In the early days of MTV, you couldn’t go more than 15 minutes without seeing Huey Lewis’ face on the channel. And why not? He brought a perfect combination of good looks, a sense of humor and pop songs filled with irresistible hooks. Anyone who grew up in the ‘80s can probably still recall not only the lyrics, but also the images from hits like “If This Is It”, “The Power of Love” and “I Want a New Drug”. (Who knows how many kids dunked their heads in sinks full of ice water as a result of that one?)
Yet as big as he got, Lewis never thought of himself as a pop star. In fact, what he really wanted to be was a soul singer. Now, Lewis is going back to his roots, releasing Soulsville, an album of covers from the legendary Memphis label Stax Records featuring songs from Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Wilson Pickett. We talked to him about the album and his four decade career.
What made you decide to do an album of soul covers?
It was my manager’s idea initially. He said “You guys ought to do a Stax covers records.” I thought “Sure, it would be fun, but how would we do it?” Then we had the idea that rather than doing modern interpretations of old classics, what if we went deeper into the catalog and faithfully captured songs most people hadn’t heard before? We began to work the songs up and lo and behold, it felt incredibly natural, and if I may say so, we were pretty good at it. We’d been listening to this stuff all our lives.
Was it challenging to re-do songs by legends like Otis Redding?
I knew that if I was going to do this, we’d have to do an Otis tune. We chose “Just One More Day.” I was extremely apprehensive about singing it. It’s Otis Redding, for chrissakes. We worked it up and it sounded pretty good. The Otis tune is one take with no overdubs or fixes at all. It was almost as if the soul Gods were going “It’s OK. You can make this record.”
Even during your days of pop stardom, did you see yourself as a soul singer?
I wanted to be a soul singer. I don’t think I was ever confident enough to take the leap. These are the best singers in the world.
How did you wind up leading a pop band?
It was all by direction. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, there was no Internet. There was one market and that was Top 40 radio. You needed to have a hit or you wouldn’t be able to make records. It was expensive to go into the studio. You couldn’t do it at home on Pro Tools. You needed a hit. We realized that. You had to keep the band alive.
It sounds like you don’t really like the old records.
I think we did a great job [on those albums]. On the Sports record, our production idea was the old and the new at once. Think about “Bad Is Bad” [Lewis makes the sound of a drum machine, then sings the song’s doo-wop vocal hook].
I love playing those songs, as long as I don’t have to do it 200 days a year. Playing “The Heart of Rock and Roll” is the most fun thing in the world. Just give me two weeks off. If you work at anything too much, it’s not fun anymore.
Are you still writing new songs?
We’re still writing. It’s tougher to write as a pop writer. That’s what I am. I’m not John Coltrane here. As a pop songwriter, you’re informed by your crowd – the audience. And today, there isn’t one. The audience is very fragmented. The Stax stuff was people making records in the segregated South. Today, society is integrated, but music is segregated. You have country here, R&B here and never the twain shall meet. There’s no market to write for. Plus, I’m older and have written a bunch of stuff already. I guess what I’m saying is I struggle with it.
When you look back at your videos, what do you think?
It’s a good laugh. We made our first video for $800. My idea was to do a fake Hullaballoo thing. We’d just get on the beach and act like idiots. It was for “Some of My Lies Are True.” That video was instrumental in getting us a deal with Chrysalis. They signed us and decided we had to make a real video. They got a fashion guy to do “Do You Believe in Love.” Everything was in pastel. We were highly made up, with lip gloss and everything. When we saw it at playback, I’m going “This is terrible.” But people loved it.
From that moment on, we just had a good laugh and stayed out of the way of the song as much as we could. We did them outdoors in San Francisco and goofed around.
At the time, did you think the hits would keep coming forever? Why do you think it stopped?
“Small World” was the first single we had that didn’t crack the Top 20 in almost 20 singles in a row. The single was an edit. That was a mistake I made.
My dad was a jazzer. Zoot Sims had died and Stan Getz was at the funeral. He said “You’re Huey Lewis. My girlfriend wants to eat your shorts.” Then he said, “Why don’t you let me play on some of that shit of yours?” He gave me a card that said, “Stan Getz: Have sax will travel.”
My dad is a radiologist. He said, “Stan has cancer. If you don’t put him on the record, I’m never talking to you again.” He came up to play on “Small World” and it was unbelievable, but it was seven minutes long. We edited it down, but only got it to five minutes. It didn’t happen [as a single], but it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.
But I don’t remember any kind of feeling of “Oh shit”. By that point, I didn’t care [about the charts]. I was just trying to make good music.