The sign hanging on the recording-studio wall warned, “Album – Don’t Choke.” It was March 1986, and Huey Lewis and the News were trying to record their follow-up to Sports, their smash 1983 album, which sold 9 million copies and yielded five Top Twenty singles. The sign, pinned up by keyboardist Sean Hopper in the hope of inspiring a bit of levity, did little to break the tension that plagued the sessions.
The “magic circle,” as the band members sometimes call themselves, didn’t talk much about the pressure, but everyone felt it. “So much was at stake,” says bassist Mario Cipollina. “We wanted to prove that Sports wasn’t an accident.” In the three years since the last album was released, its huge success had become something of a specter, and no one felt the pressure more than Huey Lewis.
Hey, Huey, how’s the new record coming? It became impossible for Lewis to leave the sanctuary of his nineteenth-century English-style carriage house – one of the spoils of his success – without hearing that nightmarish refrain. At the grocery store, he’d run into an old friend or, more often, some fans. As he’d shake hands or sign autographs, he knew even before they opened their mouths what was coming: Gosh, you guys. ‘Bout time you made another record. God, what are you gonna do? You must feel awful.
Sometimes he did feel awful. He’d lie in bed for hours, worrying about that next record. After fifteen years in the music business, Huey Lewis had come up against a rather peculiar problem – success. For years he had tried in vain to write a hit. In 1982, at a point of desperation, he and the band made what they later called their “deal with the devil.” They recorded producer Mutt Lange’s “Do You Believe in Love,” a decidedly commercial tune that Lewis thought would get the band on the radio. He was right; it became their first Top Ten hit. Then came Sports, and the boys from Marin went from playing small clubs to headlining at – and selling out – arenas all over the world.
By the fall of 1985, after three years on the road, it was time for the band to get a grip – and time to write and record another album. “While we were following Sports around the world, I don’t think we were aware of what was happening,” says Cipollina. “Sports came out and just did a slow, steady climb during ’84 and ’85. The whole time we were on the road, I don’t think we knew how famous we were getting. When we finally stopped touring, this huge wave of reality came crashing in behind us.”
“Everybody and his brother was waiting for this album,” Lewis says. “I’d get in a room with a pencil and paper or a guitar, and it was ‘Well, I’ve got to write a song now. How about if I write one about this? Well, jeez, I already wrote about that. That was “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” Let’s see, how about this? Well I’ve already done that.’ And so on. You can’t really conjure these things up.”
Though they were now seasoned performers, Huey and the band were not adept at writing hits on demand. With his band – Cipollina, Hopper, guitarist-saxophonist Johnny Colla, guitarist Chris Hayes and drummer Bill Gibson – Lewis sweated out some new material. “We wrote about six songs that way,” says Lewis. “We’d write them and go record them, and they’d come out terrible. And I’d sit back and go, ‘The trouble with this is it’s a lousy song.”‘
After an agonizing six months of “work, work, work,” the breakthrough finally came. Hayes, 28, received a phone call from the band’s manager, Bob Brown, who was getting jittery. “I think we’re gonna need some more songs, man,” Brown said. “We need a tune.” Hayes’s reaction, he recalls, was “God, Bob, I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of things going. My wife’s pregnant right now. But let me see what I can do.” Hayes went out, bought himself a six-pack and went into the studio. “Three hours later,” he says, “I had ‘Stuck with You.'”
With that song, the members of the magic circle regained their charmed existence. “Chris gave me the tape, and the melody and words came straight out,” Lewis recalls. “And I thought, ‘That’s the way to do it. Don’t try to write so hard. Receive. . . . Let the ideas come.’ When you’re working so hard, there’s no room for ideas to flow into you. It sounds a little cosmic, but I really think that’s it. I wrote [the lyrics to “Stuck with You”] in fifteen minutes, driving out to rehearsal and back in one fell swoop.”
That song, which took Hayes and Lewis three hours and change to write, zoomed to the Number One spot on Billboard‘s Top 100; four weeks after that, Fore! was the Number One album. It heralded the return of Huey Lewis and the News. They would not be victims of what Cipollina calls “that huge record that kills you.”
DANNY, DON’T LIE” – TWO HAND CLAPS – “TO ME.” The sound of Huey Lewis’s gruff, likable voice delivering a sweet country-rock melody precedes him into the plush suite occupied by Bob Brown. We’re at the Crescent Court, a swanky Dallas hotel, where the barflies look like the real-life equivalents of J.R. Ewing’s clan. A moment later Lewis rounds the corner and dances into the suite. Dressed country casual – pointy cowboy boots, a white V-neck T-shirt, black denim Levi’s and a matching jacket – he continues singing, “Any kind of fool can see. . . .”
