Singer-songwriter Huey Lewis

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Singer-songwriter Huey Lewis talks about whether he was intimidated by covering hits from the vaults of Stax Records.

Huey Lewis and his band The News have enjoyed superstar status worldwide, selling more than 30 million albums, and are ranked in the top 200 selling groups of all time. They also contributed songs to the hit film Back to the Future, including the chart-topping "Power of Love," which earned an Oscar nod for best song. Lewis was raised in Northern California, where he fell in love with R&B and taught himself to play the harmonica. Besides being an accomplished musician, he's also made guest appearances on TV shows, in several films and on Broadway.


Tavis: How cool to have Huey Lewis on this program along with his Grammy-winning band, The News? He’s out with a new project paying tribute to the sounds of the legendary music label, Stax Records. The new CD is called “Soulsville.” From the disk, here is some of the recording session for the title track, “Soulsville.
Tavis: So why, of all the things you could have covered, Huey, why the Stax vault?
Huey Lewis: Well, good question. I suppose why not? But it was originally our manager’s idea, Bob Brown, and we thought a good idea. A little apprehensive at first. Obviously, the idea was not to do the ones everybody knows, the sort of chestnuts like “Knock on Wood” and “Midnight Hour,” but to try to go deeper in the catalog, if you will, and find some songs that other people hadn’t maybe heard and capture them faithfully. So we did it in Memphis and really had a labor of love for us. It was really fun.
Tavis: Is there some stuff in that vault that even for Huey Lewis & The News you found untouchable?
Lewis: Sure. I mean, you know, the Otis Redding tune was the hardest one. We did “Just One More Day” which most people don’t know, but what are you gonna do? What Otis tune you gonna cover and how you gonna pull that off? So we chose this one and, interestingly, we cut live for the most part nine pieces. We had a four-piece horn section at historic Ardent Studios.
They gave us Studio B with a horn section, the other five of us in A. We had a video feed from the horn section to Billy, our drummer, and then we cut nine pieces live. That tune, “Just One More Day,” which was the Otis Redding tune, we cut in one complete take with no fixes or performances. So I took it as a nod from the soul gods, if you will, saying it’s okay, boys. Go ahead and sing it (laughter).
Tavis: I was just about to ask what it felt like to actually record this Stax stuff in Memphis. But I think an even better question, now that I’ve heard what you’ve just offered, is how you record in Memphis when half of your band is in one room and the other half of the band’s in the other room?
Lewis: Well, we’re all in the same band.
Tavis: But you can’t –
Lewis: – I mean, another interesting question is we’re right there at Ardent Studio, and the first day we meet John Fry who runs the place and engineered a lot of the original stuff. I said, “Oh, I get it.” I said to Jim Gaines, our co-producer, “We’re gonna figure this out whether it’s gonna work or not because, if these people right here at Ardent dig it, it’ll work, and if it doesn’t, we’ll know.”
Tavis: So how did you settle then on all the stuff, again, in that vault, particularly to your point, the lesser known stuff? How do you settle on these 14?
Lewis: It was not easy. We actually picked 20. We met as a band and we chose five at a time with two-day rehearsals. We pre-produced everything in California and we did two days rehearsals in batches of five, so in eight days, we had 20 tunes. Then we went down there to Ardent and literally just captured the performances.
Tavis: What is it about the sound that Stax brought us that’s worth going back to cover all these years later?
Lewis: Great question. I mean, great question. You know, Stax was the sort of R&B without the trimmings as opposed to Motown which was kind of smoothed over a little bit. Stax is not for everybody. It’s primal, it’s primitive, it’s raw. But the other thing is, what we like about that period, I think, is all the voices.
In other words, you got a horn section, you got background vocals – it’s probably 11 people – and it’s the diversity of the personalities in all those voices that makes it interesting. So the music is to be captured, you know. We went down there and felt it all.
I mean, it’s very interesting to note that the backup band on a lot of these originals was Booker T. & The M.G.’s, two white guys and two Black guys who didn’t put their picture on the cover of the album in a segregated south. They were staying at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin was shot. This is the timeframe of all that.
