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People Top 5
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- January 19, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 3
Huey Lewis & Rock's Last Taboo
He's Got a Kinky Habit—Golf—and He Doesn't Care Who Knows It
"Hello, Huey, old chap. Reginald Bixby," he announces. "How's the new album coming?"
"Oh...it's coming okay," answers Huey, clearly pained by the question.
"Bit of a job following up the old Sports, eh?" says the intruder, referring to Lewis' hugely successful LP of three years ago.
"Yeah, I suppose so," confesses the singer, hoping somehow to escape this ambush.
"Oh, well. Best of luck, Huey," says Bixby as he finally fades back into the gabbling crowd. Judging by the smirk on his face, luck is something Lewis will need lots of.
The scene, as any good MTV watcher knows, is simply the tongue-in-cheek opening to the video for Stuck With You, the first single off Lewis' latest LP. And the joke is that Lewis and his band, the News, have met quite a few doubting Reggies this past year, and that it was a bit of a job recording a follow-up album to Sports. That record, after all, has sold 10 million copies since its release, produced five Top 10 singles and lifted Lewis and his pals out of the rock 'n' roll backwaters and onto its front wave of big-salaried stars. When it finally came time for a new LP last year, "We found ourselves releasing an album to big expectations for the first time," says Lewis, 36. "We had never released anything to any expectations before."
Surprising to some, Lewis and his Newsmen managed to deliver with Fore!, their new LP. No matter that the band's message has all the depth of Huey's chin dimple, or that its bouncy good-time sound seems straight out of rock 'n' roll's archives. Echoes of street-corner doo-wop singing and urban gospel, of '50s rockabilly and '80s rock blend together like primary colors on the LP. As a result, it has already teed up one No. 1 song (Stuck With You) and a follow-up Top 5 hit, Hip To Be Square ("used to be a renegade, I used to run around/ But I couldn't take the punishment and had to settle down") that could serve as Lewis' theme song.
While other rockers are wearing their weirdness with bravado, Lewis has courageously wrapped himself in the shroud of normality. No neo-geek haircuts, no leather bondage gear, no eyeshadow and earrings. With Lewis, there are only the chiseled good-guy looks and slap-on-the-back chumminess that make him seem as comfy as a cardigan to his fans. Think of him as an aging high school jock, a favorite drinking buddy or that lovable lug of an older brother. Think of him, even, as a happy father greeting his daughter, Kelly, almost 3. "I see that smile and, forget it, I melt," says papa Huey. "Walking onstage before 20,000 fans isn't as good." And if all that isn't stupefyingly normal enough, there's one more thing: This guy plays golf! And he admits it, publicly! Prince, to cite only one image-conscious example from the world of rock, had no qualms about prancing around in a black-leather bikini, but it's doubtful he'd ever let himself be photographed alone with a 4 iron.
Nope, this isn't Ozzy Osbourne talking. Ozzie Nelson, maybe.
Lewis, wife Sidney, daughter Kelly and son Austin, 20 months, live in a 19th-century Mill Valley carriage house that the couple bought last February. Apart from the 40-foot pool in the backyard and the grand piano in the living room, the place has a coziness common to this moneyed suburb north of San Francisco. "There are tons of kids in the neighborhood," reports Huey. "That's why we like it." At home, Lewis tools about town in the family wagon, shops at the local market, visits the links when possible (he has an 18 handicap) and generally blends into his suburban surroundings like well-clipped Bermuda grass. His "biggest buzz," he says, "is getting a perfect-fitting pair of Levi's—always was and still is." His favorite food: Triscuits covered with cottage cheese and garlic salt.
Raised in this very locale during the 1950s, Lewis still spends holidays with his mother, who lives nearby, or his father, who lives upstate in Humboldt County. That Lewis' own three-year marriage seems to be faring better than that of his divorced parents may not be an accident. For all his appeal, "I never lived with a woman in my life until I was 32 and Sidney and I moved in together," he notes.
