HUEY LEWIS: STILL FRONT PAGE MUSIC NEWS
By Paul Freeman [2003 Interview]
It shouldn’t be surprising that Huey Lewis remains a concert draw. He keeps it real. He keeps it fun. And he keeps getting better. Ample evidence of that can be found on the latest album, “Plan B.”
As we spoke with Lewis, he and his band, The News, were preparing to perform with The Doobie Brothers - a historic re-teaming of two of the Bay Area’s most enduring rock acts.
“It’ll be fun to work with them again,” Lewis says. “We see them occasionally, here and there. Huey Lewis and The News’ first tour was supporting The Doobie Brothers in 1980. McFee [Doobie guitarist John McFee] and I were in a band called Clover before that, and they were nice enough to give us the opening slot on their tour. We were fortunate. They were so great to us. It really could have been ugly.
“We thought we were doing good, when we got through 10 songs without anybody booing us off the stage. The word was that The Fabulous Thunderbirds had opened their last tour and they hadn’t made it through their whole set. So our objective was to actually make it through all 10 songs. We learned how to go from song to song with no dead time, because dead time was where the boos would start. Hopefully, it’ll be a little better this time around,” Lewis says, laughing.
Clover was a talent-laden country-rock band that formed in 1967. Based in Mill Valley California, they never quite broke through to mainstream success. Lewis played harmonica and occasionally contributed lead vocals from 1972 to 1978, the year the band dissolved.
“We tried to conform our sound to what was on the radio, what would get the record companies’ attention,” Lewis says. “For years, that didn’t pan out.”
“At that point, I didn’t sing much in the Clover band. I vowed that, if Clover didn’t happen, I’d just get my friends, play the local clubs and the heck with the business. And that’s what happened. Clover broke up. McFee started The Doobie Brothers, and I started jam sessions with my favorite musicians. The only directive was, I got to sing every song.”
He formed his rock/soul band, The News, in 1979, in Marin County. “Do You Believe in Love,” a single from their debut album, reached the Top 10.
“Fortune is involved. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. It’s such a gruesome business. I had no clue then. But I realize it now. It’s one of those things - if you knew enough about the business before you started, you wouldn’t try.”
In 1983, the band released the supremely popular “Sports” album, which served up such hits as “The Heart of Rock ’n’ Roll,” “If This Is It” and “I Want A New Drug.” More smashes followed, including “The Power of Love,” which was featured in the “Back to the Future” movie. Despite the suddenly dizzying heights, Lewis maintained a healthy perspective.
“When we had our first hit record, I was 29 years old. I’d been working in clubs for 12 years. I’d been around. I didn’t think for a moment that just because your record is number one means that you’re the best band. Quantity and quality aren’t always the same thing.
“My Dad was a jazz drummer and he always used to tell me, ‘If your stuff’s number one, well, it can’t be that good. The best stuff is never the most popular.’ I struggled with that, actually. We made this record ‘Sports’ and it just hit a nerve. Now every record’s this huge hit. We’re on this rocket ship ride. I must say, we enjoyed it, but we took it with a grain of salt… It’s quite a thing when, after struggling for years and nobody seems to like anything you write, now they like everything you write,” he says with a laugh.
Audiences definitely seem to be enjoying the songs Lewis and his bandmates have written for “Plan B,” their first album of new material in a decade. It follows a greatest-hits package and a covers collection. Rippling with rousing R&B, this project was a labor of love.
“The writing’s the hardest part, especially when you’ve written a few,” Lewis says. “You don’t want to repeat yourself. We’d write the songs, arrange them, rehearse them, play them on the road. Playing them on the road is not so much to get the audience reaction, but to see how you feel selling that song to the crowd. It becomes obvious to you that certain parts of the songs could be better. So we rearranged them, tried them again, got them to where we wanted them, then just put them on the shelf until we had enough tunes.
Lewis feels an affinity for classic R&B. “It’s the commitment and the immediacy of it. I’m attracted to the soulful stuff. I liked some Motown records, and Ray Charles has always been my favorite singer. But there’s something about Muscle Shoals stuff and the Fame Records stuff and all that. It was primitive, not too slick and, obviously, there’s a commitment there. When the guy says, ‘Sitting on the dock of the bay,’ you can see the bay.”
Like many R&B performers, Lewis does seem to improve with age. “You lose a little bit of your upper range, but you become a better singer. You’re a smarter singer, in the same way as a pitcher becomes a better pitcher, even though he can’t throw it as hard. That goes on certainly into your fifties. ‘Sinatra Live at the Sands,’ with Quincy Jones and Count Basie, arguably the best collection, was on his 50th birthday. At a certain point, physically, you’re not quite as strong, and I suppose eventually you just become a retro act and play your old stuff. I expect that’ll happen to us… but it hasn’t happened yet.
“Why shouldn’t you get better? It’s an irony in this business. I really think that ‘Plan B’ is our best work. Will it be our most popular work? No. Why wouldn’t an artist be better at 40 years old or 50 even and enjoying it more? It’s like falling in love all over again.”
Lewis isn’t enamored of the current music scene. “When the climate is skewed for young kids, it’s tough to write. More and more, there are rules in pop. More and more, it’s like a business. Yet the great things are exceptions to that. The stuff that makes a difference is always done from that heart. That’s still the case.”
Huey and the band continue to tour and thrill audiences. That’s the power of love, music-style. For the latest News, visit www.hueylewisandthenews.com.