Lewis comes to a halt before his heavyset, bearded manager. “Hey, look at this,” he says, eyeing Brown’s plush accommodations. “And I’m stuck in this little room down the hall.” In jeans, a plaid shirt and a worn suede sport coat, Bob Brown looks like a Marin County hippie, but he’s not. Brown earned his financial stripes on Wall Street, where he traded stocks for a decade before he got into the music business as Pablo Cruise’s manager. Brown took on Lewis seven years ago on the strength of a four-song demo tape and the singer’s indomitable personality.
“Bob, I’ve got the perfect song for the Judds,” Lewis says. He launches into the tune again, hands strumming an imaginary guitar, his body moving to a swinging internal rhythm track.
Outside, the temperature hovers in the eighties. Tonight Huey Lewis and the News, whose popularity has only increased during their year off the road, will play to a sellout crowd at Dallas’s 19,000-seat Reunion Arena. Yesterday they took a much-needed day off. Lewis played golf, then entertained relatives into the night. By late morning, though, “the wheels are turning,” as Huey puts it. He talks animatedly about “Annie Don’t Lie,” a song by his old buddy Alex Call. He wants to pitch it to the Judds, who, he’s learned, are looking for material for a new album. (He’s renaming the song “Danny Don’t Lie” to suit the Judds’ gender.) Addressing Brown, his partner in a new music-publishing business, he concludes, “I ought to just sing it to them.”
In Dallas, Lewis cannot leave his hotel room without being stopped for an autograph. At 1:00 a.m. the previous night, a troop of preteen girls and their mother showed up on the fourth floor. “Huey said he’d sign her T-shirt,” the mother told Mario Cipollina, gesturing toward one of her daughters. “Do you know where he is?”
Lewis had, in fact, just fled a crowded postconcert party only a few minutes before. The throngs of fans – even as well mannered as this bunch are – have made life difficult on and off the road for this self-proclaimed regular guy. Huey talks longingly of the days when he could take his family to the beach – or just out to dinner – without being disturbed. Now a stop at a McDonald’s brings the place to a standstill. “It’s more difficult to remain the same person,” he says. “Being Huey Lewis has become a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. I think there’s a tendency to stay in your hotel room or your house and send someone our for something, rather than get it yourself. I fight that tendency because I think that changes you. I don’t want to change. I just want to stay the same guy I’ve always been.”
Sipping a cup of coffee in the hotel restaurant, Lewis begins drumming his fingers nervously against the tabletop. “Mind you, anybody who does what I do has got to like the attention to a certain extent, or you wouldn’t be standing out there jumping around like an idiot to begin with. But it’s impossible to enjoy it a hundred percent of the time. There are times when it can be irritating.”
Across the room, a well-dressed mother and her brood are getting up the nerve to make a move. When the woman steps up to the table and asks, tentatively, for autographs, Lewis obliges. He’s in a particularly expansive mood today. “You got tickets to the show tonight?” he asks. She shakes her head no. “Better hurry up and buy some,” he teases. “They’re going fast.”
Lewis appears to be handling the pressures of stardom, but those who know him well can sense that it’s become more of an effort to maintain the Mr. Nice Guy image. “When I first met him, he was a restless soul wanting to be busy all the time,” Brown says. “He didn’t have anything going. Now he’s got more than he bargained for. Becoming a husband, a father, a homeowner, a prime interview subject, a songwriter, a bandleader, a prospective movie star. He’s got a lot of roles to play. Considering that, he’s done remarkably well. I feel for him sometimes.”
Still, there are aspects of life at the top that make it worthwhile. Over a breakfast of huevos rancheros, Lewis raves about last year’s USA for Africa recording session. “They had this semicircle in the studio. Bits of masking tape in a semicircle [to mark the spots on the studio floor where the soloists would stand]. So, me, I’m the fool, I look and there’s no tape for me. So, fine. I don’t have to sing a lead line. We sing the chorus, and then I’m talking to Bruce Springsteen; we’re trading jokes, which is fantastic. I’m having the time of my life. Somebody comes over. ‘Huey, Quincy wants to see you.’ ‘Uh, okay.’ Calls me into the studio and says, ‘Huey, I’ve got a line for you.’ Michael Jackson comes over, sings me the line. ‘Can you do this line?’ ‘Gosh, I guess so. I’ll try.’ From that moment until we sung the line, I was a nervous wreck.”
