Huey Lewis talks 'Sports,' 'American Psycho,' modern soul and country music and more
Huey Lewis can’t wait to return to Florida for the umpty-hundredth time. Especially since he just got back from a two-date run in — yikes — Anchorage, Alaska.
“Merle Haggard once said to me, 'That’s success: You’re touring in the north in the summer and the south in the winter,’” said Lewis, calling recently from his home in Montana. “That’s how you know you’ve made it.”
Merle wasn’t lying. But Lewis would be a certified success no matter when he rolled back down to Florida, thanks in no small part to his landmark album Sports, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and turned Huey Lewis and the News into ’80s A-listers.
Sports turned 30 this year, prompting an anniversary tour in which the band will play the album front to back — not just hits like I Want a New Drug, Heart and Soul and The Heart of Rock & Roll, but rare cuts like their cover of Hank Williams’ Honky Tonk Blues.
“Even though I’m not a backward-looking guy, to be honest, this idea of a 30th anniversary tour has required a look back that’s actually been very interesting for me,” said Lewis, who performs Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. “I’ve really, really enjoyed it this year.”
During our chat, Lewis was all to happy to reflect on Sports, break down American Psycho and opine on the modern state of soul and country music. Here are excerpts.
Are you friendly with Eddie DeBartolo? Used to own the 49ers? He lives in Tampa.
I know, I see him down there. We played at his Fourth of July thing this year in Montana, where I live. He’s got a place in Montana too.
You spent a lot of time around the 49ers in the ’80s, which I guess is to be expected for a San Francisco band with an album called Sports. Do you have any good Joe Montana stories?
Well, yeah, lots of ’em. I was standing on the sidelines when he got smashed by the New York Giants. I’ve been in the locker room due to Eddie’s generosity. Eddie and coach Bill Walsh, in those days, were very insightful. They realized that he 49ers hadn’t exactly had a history of winning football teams. These guys wisely realized that this meant a lot to the community, and invited the community and encouraged us. So we met Joe and Dwight (Clark) and Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner and Riki Ellison at a local awards show. We became friends, and the joke was, “I’ll let you take a few snaps if we can sing,” and so we put them on one of our records, and got to travel with them on the team plane a couple of times, go to a few Super Bowls, and all of that was really great.
When you name an album Sports, I have to think you’re a big sports fan. Part of the joy of being a successful person in any field is getting to live out some of your childhood fantasies. Was sports a big part of that?
Sure, exactly. It’s a fun thing to do. I used to joke, they’d say, “What’s with you and sports?” Well, we have a lot in common with pro athletes. We hang out in coliseums and take a lot of showers together. (laughs) But yeah, it was fun to do. Why not? We’re sports fans. It probably was overblown, slightly — and calling the album Sports had other implications as well. The (cover) shot in the bar, it was called Sports, we’re Huey Lewis and the News, it all sort of fell into place.
How does the topic of a 30th anniversary tour come up? Who brings it up, and how far in advance?
Well, not this year but the previous year, you figure, what are you going to do next year? We have to do something every year, because I have a nine-piece band, and we have 25 mouths to feed. So if you want a good trumpet player, you better give him some gigs. The difference between a good trumpet player and a not-so-good trumpet player is huge. (laughs) This is not an original idea, that you play the record front to back. A few other bands have done this before. So I floated the idea, and it resonated with everybody.
You’ve probably talked about Sports so much over the years, I would think you’d be tired of it. Where is the creative challenge in doing something like this? What gets you going about the idea of a 30th anniversary tour?
Well, first of all, three of the songs we never played, and we’re playing them now, so that’s fun. Sports, from front to back, is 42 minutes, so we’re doing more other material than we are Sports.
The interesting part is the look back at the songs and the record. Our first record stiffed, our second record broke even. So the third album, we had to have a hit, so we aimed most of the tracks — five of them, mainly — right at radio. In 1982, it was a radio-driven world. You needed to have a hit single to exist. We knew we needed a hit — we didn’t know we were going to have five of them — but we aimed five at the radio, not knowing which one it would be. One’s more of a rock song, one’s more of a ballad, that kind of thing. And then of course as soon as the record hit, we changed our focus, and we decided we would now do things on (our own) creative terms, because we were paying the bills all of a sudden. Since that time, we’ve made records in the complete opposite manner. We capture performances in the studio now, not creating them piece by piece. But Sports was absolutely created piece by piece.
What are the three songs you never played?
You Crack Me Up, Finally Found a Home and Honky Tonk Blues, we never played, and Walking On a Thin Line, we don’t play all the time, too. So on this tour, most people who’ve seen us are going to get four new songs. And Bad is Bad, the real way. So it’s really five songs that we haven’t been playing.
On Honky Tonk Blues — obviously the Williams family is very successful, but when an album gets as big as Sports, I have to think it pops up on their radar, if only for the royalty checks. Have you ever talked to Hank Jr. about it?
Oh, definitely. When it first hit, we were at the Grammys, and Junior came up to me to tell me how much he liked the record. He said to me some memorable things — as Junior will — but one of the great things he said to me was, “Huey, Elvis Presley never made no rock 'n’ roll. My daddy and Chuck Berry made rock 'n’ roll. Just go listen to Move It On Over by my daddy, and Rock Around the Clock, and that’s all you need to know.” And he’s right. Dead right.
Is country music something you’ve ever been into? Have people approached you about doing a country album?
Yes, I’ve had people approach me about it. I was in a band called Clover that was kind of a country-rock band. I played country-rock harmonica. But I don’t sing country music very good. I sing soul music. I think it comes from a very similar place, to be honest with you, and that’s what I like about real country music — not the stuff about strawberry wine and out by the railroad tracks and the best years of my life or anything like that.
