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

huey lewis 1984 cover
Aaron Rapoport
Huey Lewis on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

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.

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.

From The Archives Issue 430: September 13, 1984