Huey Lewis & the News, who play the Long Center Wednesday, might be considered an 1980s phenomenon, but their frontman touches every level of the music business. We spoke for an hour, Lewis overflowing stories. This is half our interview. In the paper, it'd be a three-page feature.
Austin Chronicle: Where are you calling me from today?
Huey Lewis: My home in Montana.
AC: How long have you lived in Montana?
HL: Well, I’ve owned the place for 23 years. We summered here, but now we’ve made it our permanent home.
AC: Do you have animals? Are you a rancher?
HL: Yes, I live on a ranch. We have some livestock. We’ve got some horses, but we also have wildlife. There’s lots of wildlife here. We have deer, and pheasants – and elk in the mountains, and bear once in while, and moose occasionally. And birds: raptors and eagles and osprey – quail and geese. And all manner of critters.
AC: Are you an outdoorsman, a hunter?
HL: I am. I’m a fly fisherman. I’m more a fisherman than a hunter, but I am hunter too – a bow hunter, actually. I have to be careful about my hunting. I’m not a fanatic! We hunt because we cook. We don’t have a lot of great restaurants in Montana to be honest, and so you have to learn how to cook.
AC: I was just in Poland where they have a lot of exotic meats. Your mother’s Polish.
HL: Polish artists! My mother’s an amazing artist. She’s the most amazing artist I’ve ever met in that she’s art for art’s sake. She sees everything in the aesthetic. That’s how she relates to the world. She’ll be 87 here Thursday, and she’s like a 5-year-old kid. She’s a Grateful Deadhead, and a hippie....
AC: The Poles are fierce people aren't they?
HL: That’s a very good word. My mother’s fiercely artistic. Mind you, she hasn’t been back since she escaped during the war. No wait! That’s not true. She went back once. And found it totally dissimilar. She grew up Polish royalty, actually. My mom was Polish Catholic, and they had a textile mill and they looked after all their workers. It was kind of like a family farm.
AC: Where’s she’s from?
HL: Łódź. It’s pronounced “wooge,” but it looks like Łódź. And my mom’s just that way... fierce. That’s a very good way of putting it – a great way of putting it. They’re thick-skinned. You can’t knock them down. They get right back up. They look everything right in the face, man. They’re not sneaky people. I hear Hungary’s fantastic too.
AC: That’s actually where we started, in Budapest for a wedding. You produced one of the great wedding songs, Nick Lowe doing “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll).” How did that come about?
HL: Wonderful song. I was in a band called Clover before this and Nick Lowe was going to produce us before the whole punk thing hit. Before I even joined the band, their first two records were distributed in England and there were pictures on the cover of these guys with hair down to their waist and a pedal steel guitar standing in front of an eight-foot marijuana plant. And this is 1967. Willie Nelson still had a shirt and tie on. He’s on the Dolly Parton show.
Nick Lowe, and not just Nick Lowe, the band Brinsley Schwarz, these guys became enthralled with this country rock thing, and eventually Commander Cody and that whole deal. They partnered up on us, basically, [Stiff Records owners] Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. When they got a little something going with Graham Parker, they said, “Hey, why don’t we get Clover.”
Jake had come over to the U.S. with Dr. Feelgood to road manage them for a CBS convention in L.A. and we were playing the Palamino Club. He brought Nick Lowe along as a guitar roadie, so they could have a wild weekend in America. They came for four days and they went to the Palamino because they saw we were playing, and kapow, Nick ended up sitting in with us, and then they came up to Northern California for a second. They had this plan to sign us and take us to England where we were vintage pub rock and this would be the next big thing. Then Johnny Rotten spit in the face of an NME reporter and it was all over. They were going to have Nick Lowe produce us, and then came Elvis [Costello] and Wreckless Eric, and the Damned. They started Stiff Records. They employed [producer John] “Mutt” Lange and said, “Let’s try for America.”