The thing about great soul music or great country music, to me, was the commitment. When the singer sings the song, he’s not kidding. When the guy says, “I’m going to Kansas City, they’ve got some crazy little women there, and I’m gonna get me one,” we believe he’s going to Kansas City, he knows about the crazy little women, and he wants to get him one. Country music does that. Merle Haggard does that. When Merle Haggard says it’s 4 a.m. in New York City, 3 a.m. in Dallas and windy all night long in Frisco, he’s IN Frisco, you know? (laughs)
You say you don’t have a traditional country voice, but you could say the same thing about Lionel Richie or Darius Rucker or any of these other pop or rock artists who’ve moved on to do country.
Yeah, I don’t like that stuff, though. That’s not country to me. I love Darius Rucker, he’s a great guy, I know him a little bit, we play golf. But that’s ... eh. I need Merle, the real old-school stuff. I’m a purist that way. (laughs) Modern country leaves me cold. It all sounds like bad arena rock to me.
Do you think the definition of soul music has changed over the decades?
I don’t think there is any. Who’s playing soul music? Who’s a soul band? Tell me one.
Would you say Alicia Keys plays soul music? Or John Legend?
No. That’s modern rhythm and blues. John Legend is probably capable of playing soul music, but have you seen his show? They’re playing contemporary stuff. Same with Alicia Keys; it’s very contemporary. I like the old-school stuff. Mind you, I love Alicia Keys. Don’t get me wrong. And I love John Legend, I really do. I just don’t classify that as soul music.
How did you end up doing the Funny or Die video with Weird Al Yankovic, the scene from American Psycho?
They expressed an interest in doing something funny and so they said, would I be interested, and I said sure, let’s give it a think. So they had a conference call and about four or five different ideas, and I thought that was the best one, and so we did it. The funny part is it took all day, and these kids — and they are kids; they’re in their 20s, the director, the producer, the lighting guy, the wardrobe, the catering, the blocking, the techs, they’re all young — they’re serious as a heart attack. There’s no laughs on the set. When they say comedy is serious, it is. It was a lot of hard work.
How did you come to find out Bret Easton Ellis had written about your music in American Psycho?
They pointed it out to me. I didn’t read the book; I read our passage in it. And the guy, Bret, had it. He’s obviously a fan. I said, This guy really knows our stuff. He also did Phil Collins and Tina Turner in the book as well.
Then when the movie came up, they said, “Can we use your song?” I said sure, Willem Dafoe’s in it, of course you can, no problem — it’s an art piece. They paid us for it and they used the song. Then literally two weeks before the movie was going to come out, my manager calls me, and he says, “They want to do a soundtrack record. It’s gonna have Hip to be Square, it’s gonna have a Phil Collins tune I think, and a bunch of (other) music.” And I said, “Well, that’s not really fair, is it? They’re gonna make our fans buy this record for our one song, and it’s not a very good package, right? Do we have to do the soundtrack?” He said no, that was not part of the deal. I said, “Well, can we politely decline?” So we do — we decline. And then they issue a press release on the eve of the preview of the film that says Huey Lewis had seen the film and judged it too violent, and had pulled his tune from the soundtrack. Which was just a make-believe Hollywood-machine thing. So now, I had to boycott the film!
But when I shot the scene with Funny or Die, I was able to watch it. And the film, interestingly, with the song Hip to be Square, the film is articulating the exact same phenomenon that the song was meant to articulate. We’re both kind of talking about the same thing. I originally wrote that song in the third person — He used to be a renegade, he used to fool around — and I thought it would be funnier in the first person. And then some people misinterpreted it as an anthem for square people. But not Bret Ellis. He got it. Bret Ellis got it.
How is internet culture as a whole working out for you? You did this Funny or Die video, you did Marc Maron’s podcast, you’ve done stuff with Jimmy Kimmel. Does all of this feel like a fun and natural part of your career, or have you had to be talked into it?
Well, initially I had to be talked into it. I’m pretty much focused on the present, for the most part, believe it or not. But actually, now that I’ve had a nice little look back, it’s actually very flattering, some of this. And I realized that I have been around a while, saw some things. I’m kind of enjoying it for the first time. Clearly, at a certain age, there are more yesterdays than there are tomorrows, and so at that point, you start looking back. It’s a natural thing, I think.
When you say you’re enjoying it for the first time, is the implication that you didn’t always enjoy it before? That you were not having that much fun thinking about your past hits, your past albums?
Yeah, yeah, I didn’t want to talk about it. Or not so much. I always wanted to talk about the present stuff. I wanted to talk about where I’m going and where we’re at. I don’t care about the old stuff so much. Really, to my sensibility, our records have improved from the very first one to the latest one. I really think we’ve improved with every record. I swear to god.
As long as we’re talking looking back and looking forward, there are a couple of big anniversaries coming up in 2015. The first is the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future. Have you been asked to be part of any anniversary celebrations for that?
Wow. What did we do last time? Did we do 20? Was that 25 we did? I guess we did 25 in 2010. I haven’t heard anything. When they released the Blu-Ray and DVD of all three of them, we all went to New York — Michael J. Fox, me — and we did the shows, we did the circuit there. It was really fun. We’d eat meals and share stories together. So will they do something for 30? I have no idea.
2015 is also the 30th anniversary of We Are the World. Looking back, was there one artist on that song where you were like, “I can’t even believe I’m in the studio with this person.”
Ray Charles. I couldn’t introduce myself to Ray Charles. I just stood at his elbow and observed him for hours on end.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*