Going ‘Back In Time’ with Huey Lewis
August 17, 2012
It’s a small world, and for a while Huey Lewis was on top of it.
His band’s second No. 1 album, “Fore,” had five Billboard top-10 singles in 1986, three of them going all the way to the top of the charts.
Lewis’ father, a devout student of jazz, told his son about a fundraiser for the widow of jazzman Zoot Sims, who died of cancer.
Two front-row tickets in Kimball Theatre were given to the nation’s hottest rock singer, and his father was thrilled to be seated next to renowned San Francisco Examiner film critic Phil Elwood, who was just as pleased to meet his son.
The serendipity continued for Lewis when he felt a tap on his back. An old man with a saxophone strapped to his shoulder had come into the audience to meet Lewis.
In a raspy whisper, he asked, “Hey man, why don’t you let me play on some of your s—? I can play that s— too, you know.”
Recommended Stories For You
He gave Lewis his card: “Have Sax, Will Travel – Stan Getz.”
As a boy growing up in Mill Valley, Lewis probably never dreamed he would meet the legendary jazz player, let alone have him ask to record with him.
Lewis was one of the few white kids at his high school. While just over the Golden Gate Bridge people flocked to “The City” to hear the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, Lewis and his schoolmates listened to a radio station over the Richmond Bridge, Oakland’s KDIA, to the R&B and soul of James Brown and Otis Redding.
“In the midst of this hippie thing, all this soul music was going on,” Lewis said. “That was the stuff we gravitated toward. Tower of Power and Sly (and the Family Stone) and Sons of Champlin, to a certain extent, created funk music, if you will.”
Lewis and keyboard player Sean Hooper started an R&B-based country rock band, Clover, in 1972. A rival band more rooted in funk, Soundhole, had saxophonist-guitarist Johnny Colla, drummer Bill Gibson and bassist Mario Cipollina. The two bands combined in 1979 and became Huey Lewis and the American Express.
After the credit card company convinced the band to change its name, Huey Lewis and the News added guitarist Chris Hayes and signed a contract with Chrysalis Records.
“It was an English label in the midst of collapse,” Lewis said. “They had no idea what we were about and were 6,000 miles away, so they left us to our own devices. The idea was R&B, rootsy-based music but done (high-tech). It was all put together piece by piece.”
The 1982 album “Picture This” went gold and had three singles, including “Workin’ for a Livin,” a popular video on MTV.
“Sports” came out in 1983 and stayed hot for two years with singles and videos including “I Want a New Drug,” “Heart and Soul,” “If This Is It” and “The Heart of Rock & Roll.”
Huey Lewis and the News were on the verge of becoming the most popular band in the country.
“I had been around a while, and it was clear that we were on a run,” Lewis said. “I knew it when “Heart and Soul” became a hit. I went, ‘Holy s—, if this is a hit, we’re going to have a bunch of them.'”
“The Power of Love” went No. 1 and was in 1985’s most successful film, “Back to the Future.” The album “Fore!” had five top 10 singles, including “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Hip to be Square.”
“We could see the thing growing,” Lewis said. “MTV was happening. You could just feel it every week. We resolved to remember that we weren’t the greatest band in the world, it was just our time, and to just enjoy it, for Christ sakes.”
On the drive home from the Kimball Theatre, Lewis’ father was still buzzing from meeting his jazz heroes.
“If you don’t take Getz up on that offer, I will never ever forgive you,” he said to his son.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to do, some doo-wop thing with Stan Getz?'”
Hayes came up with a jazzy riff that became the foundation for the song, which became the title track for the next album.
“We fashioned ‘Small World’ as a vehicle for Getz,” Lewis said. “It was 71⁄2 minutes long. Then I cut it in half, a complete mistake. They wanted it to be a single, so I edited it down to 4 minutes, 45 seconds, something like that. It died at No. 20 or something. It was too long or too jazzy but it was one of the best things we’ve ever done. I’m still so proud of it.”
While the recording with Getz was a career highlight, it was also a turning point for Lewis, whose run at the top of the charts came to an end.
The nine-piece band performs about 75 shows a year, and is so tight now it can recreate live what it did in the studio more than 20 years ago. Lewis is circumspect and content.
“I’ve always sort of known in the back of my mind that a career is what you want,” he said. “You want to be a star or have a hit record, but a career is what you really want, and that’s what we’re thankful for.”