By Michael Witthaus
(from Hippo Press, July 2010)
The secret of Huey Lewis’s success – keep busy, but not too much. “As long as you don’t have to do it 250 days a year, it’s the best job in the world,” Lewis told a gathering of journalists recently. “When you reduce your schedule a little bit, it’s like falling in love all over again.”
When Huey Lewis and the News hit the stage at the Casino Ballroom on Sunday, July 11, fans can expect familiar hits – “Heart of Rock and Roll,” “Power of Love,” “I Want a New Drug” – along with what Lewis terms “greatest misses, obscurest stuff,” a capella doo-wop and a few tracks from an album the band recently completed in Memphis.
The new record focuses on music from the Stax/Volt era. “Rather than take the obvious songs and try to lend a different impression to them, we’ve chosen more pure stuff that most people may not have heard, and tried to give it a faithful rendition,” says Lewis.
Lewis, who played opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2000 movie Duets, is busy as an actor these days. He guest stars as Wendy Malick’s love interest on an upcoming episode of the new TVLand series, Hot In Cleveland. Acting and music are dissimilar, he says. “Acting is more about how you look, what are you expressing with your appearance. The way I think of music, it’s a completely audio experience to me – what does it sound like? Sometimes you gotta get ugly to sound good. All my favorite soul singers looked like they were killing somebody, but they sounded fantastic.”
Asked why the band keeps going after over thirty years, Lewis answers with a laugh. “They pay us, actually. That sounds a little silly, but we’re 25 people at this point. We’re a small business – with no bailout, thank you very much. So we have to go to work. But having said that, it’s a wonderful job.”
As to how his own songs endure in a way that rivals the soul music covered on the new album and 1994’s Four Chords and Several Years Ago, Lewis says, “I’d like to think that it’s true. When the guy says, ‘I’m going to Kansas City, they got some crazy little women there and I’m gonna get me one,’ you believe he’s going to Kansas City, that he knows about the crazy little women, and he wants to get him one. Period. It really doesn’t matter what your song is about – it has to ring true. I’d like to think our stuff rings true, not like some songwriter wrote it for us to sing.”
Huey Lewis also answered a few questions from the Hippo:
On Hot in Cleveland, your character is inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you hope that’s not a fictional story line some day?
That would be nice, yes. I’d be flattered.
How was it working with Betty White and the cast?
Great … it’s an interesting genre. It’s not stage acting, you know I did a little Broadway stuff and I’ve done some film, but this is a different hybrid, a different animal altogether. It’s interesting – different fans, different writing. I’m working with some really talented people, so it was really fun.
You’ve done some interesting collaborations lately, including one with Devon Allman. What was that like?
Fun. He was in studio next to us when we were cutting the record. He asked me to play harmonica on a track, which I did. It was a great gig. It was sort of an hour out of my day, but it was really fun. He was very sweet about it. It’s a wonderful vibe down there in Memphis. It’s a different thing. Ardent Studios is a very important studio. It’s sort of the Memphis an Stax annex if you will. Some of the songs we cut, the originals were actually cut in the same room. So that was cool. It really does have a southern feel; it was provincial in a good sort of way. And the barbeque is out of sight, obviously.
You mentioned that there are a lot of overlooked nuggets on the new record. Can you tell me which ones, and what’s the name of the record?
We haven’t figured out how to sell it yet, so that’s probably not a good idea. It’s pretty gritty, raw stuff that’s not to everyone’s tastes. Motown seems to be the most popular because it’s obviously slicker and palatable to white America arguably than the Stax stuff, which was pretty much aimed at black America. Curiously enough, [our band] grew up in Marin County, and listened to soul music, because it was a way to rebel against the psychedelic stuff that was going on that our parents and older brothers were into [and] we had a station called KDIA, which I now know is the sister station of WDIA in Memphis. In some cases, records only reached WDIA and KDIA. Like, no one’s ever heard of Rance Allen, but we knew his stuff like crazy because he had big hits in Oakland. The music was so good it was always sort of untouchable for us. So this has been a real leap for us.
What would Bill Graham think of the current state of the live music world?
I don’t know, but he’d certainly be there. It would suit Bill. He was the best promoter that ever lived. He put himself into the fan’s position. He could just absolutely imagine himself being a punter. He was really great at that, that’s how the apples started at the end of the night at the Fillmores. The other thing was he was super great with artists. He would flatter you; make you feel like you were the only person on the planet. He would run a hundred yards to bring you a glass of water.
The sad thing is, I was one of the very last people to see him alive. He was at our gig when he left in a helicopter that crashed (in October 1991). I’ll tell you the kind of guy he was. Our manager Bob Brown and Bill were both New York guys, both tough guys, and were competitive slightly. Bill always wondered how he missed us. We grew up in Mill Valley and Bob ended up managing us. They’d have a really good relationship, and then they’d have a not so good relationship, as a promoter did with all managers. They had some knock down drag outs, and they were actually on the outs. There was some big fight when we booked the (Graham-owned) Concord Pavillion (in California) for two or three nights and sold it out, and then they added another night or two as well. So because of that, because we’d done so much business, Graham chose to come on over and shake my hand, basically. And he didn’t need to do that, and he and Bob were having a fight anyway, but that’s the kind of man he was. He came over and shook my hand, told me what great business we’d done, and it was horrible evening and he was backstage. I said to him, why are you going, and he said, we’re OK, we’re fine, and he took off and that was that.
Bill managed the Mime Troupe for a long time; he was a really good actor. He saw the rock and roll as theatre thing, and he hit on that and took the Human Be-In that (Ken) Kesey had started and said, wait a minute – there’s something here. He’s the one who monetized that and made it happen, presented it, and saw the potential in that.
Who: Huey Lewis and the News
Where: Hampton Beach Casino, 169 Ocean Boulevard in Hampton Beach
When: Sunday, July 11 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $40-$75 at http://www.casinoballroom.com