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Huey Lewis: Playing to Win

A decade of hard work wasn't enough to propel all-American Huey Lewis to the top. He also had to make a deal with the devil

September 13, 1984
huey lewis 1984 cover
Huey Lewis on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Aaron Rapoport

Three-thirty on a Sunny, Sweltering Fort Lauderdale afternoon: tee-off time at the Inverrary Golf Club for the members of what Huey Lewis like to call "the BGA – the Barely Golfing Association." On the course are Lewis, drummer Bill Gibson and a couple of pals. Huey is wearing white golfing spikes, black shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with a print that's a collage of newspaper articles about baseball. Which is to say he looks both finger-snap cool and utterly preposterous.

True to BGA form, the blond-haired Gibson has plopped his second shot into a sand trap just a few feet away from the beautifully manicured green. Utilizing a pitching wedge for this difficult shot, Gibson addresses his ball well, but it doesn't clear the bunker: instead of rolling onto the green, it hops in the air about three feet and slides back into the sand. Gibson is mute with rage.

"I'd suggest a cuss word," offers Lewis. "Perhaps something in a fuck."

Even the chagrined Gibson has to chuckle. We head for the next hole, a daintier par three. On the tee, Lewis pulls out a light-looking club and takes a practice swing. Gibson is intrigued. "You're gonna hit a seven iron 170 yards?" he asks with some surprise. "This I gotta see."

And he does. Lewis coolly creams his ball with considerable authority. Too much authority, in fact: the ball skitters off the green's edge and bounces away. Nevertheless, in this foursome of demi-duffers, it's a fine shot, and Gibson murmurs appreciatively.

"Well," says Lewis with a smile, "you gotta have confidence."

Huey Lewis may never have lacked confidence – "He's always been successful at that," declares Alex Call, a singer who shared a house with him for three years – but now it's entirely warranted. After struggling for more than ten years, this ruggedly handsome thirty-three-year-old has gotten hold of the brass ring. Three of the singles from his latest LP, Sports, have been hits – "I Want a New Drug," "Heart and Soul," "The Heart of Rock & Roll" – and a fourth, "If This Is It," is currently applying for Top Ten residency as well. Videos of Huey Lewis and the News – drummer Gibson, keyboardist Sean Hopper, guitarist Chris Hayes, saxman-axeman Johnny Colla and bassist Mario Cipollina – have become a welcome oasis of normality in the broken-glass and leather-bikini world of MTV. Their live shows – ninety minutes of uptempo rock, plus a superb doo-wop interlude – have sold out ever since Huey and the News started headlining last April. And Sports – a likable, unadventurous fusion of white-rocker oomph and blue-eyed R&B – hit Number One for a week and is still selling at a brisk pace.

"It's kinda curious," says Lewis. "There's not a lot of people doing what we're doing, yet what we're doing is so obvious to me."

Exactly – or, as Huey likes to say, "good call." His mildly derivative musical approach and all-American appeal are hardly groundbreaking, but they have been effective. Though Lewis doesn't have Bruce Springsteen's philosophic depth or John Cougar Mellencamp's bad-boy edge, his album is outselling those artists' latest offerings. His T-shirt-and-jacket look is sexy, not seedy; he earns trust as well as lust from female fans, while men view him as just one of the guys, an ideal Miller Time companion.

And he's kept his head screwed on straight. Lewis is proud to have made it big without moving far from his hometown or getting a new set of friends. Even while he's on the road, he's content to eat in the hotel dining room, where fans are waiting in swarms. His put-it-there-pal charm seems inexhaustible. Plus, he's relaxed enough to joke about everyone from his wife, Sidney Conroy ("With that name, everyone asks, 'Is he your Jewish accountant?' "), and his six-month-old daughter, Kelly ("Who does she resemble? Actually, she looks like Frank Sinatra"), to this writer's less-than-ecstatic review of Sports ("I always said that we were Rolling Stone's favorite band since Toto").

Of course, it took more than a good line and a glad hand for Huey to sell 3 million albums. His route to the top was a remarkable one, both wholly singular and curiously prototypal of his generation. His progression from achiever to wipeout, from earnest failure to canny success, sounds like a conflation of every plot line in The Big Chill. Above all, it suggests that while his chart-topping music and personable image may not be the most daring stuff on the planet – yuppie rock, you might say – Huey Lewis nevertheless intends to fulfill a dictum coined by his pal, Elvis Costello's manager Jake Riviera: "Infiltrate and double-cross." He's got it in the blood, anyway.

Take a Polish émigré artist fleeing the Nazis, introduce her to a renegade Boston premed student bent on a career in jazz, and somehow you wind up with Huey Lewis, who started life as Hugh Anthony Cregg III in New York in 1951. His mother, Magda, had wound her way through Portugal and Brazil as World War II raged. "She often says that during World War II, the sound of freedom to her was jazz, American jazz," says Lewis. "When there was American jazz around, there were GIs around, and you were safe."

Which perhaps explains what first attracted her to jazz drummer Hugh Cregg Jr. "After he graduated from Duke as a premed, he said, 'I'm gonna be a professional drummer,' and he went to New York and played for a couple of years," Huey says. "But he became very disenchanted: he was bohemian, but he always believed in discipline, and he saw all of his heroes stoned. So he went back to medical school."

But if jazz drumming couldn't hold Cregg's interest, neither could radiology. Two years after the birth of Hughie III, he'd had enough. "He was making lots of money, but he was also growing apart from my mother, and he wasn't seeing the kids at all. So he moved to California and started his own practice. He'd work three days a week and quit as soon as he had the bills paid. Authentically bohemian, both my parents. Not in conduct so much, but in attitude."

The Creggs moved to Marin City in Mill Valley, a suburb of San Francisco, and Hugh III enrolled in the garden-variety public school. "A lot of blacks and a lot of greasers," he recalls. "There were a lot of fights." He was sharp enough to skip a grade, but trouble was brewing at home. "My mother was hanging out with known beatniks – Allen Ginsberg and that sort of stuff." Dad was worried about the effect of that company on young Hugh and wanted to get him away from the potheads at Tamalpais High School; Mom wanted her son to stay with her in Mill Valley. They filed for divorce when Hugh was twelve.

"I was really torn," he remembers. "It was actually very traumatic for me, because I loved my mother and I loved my father, and they went to court and argued over me." Worse yet, young Hugh was called on to make his own decision. "They said, 'Well, he's an intelligent kid, and he's more adult than his age.' So the judge had a private hearing with me. He says, 'What do you want to do?' I was only twelve! And I went, 'Well, I love my mom, and I want to stay here, but. . . . I think I said, 'Yeah, I think I wanna go to school."'

His father shipped him off to Lawrenceville, a sort of Princeton-for-juniors located in southern New Jersey. "I really hated prep school when I first got there," he says. "I couldn't believe there were people from everywhere in the world and they had the same tie on. I never was very cool. I didn't really distinguish myself at all, really."

In fact, Cregg was an honor student for his last three years, starred on the school's baseball team, acted in No Time for Sergeants and notched 800s on his math boards. "I've always had an aptitude for math," he says, "but I don't like it particularly."

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