TG Coverguy: Huey Lewis


He’s a songwriter, humanitarian, legendary musician and recently scored a big Broadway hit.

Travelgirl: I’m so happy to be with you and to get to know you. Everyone knows Huey Lewis the musician. You are also a humanitarian and very philanthropic. You have been quite involved with San Rafael’s Lifehouse, whose mission is to improve the lives of those living with disabilities and help them live independent lives. You’ve been an honorary chair and emcee for their fundraisers. Please let us know how you became involved in this most worthwhile endeavor.

Huey Lewis: I sang an anthem for a Special Olympics about 45 years ago and I was so touched by the group. It was such a nice thing, and my neighbor was also involved. The association was formerly called the Marin Association of Retarded Citizens. It is now called Lifehouse and its purpose is to help disabled folks live independent lives.

I’ve been chairman of the association’s big fundraiser for 35 years now and it really is a wonderfully gratifying thing. If you are a developmentally disabled person in Marin or Sonoma counties in California, you are a lot better off than almost any other place in the world. We have independent living situations. I’ve gotten to know some of the clients well over the years and it’s just a fun thing. It’s not a lot of heavy lifting.

We have a wonderful chef’s banquet called The Great Chefs & Wineries where we invite all the great restaurants and all the great wineries in Marin and Sonoma counties to come and make a one dish, one wine table. It’s a black-tie event featuring an enormous, incredible buffet. We raise tons of money, and it all goes to a great cause. I am chairman so I say a few words; it’s very gratifying. There’s a lot to be learned from these very special people. They joyfully notice the little things that we don’t pay any attention to, and they radiate happiness. It’s a wonderful, important cause.

TG: Let’s start with your hearing loss. In 1987 you suddenly lost hearing in one of your ears. How did you cope and how difficult was it to keep performing?

HL: Let’s go with that; how exciting. Hit me with the hits — hearing loss; let’s do it. I exist on these hearing aids, which Bluetooth connects to my phone and my television. I am really very, very deaf and it’s probably getting worse. I’m possibly headed for a cochlear implant, which is not a fun thing. But if you really can’t hear, it becomes a fun, necessary thing.

TG: You were able to overcome losing the hearing in your right ear but you were still able to perform and hear with just one ear.

HL: I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease 35 years ago. At first, I had a bout of intense vertigo; it was so bad they had to take me to the hospital but no one could figure out what it was. The doctors gave me some medicine of some sort and three hours later I was fine. About 30 years ago I lost the hearing in my right ear. I was able to exist on one ear for a long time. Then six years ago my left ear went and now I can’t hear music at all and I can’t perform. I can’t hear pitch. With the aid of hearing aids I can hear you and I can hear a conversation with three or four people at a time, maybe, if I am in a quiet room. In a noisy room I can only hear one person and I need to be looking at that person to understand the conversation.

TG: If music is playing, you can’t hear it? Is that correct?

HL: Zero. I cannot hear music. You can play one of my songs and I can’t identify the song; that’s how bad I am. Speech exists in a much narrower frequency than music. Music, even one note, occurs in all frequencies with harmonics and overtones and undertones. Just listening to you is a struggle for me; it’s changed me. My show on Broadway, The Heart of Rock and Roll, has been my salvation in a lot of ways. It’s given me a creative outlet and kept me busy.

Zen Buddhists say you need three things in life: something to love, something to hope for and something to do. The something to hope for and the something to do are my show on Broadway. I have other things going on as well. I’m lucky; I remind myself that plenty of people are way worse off than I am. I’m not dead; I’m just deaf. I’m actually a glass half full kind of guy. I’m a major key, not a minor key guy.

TG: I can’t wait to see your musical, The Heart of Rock and Roll. Everyone I know is excited about it. What’s the genesis of the show? I know our Travelgirl readers will want to head to New York to see it. I absolutely love Broadway and I’m thrilled you are bringing your music to the Great White Way!

HL: I love Broadway too. It’s the most challenging and therefore the most rewarding of artistic expression. It’s totally collaborative and it’s complicated. [We made a documentary about our song We Are the World (in 1985, 46 legendary musicians came together for one night to raise money for African aid)]. The iconic Quincy Jones, who co-produced the song, addressed us before we performed the background vocals. This isn’t in the documentary, but Quincy said, “Look people, here’s what we are doing, we are building a house. We are going to start with the foundation, order the tracks, put in the walls, the studs and put a roof on it. That’s what we are doing now, putting up studs and we will finish the work later on.” His description was really clever. The metaphor for making a record is building a house. Well, if that’s true, then putting on a Broadway show is building a city with parks and pathways and all kinds of paraphernalia. I love it and it’s been a really fun trip.

