To Get His News on the Air, Rocker Huey Lewis Had to Wait for a Commercial Break

updated 08/16/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/16/1982 01:00AM

Though San Francisco has waned as America's pop music capital, it remains a spawning ground for groups with strange names. In the tradition of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship and Santana, the latest contenders for the Obtuse Nomenclature Hall of Fame are Huey Lewis and the News.

Naturally, the real Huey Lewis has about as much to do with broadcast journalism as Walter Cronkite does with punk rock. What they do share, however, is a knack for grabbing an over-the-air audience. After his group recorded an LP filled with eclectic, new-wavish songs in 1980 that sold a pitiful 30,000 copies, Lewis, 32, plotted to break into radio playlists with a catchy collection tailor-made for airplay. "It's a shame that the only things that sell are things that stations will play," he laments.

To that end, though, he went looking for a hit and found one by Robert John Lange (who had produced million-selling LPs for monster groups like Foreigner and AC/DC). Lange delivered a scorcher, Do You Believe in Love, which lured listeners and reached No. 7 on the singles charts. The group's album Picture This has sold nearly 500,000 copies and hit No. 13. "We aren't making bad music," Lewis says. "We're making good music that is commercial. One does compromise oneself slightly, but it beats digging ditches."

Since the record hit, Lewis observes, rock stardom has seemed a little like rodeoing. "It's an eight-second ride with about two weeks of healing up, and then it's another eight-second ride," says Lewis, now saddling up in the midst of a seven-month concert tour. "In the middle of the ride, you don't say, 'Hang on! I want a cup of coffee!' I want to enjoy being a successful rider! You just keep riding the bull."

Lewis spent a lot of time trying to get his chance. Raised by a doctor father and artist mother in pre-mellow Marin County, he recalls, "There were tough kids, greasers and surfers. The stereotypical 'Oh, far out' Californian came later." His parents split when he was 12 years old and he was packed off to the exclusive Lawrenceville (N.J.) School on a scholarship for underprivileged kids. "I was on the conveyor belt," he says. But instead of going on to study engineering as he had originally planned, he forged a boarding pass, flew to Europe and bummed around the Continent, learning to sing and play folk harmonica. "Dylan had just broken big," he explains.

He finally made it to Cornell but dropped out after six months, returning to the Bay Area for an earthier pursuit: starting his own landscaping company. "It was going to be me, the sun and the dirt," he says. "It was going to be great. It wasn't." After testing his skill at carpentry and running a natural foods business, he finally hooked up with the soft-rock band Clover. (John McFee, later of the Doobie Brothers, and Alex Call, now with Tommy Tutone, were also in the band.) Clover got a recording offer in England and moved to London in 1977, finding themselves in an un-cloverish $50-a-week-plus-hotel-room gig. "We made two records, both of which stiffed horribly," admits Lewis. "We found ourselves in the middle of the punk movement. It was the wrong place and the wrong time."

While there, though, Lewis managed to play sessions with artists such as Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, both of whom later became formative figures in '80s pop. "For the first time," says Lewis, "I saw English singers who didn't fit the American stereotype. They had gruff voices, and they didn't have shag hairdos."

Clover finally returned to the West Coast and disbanded. Lewis made scratch playing jam sessions at Marin County clubs. In 1980 he formed a band with drummer Bill Gibson, 30, sax player-guitarist Johnny Colla, 30, keyboardist Sean Hopper, 29, bassist Mario Cipollina, 27, and lead guitarist Chris Hayes, 25—because he wanted to be in one. "It's a team thing from my baseball days," he says. Their demo tape eventually made it to the ears of Pablo Cruise manager Bob Brown, who helped them land a record deal with the Chrysalis label.

The name News came from Lewis' whim (he's a TV news devotee). "Our first choice was American Express," smiles Huey. "It would have been a great name: 'Even if you can't get the card, you can get the record...' or 'Don't leave home without them He gave up the idea when Chrysalis persuaded him that the credit card institution would be unlikely to look kindly at being thus used.

With all of the band living nearby in the Bay Area, Lewis keeps house in a comfy cabin in woody Larkspur. He lives with girlfriend Sydney Conroy, whom he met two and a half years ago. During his increasingly rare leisure moments, he relaxes with tennis or basketball or by going fly-fishing with his "bohemian" father, a radiologist who works one day a week. "I'm like the straightest member of my family," Huey claims. In fact, his harshest critic may be his mother, whom he describes as "a beatnik turned hippie." She lives in nearby Humboldt County in her own trailer. "She thinks we're so commercial," shrugs Lewis. "She's mostly a Grateful Dead fan."

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