So Nick and I have been pals ever since then and the way “I Knew the Bride” came about is that years later when we had a hit Nick had just turned in a record to CBS and CBS wasn’t accepting it, wasn’t going to pay the check. So Jake and Nick asked if I’d produce a song. I said, “Sure, of course. What?” And they said, “Well, that’s our question too.” I said. “How ‘bout ‘I Knew the Bride’?” And they said, “Wow, that’s interesting.” 'Cause see Dave Edmunds always did “I Knew the Bride” even though Nick wrote it.
So we cut it with a kind of techno feel. It’s kind of an interesting record. There’s some machines in there, some different stuff. It’s almost ELO-ish.
AC: Your career has touched so many different musicians and genres and eras.
HL: Right, right. It’s true. It’s really true.
AC: The latest Huey Lewis & the News album is last year’s Soulsville, a tribute to Memphis and Stax-like R&B and soul. Do you have a favorite anecdote from that realm?
HL: There are a lot. I got to sing with Stevie Wonder up here in Montana. Oddly enough, one of my neighbors is Charles Schwab, and [Wonder] sang for Schwab’s birthday party. I got sing with him. That was really cool. We did some big gigs back in the day, where Bruce Springsteen showed up a couple times and Bob Geldof. We had all that high-powered kind of stuff. That was always fun – back in the day – but you’re always trying to keep your head above water. You’re young. You don’t know what the hell is going on. You’re just trying to stay in tune and make sure you can hear. Unfortunately, you never seem to enjoy those moments as much as you should.
Now, ultimately, the challenges are creative. That’s what it comes down to. That’s the fun part. You finally realize the real object is not a hit record or a bunch of money. It’s to have a career – play music and have people show up.
AC: The new album was a natural fit for you guys.
HL: That’s how we did it too. It wasn’t the most original of ideas was it? Do a Stax and Memphis record. But we’re set up for it. We have a really good horn section that we handpicked. We all loved this music because this is the shit we listened to in the face of psychedelia. When we went to the Fillmore as kids, it wasn’t the Jefferson Airplane for me. It was Muddy Waters, man. When [James] Cotton came to town it was like, “Wow. That was awesome.” It was a different ball game, but that’s what we listened to. When Otis [Redding] played Winterland, forget it. That’s what we were into.
So when we undertook it, we figured first of all we can’t do the chestnuts and some ‘original’ interpretation. That’s bullshit. How ‘bout going deeper in the catalog and finding some things that maybe people heard but maybe some people hadn’t and capture them faithfully? To that end we started working them up. As we worked them, like you said, they sounded amazingly natural. They really worked for us. So we proceeded [laughs].
AC: Y'all hit a groove on Soulsville that’s almost like Booker T & the MGS.
HL: When we play it live it’s just perfect. The Otis Redding tune is one performance, no fixes, no overdubs. Several of the songs have no fixes or overdubs. We overdubbed the girls, but I can’t say that about most songs. Several of the vocals are live and others I just went out and sang again. All the band played at once, nine pieces. We had two studios, A and B, and we had the benefit of reflection.
See, originally these artists wrote the song and cut the track while writing the horn chart. In some cases, we had the benefit of a second look. So although it’s captured faithfully, we did things we assumed they would have done if they’d had the time, like some of the crazy modulations and stuff.
AC: You mentioned seeing Otis Redding live. You must have seen some mindblowing gigs growing up in the Bay Area.
HL: But I never saw Jimi Hendrix for some reason. All the boys that saw Hendrix hold that over me a little bit.
AC: I still drive around the ritzy parts of San Francisco and wonder, ‘Where does Robin Williams live?’ ‘Where’s Huey Lewis?’
HL: We’re still there. We have a rehearsal studio. My office is there. All my people are there.
AC: As a Bay Area guy, it still pains me that promoter Bill Graham’s no longer with us. How do you remember him?
HL: Very good, very good. I’m glad you’re asking this. That’s a very good question, because he was obviously the greatest promoter of all time. He was star, Bill, as you know. He was an actor, and a star, and a mime, and he managed [San Francisco’s] Mime Troupe. That’s how he got into this thing. Then he saw that, “Whoa! These hippie kids are making some noise,” so he rented the Fillmore, had the Mime Troupe open, and then had a band. He masterminded that whole thing. What he was great at was that he was the best promoter – producer – that way of a show, because he was totally a member of the audience. He could totally put himself in the audience. What was the audience thinking? What did they want?
That’s the thing with the apples [at the Fillmore] when you left. After he show, you have dry mouth so you give everyone an apple. He was so wired into the audience.
He was super charming. If you’d played one of his venues, and you’d done well – business was good – he’d come backstage and schmooze you. He was so charming. You were such the star. You’d look to somebody for a glass of water and bingo! Bill would run and get you a glass of water. He always told me two things that were really funny, man. And I bet he told everyone this. He said, “Turn the house lights on for the last song.” The other one was, “Build a ramp [from the stage] so that you can go out [into the audience] a little bit and people can get all the way around you.” Which are two things you completely get as a member of the audience. Turn the house lights on the last song, and as soon as you start those first notes, you turn the house lights off again – wallop! Just sort of staging things.
And what was interesting is of course that since he was an artist that way he wasn’t afraid to take changes. He was the original guy that put, like, Charles Lloyd with Cream, or whoever – all these eclectic bills. Which were so wonderful, because they helped enforce the fact that music is music and there’s only two kinds, as Ellington used to say, good and bad. And it’s interesting because at Stax, the backup band on many of those songs is Booker T & the MGs: two black guys and two white guys who couldn’t put their faces on the cover in Memphis, 1963. Segregated society, integrated musicians.
Today, society is more integrated, but music is more segregated. You have rap here, and country over here, and Triple A. It’s a shame. Bill’s shows were so diverse, and it’s the opposite now. It’s REO, Styx, and who else? It’s crazy, I don’t know. We’ve lost that, not only in our political information, but in the arts as well. We should know better.
AC: One of my all-time favorite artists is Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. You worked with him. What was that cat really like?
HL: Oh wow. He was the single greatest performer I’ve ever seen. He had incredible stage instincts. He was brilliant onstage, just brilliant. And that band, when they were at their peak – ‘cause we opened for them; I saw probably 50 shows – they were just unbelievable. They were just so good. That was a hard rock band. And of course the reason was he was such a sweet man. He was such a lovely guy. He was an amazing guy, Philip. He was really my mentor. He was really the guy that convinced me I could do it on my own.
AC: He saw in you the potential and said go for it.
HL: Yeah, yeah – exactly. He would dress me out of his closet, Philip. He was that kind of guy. He’d say [affecting a perfect black Irish accent], “Huey, come here. Wot? Wot? Take off the shoes, fer chrissakes.” He put me in the closet and start dressing me. “Put this on. Here, let me see you. Look at that!! [Bursts into wild laughter] “Haaaaah, look at that!” Crazy shit. He was unbelievable. The way he ran his band was very, very interesting too. And how he responded to reviews and negative reviews. I just learned so much from Philip I can’t tell you. He was really the single most important influence in my deal.
HL: He taught me everything. And he was so sweet about it. He was so good. When I first met him, we opened for Thin Lizzy – Clover did. We’re behind the curtain, and it’s Manchester, Free Trade Hall. These rough-assed kids, all male – a few girls, but mostly guys – and the curtain’s down and you hear this [he makes stomping noises], “Lizz–zee, Lizz-zee!” Right? [He starts laughing] And the curtain goes up – we’re billed as support. “Ladies and gentleman, Clover!”
All we could do is get through the songs without being booed and that was successful! At the end of every show, Philip would be there on the last song. He’d say, “Huey, that was gud, man. ‘Bad is Bad’ was gud tonight, man. That was gud.” He’d say, “I’d do that one a little earlier, man. Yeah. Hit ‘em earlier with that one.” He’d give me little tips and stuff. He was sweet.
AC: I’m not worthy!
