Stormy Weather: Huey Lewis interview
Back with their first studio album of new material in almost two decades, could this be the last waltz for Huey Lewis And The News? Their frontman sits down with Rudy Bolly to discuss his battle with Ménière’s disease and hopes for the future.
They’ve sold more than 30 million albums, but incredibly Huey Lewis And The News hadn’t recorded an LP of original songs for almost 20 years. That was until Weather landed earlier this month, a rollicking musical ride through pop, blues, R&B and beyond.
However, the new collection comes tinged with sadness because the record could be their last hurrah. “I have serious hearing issues,” laments Huey to CP who was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, leaving him almost deaf. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to sing again, if ever.”
It’s testament to the power of their songs – no pun intended – that Huey Lewis And The News remain a household name for pop fans. Weather may have been a long time coming but it revives the melodious fusion of precision pop and killer grooves that made classic albums, Sports and Fore! so appealing in the 1980s.
It begs the question, when did the new material eventually get underway? “Jeez, we probably started this record 20 years ago – we’ve been doing it as we go,” concedes Huey, a little sheepishly. “Up until the collapse of my hearing, we were playing 75 shows a year in the States, travelling for 150 days and we have lives as well, of course; so there was never a lot of time. We’re not the most prolific bunch in the world either but when we had an idea we would just record it, so we were stockpiling.”
He’s not exaggerating. One track, Her Love Is Killin’ Me recently enjoyed its 20th anniversary. “Chris [Hayes] and I wrote that song – it’s almost embarrassing to say – two decades ago. But we couldn’t get it right for some reason. We recorded it, tried it live for a while, we arranged it with just a drum machine and thought that would be cool. Nah, it wasn’t cool. So we just dropped it for 10 years. Later, we tried a different tempo and that made all the difference in the world. It’s the simple ones that seem to be hardest to get right, because it’s all about the feel. Now it’s just smoking, it won’t be denied.”
Time hasn’t dampened their sense of humour, christening the album Weather is simply the latest instalment of a long-running in-joke to do with their band name. “Well let’s see, what was our biggest record in the States? Huey Lewis And The News – Sports. So we went with Huey Lewis And The News – Weather, get it? Needless to say metaphorically we’ve had a bit of weather these last few years, too.”
That’s perhaps an understatement considering the frontman’s condition has left him unable to sing. Nevertheless Weather is not a collection of tearjerkers, but a joyous romp through the classic Huey Lewis pop songbook. He agrees: “We’re very proud of it and I think it’s among our best work, even though it was recorded over however many years period.”
Opener, While We’re Young sets the upbeat tone, albeit with a healthy dose of irony. “It’s about going out and having fun before it’s too late. So much of youth is wasted on the young. I wrote that song more than two years ago before I lost my hearing and it’s how I feel, there’s no regrets in the music. Even though I can’t hear enough to sing, I have to remember that I’m a lucky guy. There are people out there much worse off than I am. I try to look on the bright side of things.”
Huey’s hearing issues have been well documented, but when exactly did he know he was in trouble? “January 27th 2018,” he responds without missing a beat. “I lost my hearing in my right ear 35 years ago, or about 80 per cent of it. I was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease which is based on lots of symptoms. They have no idea what it is.” Huey reels off the extensive list of institutes and clinics he’s visited over the years, “I’ve been everywhere, chiropractors and tried acupuncture, changed my diet to low sodium, no salt, no caffeine, tried supplements, all kinds of holistic stuff – none of it works.”
Good times bad times
Huey’s agreeable nature makes him hard to read but he does admit the uncertainty of it all is most frustrating: “Two years ago I lost the use of my left ear, it crapped out on me, feels like I went swimming and it won’t click and I can’t hear anything. Since that time it fluctuates, episodically for days.
Sometimes weeks at a time. On a range of one to 10, these days six is as good as it ever gets. I’m on three today with my hearing aid. Below that I can’t hear at all, and that probably happens one third of the entire time now, and I never know when it’s going to happen. If I’m at a six then I think I can almost sing. In fact, I have twice, once at the Dunhill golf tournament in Scotland at St Andrews. They have a band and I sang last year because my hearing was good and the band was quiet. But I haven’t been able to sustain a six for a long enough time to book a gig or even a rehearsal.
I’m hoping it will stabilise at some point and I’ll figure out if I can sing again or not.” Such a diagnosis would floor anyone, but it seems an even crueller blow for a musician. Huey nods: “Curiously enough I’ve never been a good singer but I was always reliable, that was one thing I had, now I don’t even have that. The thing I feel worst about are my guys in the band. We had 25 people in the band and crew, guys who have been with me for 40 years and I had to lay everybody off, it’s horrible.”
If this is to be the band’s final album then they are going out with a bang. Cuts like Hurry Back Baby and James Brown throwback, Remind Me Why I Love You Again hit the soul and feet hard. But it’s towards the tail end where Huey pays tribute to the melting pot of musical styles that forged his career. Childhood radio is revisited on a glorious doo-wop cover of Eugene Church’s Pretty Girls Everywhere and country ballad One Of The Boys perhaps makes a fitting musical epitaph.
“I was asked to write a song for Willie Nelson and wrote this from his perspective. He never recorded it, but I realised the lyric is my life story – I thought I’d written Willie’s life story but I ended up writing mine.”
Rolling in the clover
Huey’s life story is remarkable. He spent his youth hitchhiking across the States with a harmonica and loved the road so much that he stowed away on a plane to Europe. “I busked in Leicester Square and all that stuff. I’m a bit of an Anglophile. I love Britain and the people, they’re tough-minded and they get on with it.”
In those days his band Clover were in-demand session musicians and ended up backing Elvis Costello on his debut, My Aim Is True. But it was another local act that made the greatest impression on ‘Huey Louie’ as he was then known.
“We moved over to London and got on tour with Thin Lizzy. The very first show Phil Lynott stood by the stage and as soon as we walked off said, ‘Have you got a minute?’ He ended up taking me under his wing. I sat in with them on the rest of the tour and played on his solo record in the Bahamas, he would dress me out of his closet. He was just a great mentor to me.”
Lynott’s generosity made such an impression that years later, when Huey made it big, he offered a platform to his own heroes. “One of the things I’m proudest of is we took Stevie Ray Vaughan on his first national tour. We also took Duane Eddy and The Neville Brothers, too; all these guys who had never played big venues.”
By the mid-80s, Huey Lewis And The News were consistently rubbing shoulders with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, scoring 12 Top 10 hits in the States. Huey casually recalls sharing the stage with Stevie Wonder, “a stud and genius”, and was part of the all-star USA For Africa record, We Are The World. “We never expected to be that big,” he ponders. “We insisted on producing our own records and in 1980 people didn’t do that, there were no home studios. But we knew we needed a hit, and radio was absolutely king.
“If you didn’t have a hit single you didn’t exist, so we decided to produce ourselves in our own hometown, not in LA like everybody else, because we wanted to make those commercial decisions ourselves.” Third album, Sports duly delivered hit after hit. “We didn’t know we were going to have six of them!” he laughs. “We just wanted one, but we also didn’t know if it was going to be a rocker or a ballad.
“If you listen to Sports now it sounds like a record of its time – a collection of singles. That’s what the market demanded and that’s what we did. That’s probably the last ‘commercial’ decision we made, because after that record went ‘kaboom’ we made a deal with ourselves that we’d only do things for creative reasons rather than financial ones and haven’t done since. I’m proud of that.”
It was The Power Of Love that spread the ‘News to the rest of the world catapulting Sports, Fore! and Small World into huge platinum-sellers. Weather is cut from the same radio-friendly cloth and deserves similar recognition, but if singing is no longer an option what comes next for Huey? “We have a musical, The Heart Of Rock & Roll, which we hope to bring to Broadway next season and I’ve written a new song for it. We put it on in San Diego for six weeks and sold it out, so now there’s a plan for Broadway in the [autumn]. That’s pretty exciting.”
It wasn’t until 1985 the band cracked the European charts thanks to the movie Back To The Future. Huey explains: “Steven Spielberg, Bob Zemeckis and the writers Bob Gale and Neil Canton called me to a meeting. They’d written a movie with a lead guy called Marty McFly whose favourite band would be Huey Lewis And The News so they said, ‘Would you like to write a song for the film?’ I was flattered but didn’t know how to write for movies and didn’t fancy writing a song called Back To The Future. But they just wanted a tune, so I agreed. The next thing we wrote was The Power Of Love.”
It went Top 10 in 15 countries and earned an Oscar nomination, but Huey always knew the song was special. “I remember being in the studio and it just lit up the desk,” he recalls of the recording process. “The fact was we had maybe 10 big hits in the States before that, so we had a following and it only took nine weeks to go to No.1, which was a short amount of time back then. [Director] Bob Zemeckis says to this day it was the best marketing any movie ever had because it was already No.1 the week the movie hit theatres. The film didn’t help the song in the States but internationally it was different. We weren’t allowed to put The Power Of Love onto a Huey Lewis And The News album because it was cut for the MCA soundtrack. But we were allowed overseas, so we put it on Fore! internationally – that became our biggest hit and allowed us to tour the world.”