Today we live in a much more integrated society. The music has become segregated, if you will. You have Black music over here and country music over here. So this was a wonderful, fertile time. I think what was compelling about it is not only the diversity of personality in all the voices, but the fact that it’s, you know, the life stories infused in the music. The original singers who were singing this stuff weren’t kidding. It was life and death stuff for them, you know.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago, Huey, Black guys and white guys. My guys here on the floor were having a conversation about your music corpus before you walked out and picking our favorite Huey Lewis songs. If I were asked – I have not been – but if I were asked to put together my list of the hippest, most soulful white guys who ever walked the planet, Huey Lewis is on my list.
I mean, you’re on there with Elton John, you’re on there with James Taylor, you’re on there with Kenny Loggins, you’re on there – now start a whole conversation here. There’s a long list of them that I can’t get to in this short conversation. For you, where does all this soul come from, man?
Lewis: Well, I grew up in San Francisco, but my favorite radio station was KDIA which was –
Tavis: – oh, yeah. That answers it (laughter).
Lewis: It was sister station to WDIA and I just lived on a steady diet of KDIA. I didn’t even realize it, you know, that nobody else knew who Rance Allen was. He was the greatest singer I ever heard in my life (laughter). Still do.
Tavis: Rance was pretty cold, yeah. And most folk still don’t know who Rance Allen is.
Lewis: You know, this was the stuff we kind of grew up with. Oddly enough, you know, it’s the thread that binds my band together too because we all like this kind of stuff and we’re all suburban white kids from San Francisco.
Tavis: And you were never intimidated by the music?
Lewis: Yeah, at every stage. We were very careful. It’s a great idea, right? And it doesn’t hurt to work these songs up. The only danger is when you release them, right? (Laughter) So we did it step by step and, as we began to go through the process, it felt so natural for us. It was unbelievable. Then there down there in Memphis and John Fry and Larry Nix who’s the mastering lab brother, Don Nix from the Mar-Keys, and all these people are loving it and it just was a very natural thing.
Tavis: So ten years almost since the last project. So what have you been doing in this ten-year period other than touring, I guess, a lot of touring?
Lewis: A lot of touring, enough touring. You know, we’re not spring chickens anymore, so we don’t work as hard as we used to because that way it’s like falling in love all over again. So we’ve been doing that and we’ve been recording and writing as well. But like I say, it’s one thing to record and write. It’s another thing to put a project together that you think has merit and release it.
Tavis: So I hear you guys aren’t spring chickens, but you still got it, obviously. So when you’re on stage these days, you still get the same thing from it? It still feels as good? You still have as much fun when you’re out there?
Lewis: I’m gonna tell you the truth. We’re actually still improving, if you can believe that, for some crazy reason.
Tavis: Wait, wait, hold up. You’ve sold like 20-plus million records. Everybody loves you. How do you improve at this age?
Lewis: I don’t know. I think we’re smarter about it and we make better note choices maybe. Clearly, my range as a singer is not quite as good as it was, but it’s – and as a band, we actually play better than ever.
You know, that’s first and foremost what we are, as a live band. The neat thing about this “Soulsville”project is this stuff just lays out live. I mean, when we play it live, it’s better. It’s good if not better than the record, very easy to sort of replicate.
Tavis: You know, what’s amazing about seeing you guys in concert is that you remind me of another San Francisco-based group, Frankie Beverly & Maze, or Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. Great band. One of the things about Maze and Frankie is that, when they hit the stage, if Frankie is not in particularly good voice on any given night, it really doesn’t matter because the audience knows every lyric to every song and they will sing Frankie through that entire concert.
Your voice is in great shape, but it’s the same for you guys. Your fans know – I mean, you guys sing good music, but it’s sing-along music. So what’s if feel like when you’re on stage looking out at the audience and you can turn the mike to them and they can roll with every lyric on your stuff?
Lewis: Well, it’s the best feeling in the world. I mean, musicians say they want to get in the pocket. There’s a place when you’re playing music that’s not to machines or samples. You know, you’re playing with each other and you try to get on the same page as “we’re in the pocket.”
There’s a point there where you’re in the pocket and you look at each other and you go, “Wow,” and the song begins to play and sing itself in a way and you just ride that wave. The crowd helps you with that and the whole thing, and it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. It doesn’t happen every night (laughter) and here and there, but when it happens, it’s just like it’s fantastic.