HL: I’ve got a million of ‘em. I have a million great Phil Lynott stories. Here’s another one just ‘cause you seem interested. Now, he comes to San Francisco. He’d flown me to Nassau to play on his record [1978’s Black Rose]. He wasn’t in very good shape to be honest with you. He’d taken a bunch of Valiums, and he’d lay in the studio. We’d go to the studio at night, and we’d work all night – supposedly! He’d take too many Valiums and pass out in his chair. So me and Gary Moore and whoever else was around – Darren Wharton, the keyboard player – shit we’d just record, make our own record. But in the daytime, he was just Mr. Entertainment, man. He’d be out by pool, ordering drinks. He’d have the chaise and the girls and be sending his minions off for food and pot. He was so fantastic.
Then I went away and started my own outfit. When I first started Huey Lewis & the News, in the very beginning – I guess we were called American Express or whatever – now suddenly he shows up on a Winterland bill in San Francisco. This might have even been before going to Nassau, I don’t know. Either way, it was after a period of not seeing him for a couple years. I was just starting my band – yeah, yeah; it was a couple years after his recordings in Nassau.
So I get in touch with him. I say, “I see you’re coming to San Francisco – love to come and see you.” He phones me back, [in Lynott’s accent], “Whatever you need, Huey.” I say, “Well, shoot, probably all the boys want to come. I got six guys in the band! And one’s got a girlfriend... so we'd need eight or nine [passes].” “No problem,” he says. “We’ll take care of it. Whatever you need.”
So now I’m thinking, “Boy, I hope this works out.” The band had just started, and we’re all dressed up. We go backstage and sure enough there’s tickets there for all of us. And it’s on of these Day on the Dirt things, with J. Geils and somebody else and somebody else. And him and him and 15 other bands. And Gary Moore’s with him. They had a very volatile relationship.
AC: Poor Gary, who died this year.
HL: I know, I know. He jammed with us not too long ago too.
Now, they’re playing, and as soon as I get backstage, “Oh shit, there’s Bill Graham.” And there’s all the J. Geils guys. It’s one of those major backstage Winterland things like Bill used to do with Day on the Greens at the Oakland Coliseum. Huge. And here we are with the cool passes and we’re looking great, and then we see Phil. “Hey Huey! How are ya, man? Great to see ya. Are these the lads?” So I introduce him to the guys and he treats them golden. “Good to see ya, lads. Are you looking after Huey? Is he doing all right? Is he moving onstage?” All kinds of shit he taught me. “And who’s the little lass?” “Shannon,” I say. “Shannon, a good Irish name. How are ya? Great, great. Gotta go.”
Now he goes up onstage, and I’m standing on the side of the stage and Eddie Money’s next to me and he says, “You seen this guy?” I say, “Hah! Have I seen this guy? This guy’s the best guy on the planet. Check it out.” So they do the show, and it’s great. He’s great. But you can tell, he and Gary Moore are not having a good time.
So now they’re really not having a good time. They’ve had words onstage or something – something’s happened. Fvoop, they bolt from the stage at the end of the show, at the end of their set, into the dressing room, screaming and yelling and shit flying around – boom, bam, crash. For 10 minutes everybody’s....
Vvoomp, the door opens, out runs Gary Moore, steams out. The door shuts, man. Maybe about five minutes later, the door opens up, Phil: “Hey! How are ya? Come on in. What’s going on?” I say, “Jesus, Philip, is everything okay?” He says [again in a perfect Lynott impersonation], “Ahhh, Gary, he quit the fuhking band. Good riddance to him. C’mon, let’s have a drink, shall we?”
He was unbelievable. Gary quit the band and Philip invites us all into the dressing room where he entertained us with stories and charmed Shannon.
AC: I’m sad I never got to see Gary Moore. He was a shit-hot guitarist.
HL: He was great, Gary Moore. Don’t get me wrong, he was completely great. But he wasn’t the best in Lizzy. The best Lizzy guitarist was Brian Robertson. And Scott Gorham, and Brian Downey, and Philip. That’s the best line-up. They were unbelievable. Jailbreak – Jailbreak.