TG: Does your hearing loss make creating a Broadway musical more difficult?

HL: It makes it impossible to hear the music, but I lost hearing in my left ear six years ago on January 17. Before that I could hear music. As it so happens, you only need one ear to hear. When I lost hearing in my first ear, I went to my EENT doctor. My father was a doctor and he sent me to the best EENT doctor in all of Northern California. I went to see this specialist and he told me to adapt to the hearing loss. I reiterated to him that I was a musician and a singer. The doctor told me I only needed one ear to hear. He told me Brian Wilson [The Beach Boys] only had hearing in one ear and Jimi Hendrix only had hearing in one ear.

The doctor also told me that he only had hearing in one ear and that he performed in a barbershop quartet. I existed on one ear for a long time, and I had that ear and hearing seven years ago when we imagined this show. I had reimagined most of the songs by that time. Our musical director, Brian Usifer, is brilliant. He has done his homework so thoroughly. He knows our music so well that he has reimagined the songs and given them their own setting. There is very little to quibble with, even when I could hear. As a footnote, they had to make me a producer because of the songs and now they have to listen to everything I have to say.

TG: It’s your music they are performing.

HL: It’s my music and my show now!

TG: You were born in New York City but grew up in California. Did you have an interest in music when you were young? Your father was a doctor but he was also a musician; I believe he played the drums. Did he encourage your interest in music?

HL: My old man absolutely had an influence on me. There was a set of drums in my living room my whole life. Since my early years, I spent my life surrounded by musical equipment. My father didn’t like singers; he liked big band jazz. He would play these big band jazz records, instrumental stuff and every once and a while there would be a singer. Naturally I wanted to rebel a little bit so I kind of dug the singers. My first influences were Mr. Five by Five, Count Basie and all the old blues singers and musicians.

TG: You have two plays featuring your music on Broadway. Your own, The Heart of Rock and Roll, and Back to the Future. It’s astounding; two plays running concurrently.

HL: It’s amazing and I’m not sure it’s ever happened before. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Someone told me that but even if it is true, it doesn’t mean that I’m Richard Rodgers.

TG: Let’s talk about the genesis of Back to the Future. It’s a beloved film and your name is synonymous with that movie. You contributed to the soundtrack and had a small role in the movie. Please talk about your experiences with that film and your iconic songs that are central to the show. Did you have any idea it would become a landmark film?

HL: I had no idea it would be such a paramount hit. I was asked to take a meeting with [Steven] Spielberg, who was the executive producer, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose story it is. Neil Canton was also a writer on the show. The meeting was organized through Amblin Entertainment, which had just started. We sat there and Zemeckis told me they had written this movie about a kid named Marty McFly, and his favorite band would be Huey Lewis and the News. So, they asked me to write some songs. I was flattered. I told Zemeckis I didn’t necessarily know how to write for film and honestly I didn’t fancy writing a song called Back to the Future

Zemeckis said, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t care what the song is called. We just want one of your songs in the film.” He told me that whatever I decided, that’s the one it will be. Well, I thought the next thing we do is write and we wrote The Power of Love. It’s a little more complicated than that. I didn’t think it was going to work because Power of Love is a love song, right? There is no love object in the film. But they used it wonderfully and it was a great lesson.

We’ve tried to employ the same thing in our Broadway show, which is the idea that songs help a musical or a show when they are tangentially tied to the project; not when the songs are a literal translation of what’s going on. If the song was just called Back to the Future, it wouldn’t have been so universal, if you will. I tried to do that with The Heart of Rock and Roll. It’s important that the songs move the story forward. The songs in my show are laid out beautifully by Tyler Mitchell and Jonathan A. Abrams. Their initial layout is brilliant because they know the music so well. I didn’t initially realize how well the songs fit the story. But they do and it’s pretty cool.

TG: I saw Back to the Future on Broadway. When they sing The Power of Love everyone goes crazy and they are referencing you.

HL: First of all, Uncle Huey is a character in the show. That’s their little nod to my cameo in the film. When they play Power of Love it has nothing to do with the story at all. It’ s Marty McFly and the Pinheads and it’s my logo. It’s the triangle with Huey Lewis and the News. It’s exactly my nine-piece band with the three-piece horn section. When I first saw it in London, I was sitting next to Bob Gale. I looked at Bob and told him I thought they owed me a set design credit. He told me they only pinch from the best.

