Huey Lewis: Playing to Win

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Some nights, he would hop cabs to Trenton, get on trains bound for Philadelphia and catch shows by blues greats like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. By his senior year, 1967, Lewis was keeping tabs on home-front happenings – the Summer of Love and all. "I was the first one in New Jersey to hear of Moby Grape and the Sons of Champlin. And I was the first one who was into anything Californian: probably the first guy to smoke pot in Lawrenceville."

On the advice of a guidance counselor, Cregg applied and was accepted into the prestigious engineering program at Cornell University. Hughie himself wanted to work on his baseball playing. In a reversal of Sixties-generation behavior patterns, his father had other ideas.

"My old man said, 'You're sixteen years old, you're grown up. This is the last thing I'm ever gonna tell you to do. I want you to go to Europe before you go to college.' I didn't want to go to Europe. I just wanted to play ball. But I said, 'Oh, okay.' I took a harmonica and I hitchhiked through Europe."

Off he went: three months stoned in Marrakech, indigent treks across lower Europe and enough weird stories to last a lifetime. Consider, for example, the seventy-five-year-old Dutchman with a handlebar mustache who picked up Hughie outside Madrid and took him to Portugal. "It turned out that he lived with a whole houseful of hookers. I was sacrifice meat to the hookers. They would sit there all night and stroke my hair and sing. 'It Ain't Me, Babe' in Portuguese. They seemed to feel it was a Portuguese song to begin with."

Along the way he got pretty proficient at playing harmonica – blowing "Spoonful" and the odd Paul Butterfield track – and earned $150 with his first concert, organized with the help of a couple of communist students he had befriended in Seville. "I thought, 'We're rich!' So the guys said, 'Let's all go out to dinner.' So thirty-five of us went out – the bill came, it was $140, and the guy took the money out, paid the tab and said to me, 'Here's your $10.' And I said, 'Oh, socialism, I get it.' Europe taught me that I could live on my own. From that day on, I decided I was never gonna work for anybody."

Back in the U.S. by late '68, Cregg headed for Cornell, dodging classes and hanging out with the SDS crowd "simply because, at that point, they were the only ones who smoked pot. I made fast friends with a lot of them. They're all in the movie business now. Or running for public office. Or in real estate." He joined a band called Slippery Elm ("the band was okay, I was horrible") and, for the first time, started getting into rock & roll. "All I'd ever really liked was black music," he remembers. "I'd always go to the show, and there'd be Otis Redding and the Kinks and the Flying Burrito Brothers – and I always dug Otis Redding. We were weaned on radio that played Otis Redding and then Flying Burritos and then Dylan, then Led Zeppelin, Judy Collins, the Chambers Brothers, Muddy Waters, then Seals and Crofts – folk, country, soul.

"That's what the Sixties were all about. They weren't about drugs; they were about rampant intellectualism. As long as you were into it, it was cool. I don't care if it was chemistry or if it was politics or if it was the oud – it didn't matter. If you were into it, it was, 'We'll listen, man, we're there for you.' I thought those were wonderful days."

When Hughie was a child, his father took the family through spurts of involvement in a wild variety of activities: skin diving, skiing, Japanese art, Thai cooking, French wines, the works. Once he discovered rock & roll, though, Hugh Cregg III decided to abjure all that dabbling. Sensing – not a minute too soon – that his hometown was where the action was, Cregg chucked Cornell in December of 1969 and chugged back to the Bay Area. Rock & roll may not have been Huey Lewis' salvation – he could have been successful at just about anything – but he decided to make it his line of work.

He gigged around and tried "hustling my own scam" to make ends meet: he was vice-president of a landscaping business and later organized a yogurt distributorship. His focus, though, was unquestionably on music. Along the way, Cregg met up with Clover, a soft-rock-country collection of longhairs who left Fantasy Records after recording two albums. Cregg had known a bunch of the band members since grade school. After a year or so of informal jamming, Lewis and keyboardist Sean Hopper were officially drafted into the band around 1972. "They were really lean times," remembers Alex Call, guitarist and songwriter for Clover. "We just kept playing the same circuit of clubs for years and years."

But according to Call, Hughie – who by then was calling himself Huey Louie – had a personal energy, a drive for success, that was hard to resist. "He's a natural-born leader. It was funny because [Clover guitarist] John McFee and I were the musical guys; the makeup of Clover meant that Huey couldn't really have his way. But he kept insisting that we try new things. I won't tell you what they were, because Huey would get embarrassed."

Perhaps stalking the leftover beatnik audience, Lewis even had the band dress up in berets and goatees. But four years passed, and nothing was happening for Clover. "We were our own worst enemies in a way," Lewis says. "We had a lot of talent, but we kept trying to sound like a big-time rock band."

Clover's luck changed during a 1976 gig, when members of the British band Dr. Feelgood – who were in Los Angeles to play a CBS convention – cruised into the Palomino Club one night with their manager, Jake Riviera, and their guitar roadie, Nick Lowe, in tow. Riviera was mightily impressed, and the bands hit it off; Dr. Feelgood spent their remaining days on the West Coast up in Mill Valley, and Riviera coaxed Clover into coming to England.

On their arrival, Lowe was assigned to the tour by Riviera. "He was supposed to show us the ropes," recalls Lewis, his voice brimming with affection, "As in, 'We'll meet inna pub at four."'

"Earlier," remembers Call with a laugh. "Eleven-thirty."

Lowe had Clover (minus Lewis) back Elvis Costello on his first LP, My Aim Is True. And the band wound up recording two more albums in England, but the U.K. was in the throes of the punk maelstrom and was not at all interested in Clover's chicken-funk offerings. The albums bombed.

Upon the group's return to the States, McFee was summoned by the Doobie Brothers to replace Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and Clover broke up. Lewis was downcast, but the fuck-you-Sir Reginald attitude of the punks toward the major labels had recharged his batteries. He wasted little time getting back to work. Clover's U.K. excursion had given the band a certain cachet ("To this day, people think Clover was big in England. I'm telling you, we were smaller in England than we were in Larkspur [where he used to live]"), and Lewis parlayed that reputation into a regular Monday-night gig at a Marin County club called Uncle Charlie's. It was in that club – inside a shopping mall that overlooks San Quentin State Prison – that Huey Lewis and the News began to take shape.

Lewis was placed in charge of a weekly jam session, and he summoned his players from a variety of places: Bill Gibson had been working with SVT, and Johnny Colla had been playing with Sly Stone. Mario Cipollina – brother of Quicksilver Messenger Service whiz John Cipollina – was sprung from Ronnie Montrose. Gibson, Colla and Cipollina had also spent time backing Van Morrison under the euphonious moniker of Soundhole. Clover pal Hopper had been playing the bass for a scene in Heaven's Gate. Finally, jazzophile Chris Hayes was brought on board as well.

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