AC: I’d compare the Lizzy catalog to something like Bob Marley’s – a dozen or so albums and very little fat on them collectively.
HL: That’s very perceptive. And the key is that he had such a heart. That’s the key. He was tough and mean and all that, and he got all that from American movies and stuff. The gangster movies – he loved all that. But he was such a sweetie pie. The nicest man.
AC: You yourself have written some indelible songs, though I was interested to learn recently that “Heart and Soul” was a Chinnichap production, written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, the guys behind the Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” and “Little Willy” and Suzi Quatro’s “Stumblin’ In.” How’d that come about? It’s such a great song.
HL: It is. There was a publisher guy at Chrysalis when we were signed to them. And he was, of course, trying to sell us songs as well; we’d written a bunch of songs and he was giving us songs too. My angle to the guys was always, “Look, we’re writing songs here and all that, and it’s great, but I’m not adverse to outside songs. The first thing we need is a hit.”
In those days there was no internet and FM radio was programmed. And it was the only avenue to success in those days, so we all competed. That's the Commodores and Garth Brooks – all of us for that same Top 40 spot. Which was kind of interesting because it forced you to listen to slightly different music than today. That was all that we could do, was get a hit.
So this guy pitched me “Heart and Soul” and I heard it and thought, “Jesus, it sounds like a smash. That’s a hit record if ever I heard one.” So I sent it around. And it’s a funny story because a couple of people associated with our organization, shall we say, really didn’t think so, and I said, “No, trust me. It is.”
So we cut it. And when we were cutting it, in L.A., the Bus Boys – remember them [the film 48 Hours?] – were in another studio in the same complex. And now I walk by their room and I hear “Heart and Soul” coming out. We’d just cut it! And so I lean my ear into the hallway and I hear this version of “Heart and Soul,” which is a different version. Right away I went, “Jesus Christ” and called the publisher. “What’s the deal?” “Oh, hey, I....” I can’t remember what he said, but he clearly pitched it to everyone in town and four people were cutting it. I thought, “That’s kinda cheesy.”
Somehow I secured a version of the Bus Boys' version. I told the publisher, “I don’t know if I’m gonna cut it. Let me listen to their version.” And I thought our version was better. I learned my lesson about publishers on that song, actually.
And I met Mike Chapman before that even. There was some talk about him producing us. And that was really a fun deal. We had a session with him and he’s a very interesting guy.
AC: You see the credits on folks like that and it’s hard to believe what they worked on.
HL: Well, you know, Mutt Lange – Mutt Langer – is one of my buddies. They don’t come any stranger than Mutt Langer. He’s a case. He’s South African. He’s the true deal. We disagree about everything.
AC: Tell me about one of your other greatest hits, “Power of Love,” and its relationship to the movie it opens, Back to the Future.
HL: There was just this 30th anniversary deal for the film, Back to the Future. So the director, Bob Zemeckis, corralled everybody together to sell the Blu-ray. They got Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, [writer/producer] Bob Gale, and we all got together in New York to do publicity for two or three days. And Bob Zemeckis had a dinner for everybody. He got up and said, “Clearly, this is the work of my life. I still make movies, but the haphazard way it happened. And people always say to me, ‘It must have been a lot of fun making those movies,’ but they have no idea the hell it was.”
And he told some stories. We were all components of it, but no one was associated with the whole thing. 'Cause it was really Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s vision. Michael J. Fox was doing Family Ties in the daytime and shot it at night.
So Zemeckis remembers all this stuff, about how the song was written [by Lewis and bandmembers Johnny Colla and Chris Hayes]. It was really a fun three-day thing, if only to hear the stories from their sides.
But to answer your question, what it meant for us is that it was a big international hit. We never had an international hit. To this day, it’s our only real international hit. Our stuff is very American somehow. It’s not rock or metal. It’s a tough genre for us, you know. James Taylor or something. You don’t hear a lot of him in Europe either.
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