This week, host Lior Phillips is honored to share a conversation with rock legend Huey Lewis, covering 10 important years in his unparalleled career. Whether you’ve been a fan since 1983’s runaway success story Sports, Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love” playing on the Back to the Future soundtrack, or even his earliest performing days with the band Clover, this chat will still be full of surprises.
In addition to those career highlights and others, Huey and Lior discuss his diagnosis of Ménière’s disease, a set of symptoms which includes partial to complete hearing loss, a tragic fate for any musician—but one Huey faces with an inspiring positivity. Lior and Huey also chat about the News’ upcoming record, Weather, his band’s first album of original music in a decade.
Below, you can also read the interview as part of our on-going 10 Years, 10 Questions series in which a veteran artist, actor, or director answers questions spanning across their life and career. In this case, the legend Huey himself.
You travelled throughout Europe playing harmonica as a teenager. Can you tell me a bit about your first performances?
I busked throughout Europe and North Africa. I was in Marrakech in North Africa for about three months and I hitchhiked with this crazy guy. He was a Dutch guy and he had a 1925 Chevrolet and an Airstream trailer. And this is in the South of Spain. Here he comes and he picks me up, and long story short, he drove off the side of the road and into a ditch, into some water. He liked to drink a little bit. We stopped at every bar on the way to Portugal. Once we got to the Portuguese border, my passport went missing because my knapsack was in back in his trailer and the water had flooded it out of my knapsack. I couldn’t go to Portugal since I had no passport. So at that point I went back to Seville and busked around town. These students saw me playing harmonica in the square and inquired what the story was. I said, “Well, I’m trying to make some money so I can get a new passport. I need $20 for my passport.” They said, “No problem, we’ll take care of it. We’ll throw you a concert.”
We found his guitar player, me and this guy worked up about 10 songs, and they threw us a big concert at the university. And it was called Huey Los Blues. They had these big posters up everywhere. And on the night of the concert, it was sold out. The band that opened for us was a band called Los Nuevos Tempos, The New Times. They were a 10-piece band, and they were tremendous. And I thought, Oh my God, how are we going to follow this? Me and this little man, he had an acoustic guitar and I had my harmonica. I was petrified. They finished their set and our stage was as if they’ve pushed a little pod right out into the middle of the audience from the stage. There’s only two of us, two chairs, and two microphones. We go out there, right in the middle of the audience. You could hear a pin drop. It was deathly quiet. And we start playing. I think we played a Lightning Hopkins tune. And it is so quiet. I’m thinking to myself as we’re playing, We are bombing. We are bombing. And at the end of the song, it went from complete silence to an eruption of applause. And I thought, Wow, this is cool. I think I want to try and do this.
You joined Slippery Elm in 1969. Do you remember your very first concert with Slippery Elm?
That was a fraternity band in college. In fact, there’s a new song on our new album called “One of the Boys” that’s exactly my life story. My dad was a doctor by profession, but he was a jazz drummer and piano player as a hobby. And he was quite good. He had a lot of professional musician friends, and he would have jam sessions when I was a kid, and I always loved the band. Growing up, he had a set of drums in the living room that he would always put me on and teach me to keep time. He’d say, “You’ve gotta learn time. If you have good time, everything else comes along.”
And so that was my earliest exposure to music. But my dad never liked singers because he was just a big band jazz guy. He always liked the big band jazz. And most of these big bands, the singer would only sing one or two songs, and then they’d play eight instrumentals. My dad loved the instrumentals, so I naturally gravitated towards the singers a little bit because I could make that my own.
My parents got divorced before I went to prep school, and my mother rented out a room to a boarder, a guy called Billy Roberts who wrote “Hey Joe”. He was a folk singer with a guitar and harmonica that he played with a neck brace. And he had a bunch of old harmonicas that he gave me. So I was playing harmonica, going to private school, and I was a year younger cause I skipped second grade. I graduated at 16 years old from high school. After I took a year off and played my way all throughout Europe and North Africa I went back to Cornell and joined Slippery Elm. Our first gig was probably at a fraternity party somewhere.
You took on the stage name Huey Lewis in 1971 while playing in Clover. What inspired the name change?
When I was with Clover, we were in England and I got a lot of session work, playing harmonica on other people’s records. They wanted to credit me and I didn’t have a green card. Everybody was changing their name anyway, that was the punk thing. And so my nickname had always been Huey Louie, and then Louie. My first girlfriend’s father always called me Louie. So I just called myself Huey Lewis.
Clover included John McPhee, who would go on to play with the Doobie Brothers. And they served as Elvis Costello’s backing band. So you were surrounded by really amazing musicians at the time. What did you learn from them?