TG: Your song, The Power of Love, is synonymous with the movie, Back to the Future.

HL: Thank goodness. The film just keeps growing. We did a 35-year reunion and every five years we go on television and reassemble the cast. Huey Lewis and the News was on top of the world back then and our song, The Power of Love, was huge. It was the perfect time for us. We had just toured with our Sports album and now we had to come up with another album. You wanted to keep the momentum in those days. The Power of Love was the perfect way to continue the momentum. We recorded it and we gave it to the movie and it went straight to number one.

The Power of Love went to number one in nine weeks, which is remarkably fast. From the close of principal photography for Back to the Future to the release of the movie, it was the fastest ever completed in Hollywood history. The producers knew the song was on its way to number one and they wanted to get the movie out to gain the momentum from the song. The day the movie was released, our song, The Power of Love, was the number one song in the country.

Interestingly, we weren’t allowed to put that song on one of our albums because MCA had purchased it and owned the rights. They wouldn’t let us put it on one of our albums in America but they did in the rest of the world. Not in America but in the rest of the world we added The Power of Love to our album Fore. In the rest of the world our album Fore is way bigger than our album, Sports.

It’s interesting. In America we have numerous big hits, This is It, Heart and Soul, I Want a New Drug, Heart of Rock and Roll, Bad is Bad. In Europe they hardly know any of these songs. They know Jacob’s Ladder, Stuck With You, Power of Love, Doing It All For My Baby because those were on the other record. It’s amazing. A lot of this is business, right? One of the reasons Power of Love is such a wonderful, amazing song is because it’s in the movie and the movie was the biggest movie of all time. We have a lot of great songs, but this one was in the movie.

TG: All of these incredible songs are yours; they are part of your history. Is there one song among all these memorable hits that is your favorite?

HL: No, I can’t name a favorite. I honestly think these songs on our latest record, Her Love is Killing Me and While We’re Young, and Remind Me Why I Love You Again, are three of the best things we’ve ever done. In my opinion, I think our last record is really our best work.

TG: Please talk about making the album Weather.

HL: We released Weather. It only has seven songs because of the loss of my hearing. It’s a record that we did piece by piece. It’s what we do; we write songs and we record them. So what we were doing over the course of almost 15 years was to play shows everywhere. We would write a song and record it in our home studio. We had a very nice studio; we used to have a complex with a recording studio, offices, etc. We would record the song and learn to love it. We would take it on the road and work on it and then bring it back, record it and put it in the can. We would play it for months, then cut it and we kept doing it until we had about seven songs. It’s hard to be prolific when you’ve written over 80 songs. Because we wrote for such a long time, these are our best works, the most realized.

“I fell in love with Broadway because of all the people — all the talent. Not only are the Broadway actors talented; they are smart, funny and self-effacing.”

TG: Now I have a question from my daughter’s son, Harry. He wants to know why you changed your name from Huey Lewis and the American Express to Huey Lewis and the News?

HL: That’s a great question! The record label made us change our name. Tell Harry that’s a super good question! The reason we were Huey Lewis and the American Express, which I think is a great name, is because it’s what I thought we sounded like. I thought it was the best name ever. No one had ever done a corporate tie in, zero; it had never been done. The first person to do it was Michael Jackson with Pepsi. Prior to that, it was the kiss of death; it just wasn’t done. They were afraid that American Express would sue us. They only figured that out 24 hours before the cover had to be finished so we really only had 24 hours to come up with a name.

TG: Where did the News come from?

HL: It was me. I just thought of it. There were a bunch of other contenders, but we went with Huey Lewis and the News.

TG: You have so many top hits that are so memorable. Your songs include I Want a New Drug and Hip to be Square. How did you go from a song about drugs to one about being square?

HL: Hip to be Square was supposed to be funny. It may be my only regret writing wise. I originally wrote in the third person. In the lyrics, he used to be a renegade; he used to fool around. It was meant to define a phenomenon that David Brooks articulates in his book Bobos in Paradise on how people were dropping in after being too far out; how they were cutting their hair. It was almost like a fashion thing. I thought it was kind of funny; it’s hip to be square. I thought it would be funnier if I told it on myself but not everyone got the joke. Some might think it was an anthem for square people but it wasn’t meant to be. I think I’ve lived it down by now.

