Huey Lewis on How Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott Became His Mentor and the Bond He Shares with AC/DC’s Brian Johnson

Thanks to the new Broadway jukebox musical The Heart of Rock and Roll that effectively mines the large catalog of songs from Huey Lewis and the News, the singer/harmonica player from the Bay Area is having a big revival. One can also add in the band’s two songs in the Back to the Future musical on Broadway and Lewis’ appearance in the new documentary The Greatest Night in Pop.

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For several years before he co-founded Huey Lewis and the News, Lewis co-fronted the San Francisco-adjacent rock band Clover, which formed in 1967 and brought him aboard as co-lead vocalist in 1972. He appeared on their last two studio albums, Unavailable and Love on the Wire, both released in 1977 and produced in the UK by future studio legend Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Clover moved to England in 1976 and toured with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Graham Parker and the Rumour, and Thin Lizzy. It is while opening for Thin Lizzy that its frontman, the late Phil Lynott, became a mentor to Lewis.

Remembering a Mentor

When Clover first opened for Lizzy, things did not go well. Fans were shouting for the headliner and heckling them, which unfortunately was not uncommon back at that time. In speaking with original MTV VJ Mark Goodman during a 2020 interview in New York City, Lewis recalled, “It was awful. Phil was standing there [when we came off], and he said, ‘Let me help you.’ He critiqued the music: ‘You gotta go after them.’”

Lynott and Lewis became friends, and Lewis played harmonica on “Baby Drives Me Crazy” from Lizzy’s 1978 concert album Live and Dangerous. He also lent his harp skills to the Lynott solo tracks “Tattoo (Giving It All Up for Love)” and “Ode to a Black Man”—both from 1980’s Solo in Soho—and “Cathleen,” from 1982’s The Philip Lynott Album. (Huey Lewis and the News would later cover “Tattoo (Giving It All Up for Love).”) There’s also a 1985 demo of Lynott’s “Can’t Get Away” floating around the internet that features Lewis on vocals.

“Philip Lynott really just took me under his wing,” Lewis tells American Songwriter. “Philip was my mentor. He taught me everything about being a rock star. Philip was the quintessential rock star. He was an excellent singer and performer on stage. Oh my gosh, he was fantastic. But more than that he taught me how to deal with press, how to deal with a band, how to deal with a crew, how to deal with a venue, how to deal with fans. He would dress me out of his own closet. He was a wonderful guy, just a great big-hearted Irishman, a fantastic performer, and he was really a teacher in so many ways. He influenced so many of us, not just me, but Bob Geldof and Bono and all the Irish guys. Philip was a treasure.”

Clover broke up in 1978, with Lewis and keyboardist Sean Hopper returning to the Bay Area to form Huey Lewis and the News. They released their self-titled debut album in 1980 and became major stars by the mid-’80s.

Johnson Lends Support

Another hard rock connection came into Lewis’ life later, and that was AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson. When Lewis worked with Lange, the latter had yet to producer the Aussie legends. They were an up-and-coming band from Down Under with original frontman Bon Scott, and Lewis amusedly recalls how guitarist Angus Young would moon the audience at every show.

When Lewis began dealing with his hearing loss a few years ago, Johnson was supportive because he had struggled with the same thing.

“Brian Johnson’s had trouble with his hearing as well, and he touched base with me,” said Lewis, who suffered hearing loss as a result of Ménière’s disease, a chronic disorder that affects balance and hearing. “He’s been helped by a guy called Stephen Ambrose, who does these new inner ear things. Brian swears by him, and he was so sweet. He reached out to me, introduced me to Steve. Unfortunately, I’m too far gone for Steve to help. But Brian Johnson has been a really good friend.”

Beyond their friendships, one thing that connects Lewis, Lynott, and Johnson is that they all have distinct voices. In Lewis’ case, he felt he had to find the right music for his.

“I’m not a conventional singer, I’m not a great singer on the surface of things,” he remarks. “I was going have to write my own song, you know, write a song that I can sing better than anybody else. Because I wrote it, right? That’s true of me. That’s true of Bruce Springsteen. That’s true of Paul Simon, that’s true of Bob Dylan. That’s true of a lot of those artists [of that time]. So that’s why you had those diverse personalities. Because these guys were just conventional singers. We didn’t come to this through The Voice or American Idol. We had to write our own little avenue, therefore we were able to overcome in spite of having character voices, if you will. But there was a lot more personality in those days.”

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