Singing a solo on “We Are the World” – the line was originally intended for Prince – was an obvious thrill, but Lewis is just as animated when he recalls trying to explain his favorite pastime to Bob Dylan. “Over comes Willie Nelson. ‘Hey, I hear you’re into golf.’ Willie’s way into golf. So we’re talking about golf. And Bob Dylan says, ‘Really! You’re into golf! What’s that like?’ I said, ‘It’s a great waste of time. You just kind of hit the ball.’ Bob’s going, ‘No kidding? Are you sure? Willie? You’re into it too?”‘ Lewis cracks up at the story.
SIX YEARS AGO, LEWIS GREETED ME AT HIS FUNKY one-bedroom house at the end of an unmarked dirt road in Larkspur, a little town about fifteen miles north of San Francisco. It was his first serious newspaper interview. When I asked for his phone number back then, he didn’t hesitate. Now he jokes about how, after giving it out to Bay Area gossip columnist Herb Caen, his phone didn’t stop ringing. “You’re not going to do a Herb Caen on me, are you?” he asks before giving me the new number.
These days, privacy has become an issue. Reporters are not allowed in the recording studio when the band is working. His house is also off-limits to the press; he says that neither of his parents wish to be interviewed. “I want to keep our family life private,” says his wife of three years, Sidney Conroy. “It’s hard to do. One night Huey was putting Kelly to bed, and someone drove by and yelled, ‘I love you, Huey.’ That’s not what we want. We want to keep things normal for our kids.”
In Dallas he seems a bit distant. At times it seems he’s trying to establish old connections, but we end up in the roles we’re playing – reporter and rock star. “I think it has made him more distant,” his wife says. “People don’t treat him the same as they used to. He can’t just be one of the guys. He misses that.”
From the newspaper reports – and the odd item in Caen’s column – one could get the idea that Lewis has been trading up socially. He and his wife were seen dining with John Travolta at Maxwell’s Plum; he has played golf with Dwight Clark and Joe Montana; and he was said to be writing songs with Kenny Loggins. When asked about his “new friends,” Lewis gets defensive. “The truth is, Kenny Loggins and I only met really briefly at a Grammy Award thing,” he says. “We had this one tune we were stuck on, so I sent it to him. We barely met. Same thing with Travolta. One meal.”
Lewis is also sensitive about what he calls unfair criticism in the press about his decision not to play at last year’s Live Aid benefit. He insists it was a band decision (“We had the feeling that it may be a great idea but the wrong country”) that was reached only after “a certain amount of agonizing.” Then he spends the next five minutes ticking off a multitude of reasons for not playing: “Fifty million dollars was still in the bank from USA for Africa. . . . We’d done ‘We Are the World’ and donated a track to the album. . . . My wife was due with our second child right then. . . . When the ball was rolling, they didn’t need us. . . . There were questions about whether the Marxist government [in Ethiopia] was using food as a weapon, holding up the trucks.” It’s a thoroughly plausible explanation, but in the end, it seems he’s still trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.
Aside from the relatively benign – if exaggerated – coverage in the gossip columns, Lewis has had to deal with another aspect of life in the public eye: the Rumor. Last month, he learned while being interviewed on the radio that he and his wife were “filing for divorce very soon.” Later, when asked about this, he said, “It was news to me,” and offered to put Sidney on the phone if his own word wasn’t enough.
Life in the limelight hasn’t brought new friends, and it has strained some of his old relationships. “You know, success has a way of changing one’s friends somehow, and that’s a shame,” he says. “They look at you differently now. When you’re with them, you notice that there’s a certain amount of resentment. Like ‘Let Huey pay for the check’. I don’t mind a little bit of that, but it’s a drag if it ruins the friendship. I have very, very few friends at this point. The guys in the band and a few others.” He sighs. “But I have the ball. I can’t give up the ball.”
IN THE LATE SIXTIES, MARIO CIPOLLINA, BILL GIBSON, Sean Hopper and I were classmates at Tamalpais High School. Though Hugh Cregg, as Lewis was known then, was off at Lawrenceville, a prep school in New Jersey, during summer vacations you could find him hanging in Mill Valley, a loud, funny, sometimes abrasive guy. Driving out to Stinson Beach (where everyone went) you might see Hugh by the side of the road, his thumb stuck out, blowing a harmonica.
Tales of his East Coast adventures drifted west. How “Surfer Joe,” as they called him at Lawrenceville, turned the preppies on to the San Francisco Sound. He claims he was a courier of West Coast pop culture and “probably the first guy to smoke pot in Lawrenceville.” An admitted extrovert, Cregg, it seemed, would do anything for a reaction. At prep school, he was a member of the Flamer’s Club (the name was short for “Flaming Assholes”). “They hung a bed sheet on the wall,” classmate Chuck Jones recalls. “They had lines of elevation for how uncool the members were acting. The housemaster was at the top of the list, and various jerks were on there. Hugh was on this thing, but he was up there because he was so out there in his behavior, not because they thought he was a jerk.”
Following high school, Lewis spent a year bumming around Europe. He lived in Morocco for four months where he got “so stoned I couldn’t get out.” After returning to the States, he attended Cornell for one year. Then he came back to Marin with long hair and sideburns swooping below his ears, his face specked with stubble – a far cry from his “boy next door” image, unless you happened to live next door to the Manson Family.
A few years later, Gregg turned up as the harp player and sometime singer in a country-rock band called Clover, which played hole-in-the-wall clubs in the Bay Area. Those of us in the audience were shocked, because Hugh – or Huey Louie, as he had started calling himself – couldn’t sing. At all.
But he tried. In the early Seventies, his act included mimicking James Brown. “It was a bullshit jive trip,” says one Tarn High alumnus. “He’d do this very lame white interpretation of ‘Hot Pants’ for twenty-five minutes. James Brown grunts and slapping Sean’s palm [Sean had also joined Clover]. All he had then was the raspiness. He couldn’t sing.”
“Oh, God, you’re not gonna mention that, are you?” says Lewis when I remind him of the “Hot Pants” routine. “We had spent seven years in Clover doing anything possible to be commercial. We’d swallow goldfish to make it. I think the dance bit was part of that. We tried anything.” While Huey and Sean struggled in Clover, Johnny and Mario and Bill were in a local band called Soundhole. At San Rafael’s now defunct Lion’s Share, Soundhole could be found playing – to nearly empty tables. These weren’t the kind of guys about whom years later one can claim prescience. “I always knew he was gonna be a star” is not something one says about Huey or anybody in his band.
Even today, Huey can’t quite believe they did make it. “To me, it’s amazing,” he says. “I think our records are good. But I don’t know if they should sell 10 million copies. I think that’s over the top. I mean, to my way of thinking, they’re probably not all that great.”
That modesty seems part of Huey and the band’s desperate effort “not to change.” “Psychologically, everyone’s just trying to stay the way they always were,” says thirty-three-year-old Sean Hopper. “I just wasn’t brought up in a way where I’m looking to alter my view of the world by tangible success. It’s great to enjoy the fruits of your labor, but it doesn’t give you a new brain. It doesn’t transform you.”
By the time the band stopped touring last December, the remaining single guys had married their longtime sweethearts – “Everyone wanted a fixed point in the universe,” Hopper explains – and Mario, Huey and Chris were now fathers. (Lewis’s daughter, Kelly, is two and a half years old, and his son, Austin, is now fifteen months old.) Yet the band members had hardly had a chance to know what marriage and family life were all about. So they “went into seclusion,” says Bob Brown. “Everybody got reacquainted with their families. Got their personal life together and figured out what adulthood is like. Having babies.”
To his surprise, Lewis discovered that he likes fatherhood. “Who knew?” he says. “I didn’t even like kids that much. I always felt I wanted to have children, and we did, and I suppose it was an accident, the first one. But it turns out that being a dad is my favorite thing. Welcome-to-adulthood time. Like my mom says, ‘Growing up is not for sissies.’
“It’s amazing,” he continues. “You have children, and suddenly, from minute one, you’ll walk through fire for this kid. I didn’t know I had it in me. I didn’t know I had that kind of blind love and devotion in me.”
Lewis doesn’t sound much like a rock idol when he talks this way. In fact, no one in this band seems like a “rock star” (except maybe Cipollina, who wears lots of leather – even in the Dallas heat). And that’s probably what has endeared them to America. No chartreuse hair, no spandex, no purple limousines. “Do they allow spandex to be worn in Marin County?” jokes Johnny Colla. “I think we’ve all been pretty levelheaded. It’s nice that we don’t have any serious problems. Nobody’s gone gay in the band yet. Nobody’s gotten close to overdoses or any of that stuff.”
According to Sean Hopper, “Our band creed is normalcy. Which is a great thing. We’re not the boys next door or anything like that. That’s something from fiction. There are no boys next door. But there’s a kind of ungarnished thing we’ve got going. We almost demand to be regular.”
BACK AT THE HOTEL, LEWIS PICKS UP A COPY OF ‘THE Dallas Morning News’ and begins to read an article about himself. “Huey Lewis is a pussycat,” he reads aloud. “Huey Lewis remains Mr. Nice Guy.” Then he grins that “aw shucks” grin of his and shakes his head, obviously amused.
At 4:00 p.m. the band piles into its 1984 Silver Eagle touring bus, the one with I’M SERIOUS in the spot usually reserved for the destination. The preshow banter isn’t about illicit substances or the exploits of last night’s groupies. The subject here is golf.
“I’m still savoring that 87,” says Colla, who played a particularly good game the previous day. Everyone else just grimaces as Colla rubs it in.
“I’m looking forward to playing,” says Huey. “I’m rarin’ to go.”
“When’s our next day off?” asks Chris Hayes. “I’m ready for another game.”
“Not golf,” says Huey. “I mean music!”
When the bus cruises through a tunnel, Sean Hopper recalls an ill-fated road trip about ten years ago. Someone drove the Ryder truck loaded with Clover’s equipment though a tunnel that was a quarter inch too low. “Skimmed the roof right off,” says Hopper, laughing. “And there was a thunderstorm.”
Lewis just shakes his head and takes a seat on the stairs next to the driver’s seat. “My Maserati does 185.” Huey is absently singing Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” “I lost my license, now I don’t drive.”
As the band members get off the bus and walk toward the entrance to the arena, fans are waving, calling out, “Huey, please sign this for me.”
Huey stops to sign a few autographs. “Those girls are disappointed ’cause we don’t have limos,” he says a few minutes later.
Entering the arena, Huey is motioned to a phone. Naomi Judd is on the line. He starts singing “Danny Don’t Lie.” “Are you blushing, Naomi?” Huey says. “Gee, I do that to girls.” From this end, the conversation seems good-natured and a little flirtatious. “Yeah, they were carrying them out. . . . We’re squares out here. We’re waiting for you all to come out. Then we’ll go wild.”
Though there’s beer in the dressing room, Huey isn’t drinking today. Nor is he looking for a new drug. Despite his fondness in the Sixties for acid and pot, Lewis has a very different perspective today. “I don’t want to sound like part of Reagan’s army, but I’m quite antidrug,” he said earlier. “I think that in those days [the Sixties], quite honestly, we would take drugs and do something. That was the vibe. Somewhere that got lost. And everybody ended up getting high and laying on a couch somewhere.”
As show time nears, the guys in the band slip out of their street clothes and into their stage duds: tight black jeans, suede Beatle boots, cowboy belts, fancy shirts, vests, sport coats. Huey walks into the bathroom singing, and his voice echos off the tile walls. “I met a fan dancer. . . .” He tries out the opening line of “Jacob’s Ladder.” Johnny joins him, shouting, “Yo!” and begins wailing on his saxophone.
Ten minutes before they’re due onstage, the band members get in a circle in the bathroom and, snapping their fingers, harmonize to “Naturally.” “I wish it could sound like that on the stage,” says Johnny.
“Where’s Doc?” shouts Huey. “I need my vaccination.”
Tower of Power baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, who is playing on this tour, shows up. The Doctor and Huey and the News then go through what has become a preshow ritual, with Kupka placing his sax first against Huey’s chest, then against his back, each time blowing a loud, deep note. This is repeated with each band member. “Thank you, Doctor,” says Sean.
And then they’re onstage, roaring into “Jacob’s Ladder” as screams fill the sold-out arena. Watching the band work this vast audience with a minimal stage setup – no lasers, fireworks or spaceships descending – I remember that six years ago Huey told me he thought his band had a lot in common with Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Tonight, as they swing into “Heart and Soul,” “Naturally,” “Hip to Be Square,” “Power of Love” and all the rest, the comparison doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Backstage before the show, Huey and guitar hero Duane Eddy were talking about the Fifties, when country and R&B came together as rock & roll for the first time. “We were just trying to make a new hit out of that stuff,” insisted Eddy. “Just what you’re doing now.”
“I don’t think we’re making history,” said Huey.
“You don’t know,” said Eddy. “Give it twenty years.”
If he’s not doing it for a page in the rock & roll history books, then what makes Huey run? “It’s not about money,” he says after the show. “I never did this to make it. Period. Neither fame nor fortune. And I didn’t do this to get girls either. The real reason I did this was because when I was growing up, being in a great band looked like the coolest thing in the world. And you know what? It is the coolest thing in the world.”