TG: Please talk about your career in acting.

HL: Lovely. I worked with Bob Altman, which was amazing. We went on location and he invited me to ride with him. The location was three hours away and I got a three-hour tutorial on film acting from him that was fascinating. Robert Altman was a great experience. I did a bunch of Just Shoot Me’s with Wendie Malick, Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. The shows were written by Fraser writers and it was fantastic. I performed in one episode a year. For two weeks I shared a dressing room with Bob Newhart, who is fantastic and a TV legend. I have no desire to be more famous nor to appear as myself. If there’s not some acting required, I’m not interested.

TG: You played Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago on Broadway.

HL: I love the Broadway community and I loved doing Billy Flynn. What a great play, great musical and great character. I did 222 performances and I learned something every single day. The material is that rich and dense; it was just fabulous. I fell in love with Broadway because of all the people — all the talent. Not only are the Broadway actors talented; they are smart, funny and self-effacing. They are just fun. It’s great work. It’s the most demanding and therefore the most rewarding of artistic expression.

TG: Talk about the early days.

HL: Back in 1980, in the early days we had to have a hit record. There was no internet, no jam band, the only avenue to success was a hit record in a format called CHR, Contemporary Hit Radio. Top 40 started with the advent of push button radio. In the 50’s when they had push button radio, when the programmers opined it, as long as you didn’t hear something you didn’t like, you would just stick right there. So, narrow your play list and just play the top hits over and over again. That was top 40!

By late 70’s, early 80’s we had AM format, mono Top 40. FM Radio comes along with stereo but it’s still not broadcasting with a lot of watts. But it is stereo and it’s a free format.

Radio was the only format we all competed on. So if you had a hit there it was a big, big hit. It was unique for its time and we had to have a hit record. We insisted on producing the records ourselves because I knew we were going to have to make commercial decisions that I was going to have to live with. We aimed every song right at radio. Sports sounds like a record of its time; it’s a collection of singles and different styles.

“I’m not dead; I’m just deaf. I’m actually a glass half full kind of guy. I’m a major key, not a minor key guy.”

Conventional wisdom says you can’t do that, you have to stick with one genre, but we were all over the map. Bad is Bad is like a little bluesy thing. Honky Tonk Blues is a country song. Thin Line is a big hard rocker and One New Drug is kind of a dance tune. We consciously aimed each one of these songs as a single at radio. I knew we needed a hit and I didn’t know which one was going to hit. Our records hit so hard we were touring coliseums and achieving our dreams and doing really well financially. After that happened, I made a decision with myself and the rest of the band that this was the last thing I would ever do for commerciality. If it didn’t make artistic sense, we were not going to do it. I’ve done exactly that ever since.

TG: You are pretty amazing with a harmonica.

HL: My mom was a hippy. When she divorced my dad she moved to another house and rented out a room to a boarder. The boarder was a folk singer named Billy Roberts; he wrote Hey Joe. He had lots of harmonicas and when they would go out of tune, he would give them to me. I was in high school so I started playing harmonica. I graduated high school a year early at 16 years old; my dad told me there was one thing I had to do. He told me to take a year off and bum around Europe. I told him I had been accepted to Cornell and he said no, take a year off and head to Europe. He actually made me do that. I took the harmonica with me; it fit the image.

My mother told me that was the first good decision my old man had ever made. She gave me a Bob Dylan record and told me the poets love this guy and told me to check it out. I listened to the Dylan record, brought my harmonica and in my mind, I was a wandering minstrel throughout the world. I hitchhiked Europe, hitch-hiked North Africa; I went to Marrakech for a day and stayed three months.

TG: Travelgirl wants to know, do you have a favorite travel destination?

HL: I have several places I want to visit. I’m a fanatic flyfisherman and I want to go the Seychelles and fish. That’s a bucket list thing.

TG: Huey, you’ve paved quite a path. Do you have any sage advice for those young hopefuls who aspire to one day follow in your legendary footsteps?

HL: I’ve always told people that unless a career in music is the only thing — the only thing — you want to do, I suggest you go back to school and study. If it is the only thing you want to do, then listen to everyone and pick and choose the advice that you want to take. Think through it all, keep dancing and in the final analysis, trust your instincts. Just keep at it; keep trying and working.

Renee Werbin

Publisher and Co-Founder

Publisher, Co-Founder and CEO of SRI Travel

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