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.
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?
Well, first of all, three of the songs (You Crack Me Up, Finally Found a Home and Honky Tonk Blues) 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 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.
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. But I don't sing country music very good. I sing soul music. I think it comes from a very similar place, 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. 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.
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. But actually, now that I've had a nice little look back, it's actually very flattering, some of this. 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.
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. I always wanted to talk about the present stuff. I wanted to talk about where I'm going and where we're at. … 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.