Heart & Soul, Part 2

Second half of lengthy Q&A with Huey Lewis

Heart & Soul, Part 2

Last October, for Huey Lewis & the News' concert at the Long Center, the frontman talked a mile a minute about Nick Lowe, Bill Graham, Thin Lizzy, etc. For the band's return – Sunday at the Backyard with Joe Cocker – I finally transcribed the second half of our Q&A.

Austin Chronicle: I know you must have a lot of Austin stories.

Huey Lewis: Well, yeah. Ray Benson is my pal. In the early days when I used to bounce through there, we’d go play golf, then do the show, and then go to the studio and record [chuckles].

AC: Do you know Willie Nelson?

HL: Willie had me out to Pedernales once. It was fantastic. I’ve only been out there once – I know Willie a little bit.

AC: Did you know Stevie?

HL: What? Sure! Well, you know that Angela Strehli is my manager’s wife. So I know her real, real well. I knew [Clifford] Antone, a little bit.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – his first national tour he opened for us. I’d known Jimmie Vaughan for a long time because Kim Wilson’s a really good pal. Years ago, we actually used to date the same girl, Kim Wilson and I. At different times... I hope!

AC: [Laughing]

HL: When I was in Clover, I knew about the Fabulous Thunderbirds because I knew about Kim Wilson and I knew about Jimmie Vaughan. And then I heard he had a brother, Stevie Ray, who was supposed to be unbelievable. When his first record came out, I got it early for some reason, and it knocked me out. I remember interrupting the Jefferson Airplane session at the Record Plant [in San Francisco], busting in to [producer] Ron Nevison and Jefferson Airplane. [He beat boxes a techno burble]:

“We built this city....”

AC: [Laughing]

HL: I go, “You guys gotta hear this shit.” I stopped the session and put on Stevie Vaughan’s Texas Flood. Two of them just went through the roof – loved it. And the other five just looked around kind of quizzically like, “What the fuck is this?”

AC: [Laughing]

HL: Right? So now, I was just mad for the album. I wrote him a fan letter on one of our postcards. I know because he told me – said it was like his eighth fan letter or whatever.

So now we go out on tour. This is like ’84 maybe, something like that. Our [Sports] tour spilled out, ’84-’85. My agent Danny Weiner (still my agent) says, “Well, it’s sold out. Whaddya wanna do for an opener? You can get anyone one you want.” I said, “Get Stevie Ray Vaughan.”

I gave him the record, he listened to the record, called the manager, who was Chesley [Millikin]. Afterward he says to me, “Man, the manager’s crazy. I dunno. They want $5,000, they’re worth $500.” I said, “Pay ‘em. Don’t worry about it. You’re gonna have fun. Trust me.”

So we did 60 shows together. We jammed every night. We lived as one band. It was really fun.

AC: What was your first rock & roll show?

HL: My dad used to take me to jazz shows, Jazz at the Philharmonic. I saw Ellington, I saw Basie – all these jazz shows were the first shows I saw. My dad’s a drummer. When I was a kid he’d have all these jam sessions. His pal was Ralph Sutton, who was an unbelievable piano player. My dad was a really good drummer, and a pretty good piano player as well. It was all jazz stuff around me.

The first rock show wasn’t a rock show. It was at my school. It was the Chord Lords in seventh grade. So, bands in school – school guys. The greaser stuff [starts singing at a doo-wop pace]:

“Wellllll ... I’m going ... to the river ... to find ya ... little girl. Yes I’m going ... to the river....”

Slow dancing [laughs]. Doo-wop shit.

AC: Ellington, one of my touchstones! Do you recall anything from the show?

HL: “We thank you, and we thank you very kindly.” The way he used to speak was unbelievable. Yeah, I remember a lot from that show, because it was Duke Ellington and Jazz at Philharmonic, and it was a sax summit. It was in Oakland, and the talent was unbelievable. It was Duke Ellington and his band, Sam Woodyard on drums. They were unbelievable. And then they had the Jimmy Jones Trio, and then Oscar Peterson was on the date.

They also had a sax summit for part of it. I want to say Zoot Sims, and, and, and – shit. I don’t know who the other cat was. Another cat – wasn’t [Stan] Getz. Somebody else. It was a black cat, I think. And then they had Coleman Hawkins. Wait! [The other guy] might have been Ben Webster. Might have been Ben Webster. And then Coleman Hawkins.

So this one thing, they all played one song. They played a song, then they bring out the next [soloist], and the next one, and the next one. And Ellington’s [introducing them]. Now they introduce Coleman Hawkins, and he comes out. He gets on the microphone and he goes [Lewis blows air]. You know how you get that real breathy sound? [He blows again.] No note, just the breath. You can hear it loud as shit.

He backs away, and oh boy, he’s a little rickety. Now he gets up to the microphone again, and he goes [blowing] – just air! Oh shit. And people are going [affects a hawker’s bark], “Blow, Hawk – blow man! Blow Hawk!” He backs away, he turns round – back to the crowd – and wanders over to the drums. And when he gets to the drums – boom! He falls down, into the drums [laughs].

