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Singin' for a Livin'

For Huey Lewis and the News, the heart of rock 'n' roll is in Cleveland


Though singer Huey Lewis and his backing band the News are readily associated with the '80s, the singer's career actually precedes the decade. Lewis, who has sold over 20 million albums during the course of his career, had pop/R&B hits such as "Heart of Rock & Roll," "I Want a New Drug," "Hip to be Square" and "Workin' for a Livin'." Most recently, he had a role in a Broadway production of Chicago and has had several cameos on TV's Hot in Cleveland. He recently phoned in from a tour stop in New York City to talk about his career and his undying love for Cleveland.

You moved to London with your first band, Clover, and recorded two records in Wales. What did you like about living in the UK?

Well, we were managed by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson and produced initially by Nick Lowe. I enjoyed the music scene in England. We had a front-row seat for the punk stuff. Jake and Dave went on and managed Graham Parker and the Rumour and Elvis Costello and the Damned. They started Stiff Records. I saw all of that. The thing I liked best about it was that the bands musically weren't up my alley, but I loved their stance. They weren't conforming to what the music business was telling them to do. They were singing their own songs in their own quirky way and thumbing their noses at the music industry. I thought, " What a relief." With Clover, we spent our whole career trying to appear attractive to these record labels. I vowed that if Clover every broke up, I would do that like the punks. I would find a nice club and play that club with my band and pay no attention to anybody. We'd just be more rhythm-and-blues based. That's what I did.

Is it true that the band backed up Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True?

Our rhythm section from Clover did. Sean Hopper, who plays in the News, played keyboards. I got to know Elvis and I saw him not too long ago. He's smarter than hell. He's a good guy, actually.

You originally called the band Huey Lewis & the American Express, but the company had you change the name.

Our record label was afraid we'd be sued, oddly enough, because no bands had done anything with corporate connections. I liked the name because that's what we sounded like, I thought. We had 24 hours to come up with a new name, because the record was done and the cover was done, and we had to change it.

For better or worse, you're associated with the '80s. The decade isn't usually highly thought of when it comes to music and style.

Two huge things happened. One is music television. Two is machines. "Hey Nineteen" by Steely Dan might be the first record ever in the Top 40 with the drum machine. By the end of the '80s, you have "Der Kommissar." It was a German group and it was a funky record. Anytime the Germans are funky, you know something is up. You think of the Wang Chung hit ["Everybody Have Fun Tonight"]. You can count on one hand the drummers who can play that beat for five minutes without speeding up or slowing down. [Because of the drum machine], everybody had the same drummer. If you want to know what the '80s were about, listen to Off the Wall and then Thriller. Off the Wall is humans, and Thriller is machines. It's amazing.

Do you have a preference?

It's only different, not better or worse. They say if you put a warm alarm clock next to a litter of kitties, the kitties will gravitate more toward it than the mother's heartbeat. From my day, you think about pinball machines. They were steel balls that clanged against these bells and the wooden sides of the glass. Today's it's all synthesized sound. That sounded cold to us. But to kids today, that sounds like fun. There is no wrong or right on that. I prefer the acoustic sounds and ambient sounds.

Your bio says you "do almost anything for attention or money," but you haven't appeared on Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. Is that out of the question?

Well, look, everything has a price. I do things now because they make creative sense to me. We have a career —knock on wood — for 34 years now, and people show up to see us play and we do fine, thank you. When stuff comes to me, I have to ask if it's creative to me. If it's not creative, I have no interest.

Some of the Celebrity Apprentice projects seem creative.

I think people do that because it's a career move. I guess I should do it. It would make me a bigger star and up my price somehow. I saw Michael Bolton on [Dancing with the Stars], and I had turned down the show, and there's a set with a picket fence, and Bolton comes out of the house on his hands and knees with a collar on. Is that good for him? I don't want to see my rock stars like that; I really don't.

I thought you'd get more chances to act after you starred in Duets.

I thought maybe I would too, but I didn't. I've done some Hot in Cleveland shows. They're really fun. I'm Victoria Chase's love interest from back in her rock 'n' roll days, and I surface every so often. That's a great show. I was one of the first guest stars, along with Carl Reiner, Buck Henry, and Don Rickles. The writers are great.

Talk about your memories of playing in Cleveland.

I love Cleveland. I wrote "The Heart of Rock & Roll" after a gig in Cleveland. We had been told what a great rock 'n' roll town Cleveland was. I thought, Cleveland? And then we played this incredible gig at the Agora. In the morning on the bus ride out, I was thinking about the gig, and I exclaimed out loud that the heart of rock 'n' roll is in Cleveland. I said, "Hey man, that sounds like a song." I changed it to the heart of rock 'n' roll is still beating." The inspiration is that the heart lives in towns like Cleveland more so than New York or L.A. If you want to know what's going to happen, it's gotta play in Cleveland. Cleveland is a great music town and a great sports town.

Talk about performing in Chicago.

I did it on Broadway for two three-month stints. I thought I couldn't do it when they offered me. When I saw it, not only did I love the play, but I thought I could do it. It was a challenge.

Was there a point where you were close to breaking up?

It's been steady. We lost a couple of members. The rest of us have been here. We don't do 200 shows a year anymore, and that's key. You have to pick the right number and it's just fine. It's the best job in the world, unless you do it too much.


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