Huey Lewis: Playing to Win
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.”
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