AC: [Laughs]

HL: He was hammered man. Hawk was too hammered to play. [Laughs]

AC: [Laughs]

HL: I remember it like it was yesterday, man. It was amazing. They came up and got him, walked him off, and the band went into something else – bing! They’re on.

AC: As much as I love Ellington, I have equal and abiding love for his alto saxist Johnny Hodges. Was he there?

HL: He might have been on that date. He probably was, Johnny Hodges. That’s probably who I’m forgetting about.

But I got to sing [starts singing and snapping his fingers], “Fly me to the moon.” With Count Basie.

I did a San Francisco Black & White Ball. Dick Bright, who’s a buddy of mine and a bandleader in San Francisco, says to me, “Hey, you wanna come do a song with us?” And I say, “Sure, of course I will,” it’s a charity thing. And because he’s got the orchestra, I say, “Let’s try some swing thing.” “Great, so ‘Fly Me to the Moon’.” “Okay, great, but I’ve never done that.” He says, “Look, I’ll just bring the piano player over and you sing it with him, get an arrangement together, and we’ll take it back to the band, and you’ll be fine.” I said, “Okay, great.” So I go sing with him at the Black & White Ball and it goes fine.

What I don’t realize is that there’s these many different stages to the Black & White Ball. It’s like Mardi Gras or [New Oreleans] Jazz Fest in San Francisco. They have one show for a half-hour and then it’s off to another stage, and then you get off and somebody else sets up.

Only now, waiting to set up – Dick Bright & His Orchestra – we’re the opening act for Count Basie for Chrissakes! And now all the cats are standing around the bandstand with their horns and shit, while I’m singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” Goddamn was that embarrassing!

AC: What year was this?

HL: Probably... Shoot, I ... God, I’ve lost track. Probably ’90, ’91, ’92. Marshall Royal was still running the band. So at the end of the deal, I’d sang the song, was nervous as shit and kinda screwed it up, but I got a big reaction because I’m [laughs] a big star.

At the end of it, Marshall Royal goes [affecting an Eastside cool], “Hey maaan, how come you don’t sing that with us?” I said, “Really?” “Yeah man.” I said, “I will if you want!” He says, “Hang around, man. We’re on in 20.” I said, “Okay, I’m with you” and I hung around and sang it with them.

AC: On the new album, Soulsville , you sing “Cry to Me,” which has been covered by so many great singers. Who’s your favorite, someone you worked with?

HL: Yeah, well, there’s so many. There’s so many. Johnnie Taylor, really, was my favorite singer, I think – if I had to pick one. Johnnie Taylor, and [Wilson] Pickett has an incredible voice. Otis [Redding] was an incredible singer, obviously, although not conventionally incredible in that sense. There’s guys today, you know, who do that. Taj Mahal’s a great singer. And Delbert’s a good singer, too, Delbert McClinton.

There’s cats working every day now that are singing pretty good. It isn’t a young man’s game, singing – thank god. It’s about note choice and character, and after all, it’s about communication. That’s what we like about the Solomon Burke version of that song. My favorite version of “Cry to Me” is Solomon Burke’s version. Solomon Burke had an amazing instrument, just an amazing instrument. Amazing instrument.

I met him, in Memphis. Well, the second time. That’s another great story. When we were cutting this record in Memphis, Pops Mitchell died the week we arrived there – Willie Mitchell the producer. It was uncanny. When we were driving in I was talking to this guy who was looking after me. I said, “Is Willie Mitchell still around?” He says, “Ah man, that’s funny, because he’s in the hospital just now.” And four days later, he died.

So I went to his memorial and there was Solomon Burke, and Otis Clay, and all these great soul singers. And Solomon Burke, I had known him before through this R&B foundation. He was actually so sweet. And I came up to him, and he paid me a great compliment: [in a raspy soul man’s voice] “Yeah, I know you. You sound like one of us!”

AC: [Laughing]

HL: Really a compliment. And we sat there and listened to the preacher eulogize Willie Mitchell. That night, [Burke] got out of his [wheel]chair – and he never got out of his chair – and announced his new Willie Mitchell-produced record, called Nothing’s Impossible I think it is. He tore it up! The record’s not that good for some reason, but he was amazing, Solomon Burke. He could scream better than anybody.

James Brown, Jackie Wilson; they say Jackie Wilson was the best. Everybody says Jackie Wilson was not to be followed. Sam & Dave. But Solomon Burke. And Johnnie Taylor could sing the phone book. And later: How about Marvin Gaye? If I could sing like Marvin Gaye, I’d just do that.

AC: That’s what’s great about your new album: it gets you thinking about these guys.

HL: We decided to do something with the record that’s a little different, and I don’t know if it translates too much. You know the Tony! Toni! Toné! guys? They’re from Berkeley. They’re really good kids. We’ve known them for a while. They do that retro thing a little bit. It’s interesting because we’ve not elected to... How do I explain it? A lot of this stuff is kind of faux. The idea is that you can hear the needle scratching on the vinyl. They replicate cutting in analog. But we didn’t do any of that. Our idea was to be faithful to it musically, but not necessarily recording the same way. We recorded in Pro Tools. We don’t go analog. It’s not faux if you know what I mean.

AC: Love Raphael Saadiq!

HL: My point is that stuff, when you hear the echo on the drums it sounds like an old echo sound. In other words, it’s a faux record. It sounds like it was cut in the Fifties. You know what I’m saying? Our thing just sounds like you hear the room. It’s not shitty. It doesn’t sound deliberately shitty – or even remotely. It’s not faux. I’m not saying one or the other is better. One’s a little more fashionable. Ours is not very fashionable. I like it better like that. It’s a little more transparent.

AC: Must be fun to play live.

HL: Live, it sounds exactly like the record. That may not be a good thing [chuckles], but when you go to see the Black Eyed Peas it doesn’t necessarily sound like the record. In fact, you know they’re basically playing the record – miming to it. There’s no sounding like one of those records live.

AC: Speaking of playing live, I’ve been here 20 years and I don’t recall you playing in Austin.

HL: We played there a lot in the early days. And then when we were a beer and hot dog band. We were a beer and hot dog band. Now we’re hanging with the wine and cheese set. We do a lot of wineries. Now, that’s beginning to happen in Texas too. We’ve been doing that for a while. I’ll be honest with you: I’m no spring chicken. I want to do as few shows as I can for as much money as I can [laughs].

AC: Go for it. You’ve paid your dues.

HL: What I tell them is that we have to hit a certain point to pay the business – make sure everyone gets paid. So, we try to gross X amount of dollars every year with the fewest amount of shows as I can. For some reason, Texas hasn’t figured into that much, although – although – we have been to Texas many times over the past 20 years playing corporate stuff. We’ll play anywhere for the right price.

AC: Isn’t there some kind of formula that if you’ve had a million seller you can always count on a certain percentage of those people attending your shows forever after?

HL: The public is a very fickle animal. There’s a great book called Bobos in Paradise about the ruling taste. They’re bourgeois bohemians. Their taste is rooted in Bohemia and they’re of the Sixties, but the times were too scared. There was no family and no faith, just drug overdoses. So they all dropped back in, but their artistic tastes are formed in that Bohemia. So, where is that you hear really good blues music? Authentic Muddy Waters – Muddy himself? The real thing, where do hear it? You don’t hear it on the radio.

AC: On your iPod?

HL: No, you hear it on Viagra ads.

AC: [Laughs]

HL: You hear it on Microsoft ads. You hear it on Toyota ads. Corporate America is the home for this stuff. That’s where our bread is buttered. I remember a couple years ago in San Francisco, it was a Monday night. And if you looked in the newspaper at who’s playing, although there’s clubs all over San Francisco, there was no one you’d really heard of. What nobody knew was that downtown that night, playing for different companies in three different hotels were Huey Lewis & News, the Doobie Brothers, and the Eagles. That’s what goes on. And thank god that goes on.

AC: You refered to the beer and hot dog crowd. Here you get stuff like the Rodeo putting together bills like Joan Jett, Rick Springfield, and George Jones all the same week.

HL: Rick Springfield is singing to tapes, by the way. All that shit’s on tape. He should not be doing that either. It’s egregious what he’s doing. That’s why his background vocals sound so fucking good. It’s all on tape. He was the first guy to do that.

I remember going to a show in Denmark with Mutt Lange, because Mutt Lange – Mutt Langer – he produced Foreigner, [starts singing], “I’ve been waiting… [for a girl like you].” We’re opening for Foreigner in Denmark, and Mutt Langer’s with me. We show up early and Rick Springfield’s onstage. There’s nine bands. It’s Rick Springfield, then it’s Night Ranger, then it’s Joe Cocker, then it’s somebody else, then it’s us, then it’s Foreigner, then it’s the Who or somebody.

And because he produced Foreigner, I’m there with Mutt Langer, and this the first time I’d ever heard something like this. This is in the Eighties, the late Eighties. And Rick Springfield’s onstage and his fucking vocals are unbelievable, man. “Wow! God, that sounds good.” So we go up to the side of the stage, and the backstage is buzzing. We say, “What?” They say, “He’s on tape.“ “How the fuck do you have them on tape? What are you talking about?” That was the first I ever heard about that. And now, he’s still doing it!

AC: Your mentioning John “Mutt” Lange summons so many great albums he produced. My favorite’s always been AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.

HL: Exactly [starts singing the opening guitar chords of “Highway to Hell”].

AC: Ever cross paths with Bon Scott on the road?

HL: Back in England we were both doing those English theaters. I was opening for Graham Parker in my band Clover. AC/DC was just starting out, playing little theaters in England – Manchester Free Trade Hall, which holds 2,400 people, and there were 1,200. [Angus Young] was still getting up on the speakers and mooning the audience. That was their big thing. He would moon the crowd. That was the big deal.

AC: They were good?

HL: They were fantastic. Fantastic. They’re still fantastic. Angus is a blues guy. He’s the real deal.

AC: Huey, so are you. Thanks so much for your time today.

HL: You’re a music lover. I love it. We could talk forever.

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