How Bruce Hornsby Helped Huey Lewis and the News Land Their Third No. 1 Single “Jacob’s Ladder”

During their 1980s heyday, Huey Lewis and the News had a long run of hits, starting with 1982’s “Do You Believe in Love,” which hit No. 7 in America, and running through to 1991’s “It Hit Me Like a Hammer,” which topped out at No. 21.  The quintet scored 12 Top-10 singles, three of them going to No. 1. But ask ‘80s music fans which were the band’s No. 1s, and the answers will vary depending upon which songs they are most familiar with.

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The correct answer is “The Power of Love” (the signature song of the hit movie Back to the Future), “Stuck with You,” and then “Jacob’s Ladder,” which often throws some people off. Part of the issue might be that the latter was written by Bruce and John Hornsby and recorded by Bruce Hornsby and the Range for their album Scenes from the Southside in 1988. But it was the Huey Lewis version from the 1986 album Fore! is the one that went to No. 1 in early 1987.

“No, You Do It”

The story of how Huey Lewis and the News managed to cover “Jacob’s Ladder” starts at least three years earlier. The band achieved massive success with their 1983 album Sports, and Hornsby had gotten to know Lewis around then. He later asked for Lewis’ help in the studio when his group recorded their 1986 debut album The Way It Is. Some fans may not know that Huey Lewis and the News produced their own albums, so the singer was certainly well-versed in studio technology. For The Way It Is, Lewis wound up playing harmonica and providing background vocals on “Down the Road Tonight,” which he co-produced along with the songs “The Long Race” and “The River Runs Low.”

While those three songs did not factor in as singles, the album The Way it Is did very well. It sold 3 million copies in America and won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987. That’s a nice credit to have on one’s resume. But there was one song from the sessions Lewis was eager to have Bruce Hornsby and the Range record, but Hornsby was not happy with the arrangement.

“’Jacob’s Ladder’ had a completely different arrangement, the way Bruce did it,” Lewis tells American Songwriter. “He asked me to produce his first album, and I was super busy. He didn’t need a producer. He’s a brilliant musician. But I wanted to help him with his career [as] I was a big fan. So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll produce three songs. That’s all you need to put my name on the record.’ I wanted to do ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ with this arrangement. And he didn’t like it. He said, ‘No, you do it.’ So I did.”

Recording “Jacob’s Ladder” for their fourth album Fore! was a smart move by Lewis. The single was also a little different for a band who had made their name mainly on love songs. This song focused on an everyman trying to get by in life while shunning the false hope being peddled by the manipulative preachers and televangelists of the time.

I met a fan dancer
Down in south side Birmingham
She was running from a fat man selling salvation in his hand
Now he’s trying to save me
We’ll I’m doing alright the best that I can
Just another fallen angel
Trying to get through the night
Step by step, one by one,
Higher and higher
Step by step, rung by rung
Climbing Jacob’s ladder 

“I love the lyrics of that song,” Lewis says. “The lyrics are written by John, [Hornsby’s] brother. They both come from Williamsburg, Virginia, which is ground zero for television preachers and that kind of stuff. That’s where that came from.”

A Gift that Kept on Giving

In truth, Lewis wanted to record “Jacob’s Ladder” prior to Bruce Hornsby and the Range landing their deal with RCA. He had asked Hornsby to do so very early in their association, allegedly even before the Range was formed in 1984, and was turned down as Hornsby had thought he was on the verge of landing a record deal.

“In hindsight, that was not a very good move,” Hornsby told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. “But Huey and I became friends, and he just helped me out later, championed our cause in the music industry for two or three years. He would call record companies. For example, the band made one demo and turned it in to a label. The label pondered it for a few days. Well, Huey called them one day and said, ‘This is Huey Lewis. Sign the Range.’ He was always in there pitching for us. Ironically, that wasn’t what knocked down the doors for us finally, but that’s the sort of thing he would do.”

Bequeathing Lewis with what turned out to be a major hit was certainly a great way of saying “thank you for your support.”

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Photo by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

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