Everything. The thing about Britain that was so neat then was the punk thing. It had just sort of exploded. And I had joined Clover probably five or six years previous, and we’d spent all of our time trying to market ourselves, to attract the record companies and be what the record companies told us we should be—which was a long cry from what I was. I wasn’t a rock guy; I’m a rhythm and blues guy. I come from rhythm and blues, and that’s the stuff I liked. But gosh, I wanted to make a living too.
So with Clover, we tried to make big arena records. We made records that were aimed at the American market. But when punk hit, for me, it was so liberating because I saw for the first time guys who didn’t have radio-friendly voices like mine. And they were sort of thumbing their nose at the music establishment and saying, “Hey, we don’t care. We’re going to do our own tunes our own way.”
I didn’t appreciate the music necessarily, but I loved their stance. And I vowed that if Clover broke up, that’s what I’d do. I’d go home, find my favorite musicians, be an R&B-based band and just play my local club, and I wouldn’t care about making it. That would be making it. And that’s what I did, and that’s when things started to happen for us.
I was really surprised to learn that not only did you play harmonica on Thin Lizzy’s 1978 album Live and Dangerous, but that Scott and Phil were a part of encouraging you to consider taking a lead role as a singer in a band.
Yeah. Philip was a special guy. Clover supported Thin Lizzy on their Johnny the Fox tour. It was a funny story cause at first we were told not to expect a soundcheck, because you just don’t get soundchecks as an opening act until the middle of the tour or something. That’s just the way it is in England. And we were billed as “Support”. It said “Thin Lizzy plus Support.”
There was a curtain down on our very first show, I think it was in Oxford or somewhere. And outside there are tons of fans. We’re behind the curtain, hastily getting our amplifiers on and getting everything working. We haven’t had a soundcheck, and out front they’re going crazy. And the announcer goes, “Well, Thin Lizzie will be right out.” And the place goes nuts. He goes, “But first, here’s Clover.” And now they start booing and start throwing things. And so we played our first show, and we barely got through all the songs.
We probably cut a couple songs, and then it was over, and we walked off the stage. The first guy waiting in the wings off the stage was Philip Lynott. And he said, “Hey, have you got a second?” He took me into his dressing room and he started to critique our set and give me pointers and tips. He just became my bigger brother, and then eventually dressed me out of his closet and flew me to The Bahamas where I played on those solo records. And Philip was a real mentor. He was a sweet, generous, wonderful guy, and nobody could touch him on stage. He was just fantastic.
So the debut album from Huey Lewis and the News came in 1980. How did it feel to first start seeing your adopted name on a record cover like that?
Well, we were originally called American Express, which I thought was kind of appropriate. I thought that’s kind of what we sounded like. Our manager said, “We need to make it Huey Lewis and American Express. We’ve got to put the focus on you because you’re the singer.” And we didn’t care, so I said, “Okay, sure. Whatever.” And then we were Huey Lewis and American Express. Then on the eve of the release of our first record, 24 hours to go before the the deadline, the record company says, “You’ve got to change the name.”
They were afraid that American Express would sue us. We changed our name to the News. It was something to see. “Oh my gosh, here we go.” But I still had my eye on the ball. I’d been with Clover and we had watched Elvis Costello, and I knew that just getting a record contract wasn’t the end all, be all. It was ’78 or ’79 when we got signed, and radio was king. And so if you were going to exist, you needed a hit single. I wasn’t patting myself on the back. I was just thinking, Good. We’re off to a good start.
By the release of Sports, you had started selling records and getting airplay. And that album is an absolute legendary release. Were you ready for all of that attention that it brought?
Sports was interesting because if you think back, Sports was recorded in ’82, and we knew we needed a hit single. Radio was king. Even MTV, which had just started, their playlist exactly mirrored radio. You had contemporary hit radio, and FM radio, which started in the ’60s as an alternative to top 40 radio, but by now that was programmed as well. So you needed a hit single. We insisted on producing Sports ourselves because we wanted to make those decisions ourselves, the commercial decisions.
We knew we’d have to live with them forever, so we didn’t want it to be cringe-worthy, as it were. And so we produced Sports ourselves and we aimed every track right at radio. That was the hardest thing for our group because my voice was not recognized as radio-friendly, that hoarse baritone. And we aimed every track right at radio. We knew we needed a hit. We didn’t know we were going to have six of them. And now when I listen back to Sports, I realize that it is a record of its time and that it’s a collection of singles.
“The Power of Love” was featured in Back to the Future. You even appear in the film as a judge for the Battle of the Bands tryouts. Did you always dream of acting?
I actually had thespian aspirations. Nobody thinks of me as an actor, but I do actually enjoy it. And the way it happened with Back to the Future, Steven Spielberg, Bob Zemeckis, and Bob Gale came to me and said, “How would you like to write a song? We’ve just written a movie and their lead character, Marty McFly, his favorite band would be Huey Lewis and the News. How would you like to write a song for the film?”
And I said, “Wow. I’m flattered. But I don’t know how to write for film necessarily. Nor do I fancy writing a song called, Back to the Future.” They were like, “No, no, we don’t care. We just want a Huey Lewis and the News song.” So I think, Great. We’ll send you the next one we write. And that was “Power of Love”.
So then Zemeckis says, “Hey, we thought it’d be really cool if you’re in the film somehow.” I felt I didn’t need to be in it. I didn’t get that. I finally agreed to do it if they would disguise me and not credit me, just make it a little cameo. And that’s what we did.
Also in 1985, you performed in the “We Are the World” single. What was it like to be in a room with all of those incredible people?
It was amazing. You don’t get to meet those people in a lifetime, let alone one night, let alone to get to talk to them all. It was one of those amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences I’ll never forget. It was really fun and there’s a certain bond that still exists between all the participants.
I actually got Prince’s line, because Prince didn’t show up. Quincy [Jones] sent for me, and I came in and he goes, “Hey Smelly!” Quincy used to call Michael Jackson Smelly; that was his nickname because he was so clean. They called him Smelly. And he goes, “Smelly, get in here. Sing Huey the line.” And he sings the line. And then I sing it. He goes, “Great, you got it.” Boom.
I was nervous, nervous, nervous, but it was a great evening.
So after Back to the Future, you’ve acted intermittently, including co-starring in Duets. How did your appearance in the film come about? Did you enjoy working closely with Gwyneth Paltrow?
I loved it. Needless to say, she’s extremely talented. She’s got skills. Her dad directed the picture and he took a meeting with me and said, “Wow, I think you can do it, but I’ve got to make you read.” I said, “Good, let’s read.” So we read for it and I got the part. The song in the script was not “Cruising”, it was a different song. And they said that Gwyneth would be choosing the song—understandably.
And so then they sent me the song and he said, “Gwyneth has chosen Smokey Robinson’s ‘Cruisin'”, I couldn’t remember it. I didn’t know it. I know all of Smokey Robinson’s earlier ones, but I didn’t know “Cruisin”. But it was just really a pleasure working with Gwyneth because she’s so professional and so good. We had fun and there was some acting required, some real acting required.
Do you remember a performance that sticks out to you where everything went completely right?
I remember a gig on December 30th, the day before New Year’s Eve, at the Belly Up in Aspen, Colorado. Music is so much fun when you play it as a team sport like we do. It carries you with it at a certain point. When you’re really in the pocket, it’s like a wave that you ride and there’s no effort whatsoever. The song plays itself and just takes you along for the ride. And that happens to some degree at every gig, but at the great gigs that happens most of the time. But that’s what we try to do: get in the pocket. That’s the best feeling, when the song is really going, you’re not thinking, and you’re just riding the wave. It’s just a great feeling.
I was completely shocked when the news broke of your diagnosis of Ménière’s disease. When did that come about?
I was diagnosed with a thing called Ménière’s disease a long time ago, which is really a syndrome based on symptoms—which means they really don’t know what it is. It does fluctuate. Some days I’m good and some days I’m not so good. Today I’m bad. Recently, I’ve only been a six on a scale of one to 10. That’s about as good as I’ve been in two years. And I think when I’m a six, I feel like I can almost sing. But the trouble is I can’t maintain a six for very long.
I lost my right ear 30 years ago. I lost 80% of it, and it’s down to 20%. And now, unfortunately, I lost my left ear in 2018, on January 27th. It still fluctuates on the left side, but it’s not good. And even when it’s as good as it can be, I think I could maybe sing, but it never stabilizes long enough for me to book a rehearsal. I can’t get it stabilized. I’m just waiting. I’m hoping it’ll stabilize—normalize and stabilize.
When you first lost hearing in your left ear, did your relationship with music completely shift?
Yeah, it ended. I cannot listen to music at all. I literally haven’t listened to music in two years. I can’t tell you what key it’s in. I can’t hear a pitch. It’s horrible.
Is that part of what makes your new album so important for you right now?
Well, we love the songs and we really think it’s among our best work. Today, with everything that’s going on in the world, what I’m trying to do is give these songs the best sendoff I can.