Tavis: It’s one thing to be in the floor of your house or in the kitchen, wherever you are, in your bedroom, listening to Black music on the radio. When did you know that this was your gift and that you would do this for a living, that this would be your calling, your vocation, your purpose?
Lewis: Well, when I went to college and joined my first sort of fraternity bands. I played for a while and, once I started joining a band, I found that although R&B was my favorite music to listen to, all music was fun to play. I ceased to become a snob and my harmonica led me to other music. I played country. We were in a country rock band for a while, then we formed this band, and so on.
The interesting thing is – and a couple of critics have pointed this out now – we produce these records ourselves for the most part and we co-produced this with Jim Gaines, our long-time pal and producer. When we get done with it and I listen to the whole thing – it was mastered there and I listened to the whole thing back to front – I had this weird feeling and a couple critics pointed out that they think it didn’t sound all that dissimilar from Huey Lewis & The News.
We had tried to stay real faithful, you know, to the original intent of these guys and, suddenly like an epiphany, I realized, “Wow, I really was influenced by these guys.” I didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t think of it in terms of our music, but I can hear it.
Tavis: That’s a great compliment, though, and critics pick up on that, though.
Lewis: It is actually. For me it is.
Tavis: How did you pick it up or did it find you? You and this harmonica, how did that happen?
Lewis: My parents were divorced when I was about 11 or 12 and my mother rented out a room to a boarder whose name was Billy Roberts. He wrote Hey, Joe. He had a bunch of harmonicas. You know, he played guitar and the harmonica thing. He gave me a bunch of harps and I started playing them a little bit.
Then I graduated from high school a year young. I was 16 years old and my father sat me down and has sort of man-to-man chat about, as far as he was concerned, I was grown. I could do anything I wanted to do. All the decisions were my own.
I’d just turned 16 in July and he said, “But one more thing, don’t go to college yet. I got one more thing I want to make you do. Don’t go to college. Go bum around Europe for a year.” I’m like, but Dad, I want to go to school, I’m gonna play baseball and all this stuff. He said, “Nope, I’m gonna make you do it.” So I brought the harmonicas and I played my way through Europe.
Tavis: But you never took lessons, though.
Lewis: Well, I did meet other harmonica players and then, when I came back to the states after a year of that, I went to Cornell University for five minutes over a two-year period (laughter) and joined bands. Then I began to study other harmonica players and stuff.
Tavis: Wow. I guess I could have started our conversation here, but since you mentioned that you loved baseball and wanted to play baseball, I should have started by congratulating you and the San Francisco Giants (laughter).
Lewis: Big, big story.
Tavis: How big a deal is that?
Lewis: Oh, really big, really big, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, that was a great series, man. They put so many runs on the board, it was unbelievable.
Lewis: I’ve never seen – I mean, I’ve been watching World Series since I’m 11 years old. I’ve never seen better pitching than that. I mean, it was just unbelievable.
Tavis: So had you not been Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis & The News, was baseball a real option for you?
Lewis: Well, I was gonna be a pro player and then I turned 11 (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) That’s funny. I assume, then, that you are as proud of this as anything you guys have ever done.
Lewis: I am. I really think it’s our best work. Hopefully, it’ll turn people on to the period. You know, not to belabor the point, but the nice thing about – I talked about the integrated musicians – in a world today politically as well, you know, if you’re a right winger, you can watch a bunch of TV shows where nobody ever disagrees with you. And if you’re a left winger, you can watch a bunch of other shows where nobody disagrees. That’s not healthy. This was a great, healthy period in American popular music, so we’re happy to pay tribute.
Tavis: So here we are in this contentious election week with Huey Lewis & The News bringing us all together (laughter). We can sing “Kumbaya” together if we all get the CD. It’s called “Huey Lewis & The News.”
They have gone into the Stax vault and there ain’t a vault no better in the world to bring into, and they have come out with 14 beautiful tracks. A lot of stuff you might not know, but I’m sure when you hear Huey and the guys hit it, you’ll fall in love with it. Huey Lewis, an honor to have you on the program.
Lewis: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: Oh, it’s my delight.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm