Return to story
'We're playing to audiences that are really appreciative,' says musician Huey Lewis, 62.
BY WALTER TUNIS
LEXINGTON, Ky.--It's an inevitable question, really: How can a band like Huey Lewis and The News maintain a creative drive and freshness in a pop age where its decades-old hits can't help but be viewed as old news?
"To be honest, we're having a better time now than we ever have," said Lewis, 62.
"We used to be this kind of beer and hot dog band. Now we're hanging with the wine and cheese set. And I like that," Lewis said. "We're playing to audiences that are really appreciative and knowledgeable about who we are. The whole thing gets a little better treatment now than it did when it was just the rock 'n' roll crowd that came to see us."
SILLY WITH SUCCESS
For the bulk of the 1980s, Lewis and his no-frills News-mates were an unstoppable pop force. Hit after hit--all possessing robust melodic hooks, a generous dose of pop-soul smarts and Lewis' ultra-amiable vocal cheer--ruled the airwaves.
"The Heart of Rock and Roll," "I Want a New Drug," "Heart and Soul," "The Power of Love" and more hit the charts with next to no elbow room separating them.
"It was an odd scene," Lewis said of his '80s heyday. "I felt I knew just what the people wanted, and that wasn't just with our own stuff. If you gave me a copy of someone else's album and played me the songs, I could pick out the single. I was absolutely immersed in all of it. It was all I was doing--listening to the radio, listening to and playing music, and producing our records.
"For a pop songwriter, the audience has to be involved in those days, I felt this music was very relevant. I felt like I knew what the American public was feeling somehow. I really did. So when 'Heart and Soul' became our first real hit, I thought to myself, 'Wow.' I even told the guys, 'If that one's a hit, then we've a got a few more coming here. This is going to be silly.'"
MUSIC VIDEO DARLINGS
Lewis' ride to pop stardom also made expert use of a then-new promotional tool known as the music video. Helping the News' third album, 1983's "Sports," chalk up four huge hits and sales of more than 10 million copies was the rampant popularity of MTV and its means of broadcasting visual vignettes of pop singles around the clock.
"The video presence was kind of interesting," Lewis said. "When we made our first record with Chrysalis (a self-titled 1980 album), we had done a video of our own for a couple of hundred dollars with a little video camera. And that got the attention of the record company.
"Then came 'Do You Believe in Love' [from the second News album, 1982's "Picture This"], which was our first single. That's when the record company wanted to do a big-time video. They had a big fashion director. All the backdrops were in pastel, and we were in rouge. Our cheeks were all made up. We shot it all day and spent a whole bunch of money. Four days later, it was like, 'Come watch the playback.' And we did. They were probably 40 people in this room and they played this thing. And it was cringe-worthy. It was the worst thing I had ever seen. And when it ended, the place erupted in applause.
"So the message was obvious. Anybody can do this. We're producing these records ourselves. Why don't we start doing the videos ourselves?"
THE PACE SLOWS
The hits began to taper off in the 1990s, even though Lewis and the News, which still includes '80s mainstays Johnny Colla on guitar and saxophone, Bill Gibson on drums and Sean Hopper on keyboards, maintain regular touring duties with shows that balance their own hits with an array of R&B staples featured on its 2010 covers album, "Soulsville."
So how does Lewis pump vigor and fun today into hits that are unavoidably yesterday's News?
"The No. 1 rule is, don't play them 200 times a year. Shoot, don't work 200 times a year," he said. "We do about 70 shows a year. So when we take two weeks off and come back to play again, it's a gas. I love what I do. I just don't want to do it too much."