Huey Lewis & the News recorded some of the most iconic pop-rock of the '80s. They notched two No. 1 albums, including 1983's seven-times platinum-certified "Sports." Although the band has constantly toured, it hasn't released an album of original material since 2001's "Plan B."
Now the band is back with "Soulsville," an album of soul covers from the Stax Records catalog, due Nov. 2 on WOW Records. The set includes the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," Johnnie Taylor's "Just the One (I've Been Looking For)" and the title track by Isaac Hayes. Billboard talked to Lewis about his classic soul influences, his business and his sideline as a film and Broadway actor.
Why did you record an album of Stax soul?
It was actually my manager Bob Brown's idea. I was a little wary because I'm a big fan of this stuff. But I figured there's no harm in trying and working the songs up. I was wary because some of these performances are so great they shouldn't be repeated. But I think we've done it justice and we'll turn a lot of people on to this stuff.
Among the songs you chose, were there any that were particularly challenging or that you felt were important to get just right?
We knew you can't do a Stax record without an Otis Redding song, but some of them are untouchable. "Try a Little Tenderness" is out. "Just One More Day" was proposed and I was wary in the beginning, because it's tough. I didn't know if I could cut it. But it was one of the last things we cut and we cut it in one complete take.
This is the first News album since 2001. Why did it take so long to get into the studio again, and why did you decide against original material?
We're not spring chickens. And the public isn't clamoring for new Huey Lewis & the News material. We have written a few things, but you want it to be meaningful, so it becomes increasingly harder.
It's interesting to contrast the market now to the Stax period when the music was created by black and white people-integrated musicians-in a segregated society. Now society is integrated but music is more segregated than ever. We've always enjoyed the gray areas of music and unfortunately there's not a big commercial market for it. But I must say, now that we've got this thing out of our system I've actually got some ideas.
What will you be doing to promote the record?
We're going to tour, and I know we're going on Jimmy Kimmel's show at some point... Commercially, I don't know. It would be wonderful if people would listen to it. That's all we hope for.
Soul music is a wonderfully short but fertile period in American popular music. This little period is a very important part, and looking back it doesn't sound that dissimilar from Huey Lewis & the News stuff. It's very strange to me, almost a new realization that, "Wow, clearly we were influenced by Johnnie Taylor." I've never heard it in our music before. Now that I hear those Johnnie Taylor tunes, I'm like, "Those tunes could have been our tunes."
You've had success as an actor in films and on Broadway. Do you have any plans to continue pursuing roles?
I have a couple things in the fire. I don't know if I should tell you. I did "Chicago" on Broadway for a couple years, and I may do that again, to be honest, because it'd be fun. [Roles] just don't come any better. But there's a lot of other stuff that I'm just not willing to do, like reality shows. To me that's not creative.
How have you weathered changes in the business and kept the band going?
I'm a small-business man. I have 25 employees, we have a pension plan, we have a health plan. We have a rehearsal space and an office. I have to make enough money if I want to keep this thing going, so I have to work. I play "Heart of Rock N' Roll" and "The Power of Love" for the best money. I'm very happy to play my songbook as long as I'm paid for it. We love doing it. We play our songbook 70 nights a year because I have to keep my business alive. I didn't get a bailout.