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Huey Lewis: Playing to Win

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The festivities attracted some first-class players – Rickie Lee Jones stopped by one night, as did Morrison and members of the Doobie Brothers – and some local raves. But the group might still be hoeing the same row were it not once again for Nick Lowe and Jake Riviera. Lowe had taken a throwaway line of Lewis' – "What looks best on you is me" – and turned it into a song; Lewis says he declined Riviera's proffered payment, but Jake was insistent. So Lewis eventually accepted a round-trip ticket to London (where he played harmonica on Lowe's Labour of Lust and Dave Edmunds' Repeat When Necessary) and brought along a little something the "Monday Night" boys had cooked up as a spoof: "Exodisco," a disco version of the Ferrante and Teicher K-Mart-aisle classic, "Exodus." Lewis recalls Riviera's reaction: "My God, that's amazing! That's fantastic! That's the most commercial thing I ever heard! I hope I never have to hear it again!"

The British Phonogram label heard the track and signed Lewis to a $6000 singles deal. As luck would have it, the song stiffed, but English companies took note of Lewis. Within months, U.K. Chrysalis co-owner Terry Ellis had inked Huey Lewis and the News to a record deal. "You should hear the early demo tapes; I was an awful singer," says Huey. "Nor that I'm a great singer now. But there was something about us. There was definitely an urgency there. A hungriness."

Still, their first record, Huey Lewis and the News, was a little raw sounding and sold poorly. Having seen more than his share of opportunities fall by the wayside, Lewis sought to take things into his own hands: he and the News fought for the right to produce themselves on Picture This. They won that fight but were conscious that the pressure was on them to come up with a hit single. So Lewis and company willingly glommed onto Mutt Lange's "Do You Believe in Love" when Chrysalis offered it to them. They wound up with a Number Seven smash. America had heard the News.

"You do have to make your deal with the devil, I think, to a certain extent," he says. "And we've done that. Our challenge was financial. See, our market is America, and if your market is America, you better make a perfect record. The difference for me in terms of success of this record [Sports] was that we got a lot better in the studio. We were more patient, and as a result" – he lets out a self-deprecating, can-you-believe-this chuckle – "I think we made a record that America can play a million times."

If you were looking to cast a rock & roll idol, Huey Lewis would probably not make the final cut. He's a strong, yet somewhat one-dimensional singer; he's handsome but older looking than the average rock star; and he dances about as well as Menudo – which is to say not very well. But despite those drawbacks – and a live show that seems a tad padded with instrumental soloing – he gets his wildly enthusiastic, predominantly female audiences where he wants them: on their feet.

The music is meat-and-potatoes rock & roll, but the image is just as important: an appealing blend of nonexploitative sexuality and hearty fellowship. Lewis is smart: not just smart in the typical music-business sense of knowing whose chain to pull, and whom to be nice to, and whom to thank, but truly intelligent, thoughtful. For him, the thumbing-your-nose-at-authority act of many pop performers is old news: Huey did that bit fifteen years ago, and it didn't give him any satisfaction.

As a performer, and as a role model, Lewis doesn't threaten, he encourages. He sees the band as his most significant statement. "If we have anything to offer, it's the personality. We have a synergistic kind of a personality. I'm not the greatest singer in the world, and we're not really the greatest players in the world either, but I think the six of us are really good together."

"Lots of bands have fights," adds wide-eyed guitarist Hayes, brother of pop rocker Bonnie Hayes. "We never do. I don't even trash my room. I don't want to fuck with the maids."

Whether it's flower-power communal support or a reflection of today's my-job-is-my-family syndrome, Huey is starting to find an old tag suiting him more comfortably these days. "Underneath the trappings, I'm probably more of a hippie now than I ever have been. I had long hair, but I never was a hippie. I always liked black music. I didn't particularly want to go have a house and all take acid together. I think I'm more of a hippie now than I ever have been in that sense. I really love this band."

Musically, he is a synthesist rather than a true original. And yet there's just a chance – not a bad one, really – that Huey Lewis has some mighty interesting records left to make. Surely, it's a possibility he tries to encourage: just wait till you see what we can do once we don't have to worry about the money anymore. And while no one's predicting that the next Huey Lewis and the News album will sound like Captain Beefheart, Lewis clearly has more to say than "the heart of rock & roll is still beating." He's got it in him to write some really challenging songs; if he, like Springsteen and Mellencamp, can branch out creatively and bring his audience along with him while he does it – well, now. . . .

"Anybody who's worth a shit doesn't do this just to make it," he declares. "You get into this because you love to sing, you want to be a better singer."

He certainly has the eagerness, even though success has changed a few things. After another hour-and-a-half show in Fort Lauderdale, tennis greats John McEnroe and Chris Evert-Lloyd (with her sister Clare) turned up backstage, each in a spectacularly convivial mood. Seated on a couch next to Lewis, Evert-Lloyd and McEnroe proceeded to cut up prodigiously, especially about each other's recent losses in major tournaments. While other band members whizzed around grabbing pictures and autographs, Lewis played the host, trading gibes with McEnroe ("I play the guitar about as well as you play tennis," said John) and discussing tennis lessons with Evert-Lloyd (she suggested using local pros).

Heady stuff, but it didn't boggle Huey. And after the usual stop at the hotel bar, he still couldn't shut it down. At four a.m., Lewis and Johnny Colla were blasting a Tower of Power concert tape (that band's horn section may tour with the News in Europe), shouting out ideas back and forth. It was a scene that seemed to bode well for the future of this thirty-three-year-old – and for his fans.

"Our challenge is creative," Lewis had said earlier that day. "And it's only been creative for a matter of months. I really think the challenge is to write more . . . write a 'What's So Funny 'bout Peace, Love and Understanding."'

Good call. That'd be a development that might even make the old man happy, right?

"He told me to practice harmonica," Lewis recalled. "He said, 'Listen, this Huey Lewis thing is here today, gone tomorrow, man. Practice harmonica. 'Cause, man, they'll never take that away from you."' He howled with laughter. "I love that."

This story is from the September 13, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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