While Huey's marriage is rocking steady, his joy of fatherhood has gone off the Richter scale. "I think you grow to love your spouse," he says. "The same with the guys in your band and your parents, even. But kids are different. All of a sudden you'd walk through fire for them, right then and there. I didn't know I had that kind of love in me. And what having kids does is cause you to see things. We go for a walk and my daughter says, 'Oh, Daddy, look at the beautiful rock,' and I look at it, and it is beautiful. It's like I haven't seen a rock for a hundred years. All of a sudden a whole new world has opened up for me."
For Lewis, the first big look at life took place in New York City, where he was born Hugh Anthony Cregg III. His father was a jazz drummer then, studying to become a radiologist-physician; his Polish-born mother was an artist. Both were "eccentric," says Huey, and neither was career-minded. After the family moved to Mill Valley, then un-gentrified and largely rural, Mom "was hanging out with known beatniks—Allen Ginsberg and that sort of stuff"—and Dad began limiting his radiology practice to three days a week. After the two divorced when Lewis was 12 and his brother, Jeff, 7, Huey was packed off to a New Jersey boys' school. Being away from home and adrift in a sea of preppies made him feel "like I didn't belong anyplace," he recalls. "It was at that point that I almost went crazy."
Lewis survived and four years later—after scoring an 800 on his math boards—was accepted at Cornell University's school of engineering. Though Huey wanted to spend the summer before college playing baseball, Lewis' father urged him to take time off and see the world, and Huey, then 17, obliged. With a backpack, a harmonica and a doctored boarding pass, he stowed aboard a flight to Europe and set off on a yearlong trek across the continent. His hero was the young Bob Dylan ("I still identify with the folksinger image") and he supported himself as a street-corner busker with his harp.
By the time he returned in 1968, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene was in full bloom. After six months at Cornell Lewis scrapped his plans for an Ivy League degree, moved back to the Bay Area, skipped through a series of day jobs and eventually joined a soft-rock country band known as Clover. "I always thought of Huey [who then called himself Huey Louie] as fun, loud, confident and wrong," says former Clover bandmate Alex Call. "Now I think of him as fun, loud, confident and right." After several unsuccessful recordings, the group folded. By the late 70s the would-be rock star was reduced to organizing jam sessions for a local nightclub.
From those sessions Lewis gathered together five friends—guitarists Chris Hayes and Johnny Colla, bass player Mario Cipollina, drummer Bill Gibson and keyboard player Sean Hopper—cut a demo tape and called on Bob Brown, a Mill Valley-based band manager. Before long the players had become the News, Brown their manager and his pretty young secretary, Sidney Conroy, Lewis' girlfriend and future wife.
The group cut its first LP in a scant three weeks, then watched it drop from sight almost as quickly. Although album No. 2 broke into the Top 20, it wasn't until Sports and its hit singles The Heart of Rock & Roll and I Want a New Drug that Huey became big news. He again made news when his song Power of Love was featured in the movie Back to the Future.
Now that Fore! has succeeded as a follow-up (with five million in U.S. sales since its August release), Lewis and his Newsmen face a concert schedule that's booked tight until next fall. Hoping to avoid the usual grind, they will tour for four weeks, then take two-week breaks. Says Huey: "After you're 30 years old, you've got to slow down a little." And carefully consider the trade-offs. "I have had some people approach me about doing a movie and I think someday I'd like to," says Lewis. "But not right now. Right now we have the chance to do the tour we have been working our whole lives to do." He has also thus far turned down opportunities to endorse products, though his daily wardrobe is largely composed of music T-shirts, Levi's, Nike shoes (with his name embossed on the back) and Swatch watches that manufacturers send him gratis. "I wear them because they're comfortable," says Lewis. "The only thing that's mine are my shorts." As for more serious commercial ties, he says, "The thing you have to ask yourself is: What do I have to do? And how much are they going to give me? Then, whatever you decide, you better be prepared to defend it because you will be asked to."
One thing he has a hard time defending is his chosen line of work. He can't even call it "work" and keep a straight face. "It's the ultimate scam," says Lewis. "But I'd be a fool if I didn't rock 'n' roll for a while. What could be cooler than being the leader of a rock 'n' roll band?"
- Carl Arrington.
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