Huey Lewis on his new record, fickle crowds, and being a gay crush: A Music Mix Q&A
It’s been nine years since Huey Lewis and the News released a new CD. But the band who scored twelve top-10 hits (including “The Power of Love” from Back to the Future) during the ’80s has just released Soulsville, a tribute record to the ’60s soul songs of the Memphis-based Stax record label. Once I got over the fact that Lewis is now 60 years old (!), I quizzed him on his new sound…and whether he knew he was MTV VJ Dave Holmes’ childhood crush.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You recorded much of Soulsville in Memphis. How else did you get into the mood besides being there?
HUEY LEWIS: First of all, you listen to the songs a lot by yourself. You do all that work by yourself, like an actor would. You develop a whole backstory of what this character’s going through and you find a voice for the guy who’s going through this, who’s singing this song.
A lot of the songs on the record involve physical and emotional turmoil. Yet your persona is very happy-go-lucky and positive.
It’s true, I do like cheering people up. A buddy of mine in the Tower of Power horns used to say to me, “It’s a big job, cheering up the world, No. 1.” He calls me “No. 1.” I’m unapologetic about the happy part of it, and I would submit to you that many of these songs—“Never Found A Girl,” “Just the One (I’ve Been Looking For)”—are in fact happy.
So have you always been a frustrated soul singer doing pop music? Or do you feel like you were able to infuse some soul into your pop records?
Rather than record chestnuts like “Knock On Wood” or “In the Midnight Hour” and give them a modern interpretation, we thought it would be cooler to go into the catalog a little deeper and find songs that people hadn’t heard and capture them faithfully. And oddly enough, when it was all said and done, I had this amazing feeling—and several critics have pointed this out—that it wasn’t all that dissimilar from Huey Lewis and the News [music]. So I realized, “S—! I really was influenced by this soul!” I never heard that in our music. I thought our music was more rock ‘n’ roll. But there you go.
You avoided some very well-known songs like “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” but you were willing to follow Bruce Willis, who had a hit with “Respect Yourself.”
I never heard his version. I really didn’t.
Do you now feel like you’re a part of the Memphis soul community? Or are they hesitant to admit a blue-eyed member?
Well, I was just in Memphis, and this guy comes up to me and says, “I was James Brown’s road manager for 15 years, and I want to tell you something.” And he whispers in my ear, “You were the only white boy James ever liked.” That’s awesome. Get out of here!
With Elton John and Rod Stewart in the top 10 of the album chart, it’s a good time for artists in their 60s. But it’s still hard to sell records after a certain age, isn’t it?
There’s people out there that don’t buy a CD all year. The market has just shrunk. Ten million people bought the Sports record when there were 200 million people in America. One out of 20 owned the stupid thing. So there’s got to be a market out there. But how you get to them, I have no idea. And you know what? I’m not interested.
How do you keep from getting depressed that you can’t play the big concert venues that you used to?
I got a very good life. I sold plenty of records, I get recognized plenty, I can always have somebody call up and get me a fine table at a restaurant. What do you really need, ultimately? The only part that’s surprising to me is I always thought if you have a sold-out house of 20,000 people and you do a fabulous show, that they’re going to come back and see you every time you play. I’ve had many people tell me that they saw me at Blossom [outside Cleveland] in ’85 and it was the best rock ‘n’ roll show they’ve ever seen. And so I say to them, “When did you last see us?” And they say, “That was it.” It’s like, “We’ve played there every year since!” But that’s the way it happens. That’s the part of it that I never understood. But I do now.
Did you hear about the “It Gets Better” video that the former MTV VJ Dave Holmes posted, where he said that seeing you at the beginning of the “I Want A New Drug” video made him realize he was gay? Here, I’ll play it for you.
That’s cute. I’m flattered! That’s sweet. I remember when I filmed that scene, I didn’t wear a shirt, I wore boxer shorts. It was the Paul Newman scene in The Sting; that’s where I swiped it. Paul Newman wakes up and he’s hung over and fills the sink with ice and puts his head in the ice. So that was just a rip-off of that scene.
Check out Huey and the boys performing the album’s title track: