were in such a perfect position to achieve the success that you did when you did because you were at an age where you’d seen it before with other people, and you knew what to expect. And I think you even took the guys in the News aside and said, “This only happens once, the rise to fame. Let’s do it right.”
Enjoy it. Enjoy it. Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, because I’d been around Philip, and I’d watched Philip. Philip taught me everything about how to deal with fame, fans, band, all that stuff. All you had to do was just watch Philip. I mean, he was brilliant. And I knew how fleeting it could be, because I’d watched Philip’s career. I watched Nick Lowe’s, I mean, the most English of artists, the most English of people, and he’s a brilliant artist, for him not to be appreciated in his own country, that is insane. So, I mean, I know how this thing, the fame thing is. You need to enjoy it. Although if you make it your life, then you’re dead. Then you don’t have a life. A lot of these guys, I mean, I feel sorry for, the Michael Jacksons and the Princes of the world. I’m better off. I’m still alive! I got a life! Life is a good thing to have when your career doesn’t go so well.
That ride was a particularly rocket ship ride because of the MTV thing. And what’s interesting is, radio was king. You talk about big hits. There never was a bigger hit than a 1983 No. 1 hit. That’s about as big as it got, for a lot of reasons. First of all, brief history, backing up: Top 40 radio was created with the advent of push-button radio. Because the programmer opined that as long as people didn’t hear something they didn’t want to hear, they wouldn’t push the button. But if they heard something they didn’t like, they could push a button and change the channel. They wouldn’t have to search for it. So, the idea was to narrow your playlist, top 40. And then FM radio started as an alternative to that. It was stereo. But nobody had stereo in their cars. And they played anything they wanted. It was KMPX, KMCN, Big Daddy, Tom Donahue, all that stuff.
But even by the mid-’70s, early to mid-’70s, FM radio, which is now the major radio in all the cars and everything else—AM’s just talk radio—is programming. And by ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, the dominant format is CHR, contemporary hit radio, which is top 40. Except that it’s really about top 28. And if you’re No. 1, 2, 3, or 4, you’re getting 10 plays a day. So it doesn’t get any more pervasive than that.
Then MTV comes along. And MTV plays their videos. Their playlist exactly mirrors radio’s playlist. The No. 1 there is No. 1 there, [and it’s like that] for many years. And so, those hits, when you had a hit like that, everybody heard it and everybody saw it. I mean, it was a big, big deal. And we felt MTV. If you remember, cable was new, even before. MTV came because of cable. And we would feel it. I’m in San Francisco, and there’s no MTV. And we got our first record out, we’d do a video or something. Suddenly, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, I get a hundred fan letters.
Just because they had cable?
It was amazing. And you could feel the different parts of the country opening up to it with MTV and stuff. So it really was a rocket ship ride, in that sense. There were times there where I had a driver. We’d do the Elvis route or have to get out of the airport. You didn’t want to go to a McDonald’s, and you didn’t want to go to any malls. And now I go to a mall, I don’t even get recognized.
But it seems like you knew that from the get-go, that being at point A would eventually lead to point B, and you were able to handle it. Or did it work on your nerves at all?
Exactly right. I mean, that’s it. And I have other interests. I like the outdoors a lot. So, I had stuff that I’d go to. I have a life. And that helps. Sometimes it helps to have a life.
You talk a lot about how having a No. 1 hit in ’83 was just huge, pervasive, everywhere. And what I find interesting about the pop landscape around that time is that there were just so many different types of music that were on the top 40. Pop was just this huge stew of tons of different stuff.
And by the way, that’s part of that CHR thing that I miss very much. It was an editing process. If you wanted to hear a Huey Lewis and the News tune on CHR radio, you’re going to hear a Garth Brooks song, a Commodores tune, a Madonna tune, a Whitney tune. And it’s all over the map. REO Speedwagon, Alabama. It’s all over the map. Michael Jackson. This is a typical radio and records playlist. And nowadays, of course, it’s so fragmented, you just can’t have a hit like that. Nobody can get everybody’s attention. But I think it was good because it would educate. It was a good editing process, really. I’ve never apologized for pop music. As I’ve said before, this is folk music. It’s popular music. So that’s what we’re about. We’re not virtuosos here. We leave that to the jazzers and the classical people.
Yeah. Well, when you did have Sports and it did have so many hits, did you know when you were writing that record … It feels like the record company knows when something is going to be a hit [especially with the knowledge of how much money they’re willing to sink into it], but do the artists know it’s going to be a hit also? Did you know you were working with something special, a special group of songs that was going to do something?
I wish I could say I did, but I didn’t. I mean, I knew when “The Heart of Rock and Roll” hit … Was that our second single? I think “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was the second single. “Heart and Soul” was the first single off our Sports album. And that was the song we needed to be a hit. And it’s an outside song. It was written by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, who don’t miss. They’ve written a bunch of hits. And when I heard the demo, I said, “That sounds like a hit.” So we just copied the demo. I sang it, so it sounded differently that way, but basically, instrumentally, we just copied the demo. And it was a hit.
And then the next song we released was “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” and that thing went as a hit. And I’m like, if “The Heart of Rock and Roll” is a hit, we’ve got a lot of hits. Because “The Heart of Rock and Roll” is an album track. It’s not a hit record kind of thing. You’re not going to get married to “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” It’s just not a hit. But it was a hit. It went top 10. Then came “Want a New Drug,” and then “If This is It,” and like that.
How did you keep the band together all that time? That was such a long stretch with all the same guys. And you mentioned Chris retired just a few years ago, and Mario. But everyone was in it for a long, long time.
Well, we pay well. It’s a fortunate thing that our relationship works. Bands are funny. And you correctly articulated it. It’s not failure, it’s not the lack of success that breaks bands up. It’s success that breaks them up. Because as long as you’re striving and you’re trying to make it, “we’re all in this together.” Now when we start to make it, oh, let’s see. But fortunately, in our band, nobody really aspires to a different position. Billy doesn’t care if I do all the interviews, or nobody cares if I do the interviews, that kind of thing. It would just kind of work.
And we handled it professionally as well. People say, “Well, are you still friends?” Well, that’s a silly question. We’re closer than you are with brothers, really. You spend that much time together on a bus, forget about it. You don’t spend that much time with your brother. So the fact that we don’t talk every day on the phone is not surprising. We spent a lot of time together. But I think that it just worked organically. And I probably get a little credit as a band leader. That’s the hard part of this gig, right? Did we talk about this already? Yeah, the other 22 hours. It’s not brain surgery, this pop music. But you want somebody who cares about the gig, who’s going to get better and better and better at that little simple gig.
Music’s kind of like food. There’s foie gras, and then there’s hamburgers. And if your song is a hamburger, you want a guy who’s going to cook that hamburger like it’s foie gras. He’s going to treat it like it’s foie gras. You don’t want some guy just dismissing it. And it’s all in the makeup of the characters.Music’s kind of like food. There’s foie gras, and then there’s hamburgers. And if your song is a hamburger, you want a guy who’s going to cook that hamburger like it’s foie gras. — @hueylewisnews on the secret ingredients of his hits Click To Tweet
There’s also something about serving consistently good hamburgers too, you know?
Yeah, no. It’s about quality. It’s about being good, changing it up, making it fresh enough. You have to work at it, there’s no question about it. Looking after yourself? Definitely. And that’s kind of the sad part about my hearing loss. This is going to sound silly, but it’s true. We were still improving. We’re still becoming a better band.
No, I mean, I don’t disagree. I mean, listening to any of those songs on Weather, if you pulled out any of those songs and played it next to somebody who’d never heard Huey Lewis and the News, and played it next to something from Sports, he would be hard-pressed to figure out which was more recent.
I’m glad you said that. I’m very proud of Weather. I think it’s really good. It should be. We wrote the songs. And then we played it on the road. And then we rearranged it. And then we recorded it. Or then maybe even played it again. I mean, some of them, like “Her Love is Killing Me,” we’ve been working on … It’s the simplest of songs. And Chris had the riff. I wrote the rest of it, and we put it together, and we jammed on it. We couldn’t get it. It just wasn’t very good. We tried to play it live. We had this other idea, we were going to start it acoustically and then have the horn section come in and bust into it, and did that. We finally gave up on the song. We just gave up on it. And then eight years later, we’re in a rehearsal, and I guess Chris or somebody started playing the lick, and we fell into it and played it, and ah, it sounded great. And I think it’s because we had the exact right tempo, in a very simple song. And we became intimate with the song. We know it really well, so it evolved. So, we took our time, is the point, with all this stuff. And I feel like we’re cheating people with only seven tunes. But Kanye only had seven [on his 2018 album Ye].
I’m guessing that when you speak about the departed friends that you’re singing about in “One of the Boys,” does that relate back to what we were talking about at the beginning with the people that were in the jam sessions with your dad, or is it more of your contemporaries like Philip and Michael Jackson who are no longer with us, or is it all of the above?
Well, it’s all of the above. I wrote it originally, I took a meeting with a guy called Dave Cobb. He’s a great record producer in Nashville. Produces Sturgill Simpson, and I think Chris Stapleton. And so, we had lunch. And he said, “I think I’m going to be producing Willie Nelson.” He said, “I wonder if you could write a song for Willie Nelson.” I went, “Really? You really think I could write a song for Willie? Wow. Thank you.” I said, “Thank you. I’ll try. I mean, I’ll give it a try.” I thought, “I can’t write a song for Willie. What am I going to write for Willie Nelson?”
And so, a couple weeks later, oddly enough, I just woke up with this thing in my head, that little melody and the words and the idea. And so, I called him up and I said, “Hey, I got an idea for you.” And he says, “Well, just demo it up and send it to me.” I said, “Well, it’s country. I mean, we don’t …” He says, “No, no, don’t worry about it.” I said, “Okay.” So I went to Johnny, and we recorded it on his computer on the road, each instrument one at a time. And then I sang it in his hotel room, and there it is. It was amazing. And then we sent it off to Willie, to Dave Cobb, and … he didn’t get the gig!
And then Bill Gibson said, “I think we should do it.” I said, “Really? But Billy, it’s country.” He says, “Yeah, but you sing it okay, and it sounds good. I think it’s good.” So I said, “Well, whatever.” So I listened to it again, and I realized it’s my life story. And it was sent to me by Dave Cobb. Dave Cobb not only sent me off to write a Willie tune, he said, “I see it this way.” He said, “I see it as Willie’s one of the last guys around, and all of these guys are gone. And they’re just in the sky maybe, or something.” Totally inspired the song. So, I wrote it all down, and then I went, “Whoa! This hits home.”
How often has that been your writing process, where something comes to you, and you’re just in awe of it?Well, when you write, sometimes you write, and you write and write, and then a line comes to you, and it’s good. It’s like gold. It’s like they’re just giving it. It’s like the muse just says, “Here you go.” And there are some great lines. “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” “Hey Mickey, what a pity, you don’t understand. You take me by the heart when you take me by the hand.” There’s just some great stuff like that in pop music that’s great. And Bonnie [Hayes] knows about all that. That’s what Bonnie’s about, I mean. And it’s the perfect marriage of that, music and that. The words are telling you, and the music’s got to be telling you the same thing. They both got to be telling you the same. They’re all telling you the same story. And that’s how you get it. You get it when everybody’s telling you the same story.