A couple years ago, Huey Lewis acknowledges, the glass was more than half empty. The Meniere’s disease he had contracted several decades ago had turned into a full-fledged disability, and, unable to hear properly enough to sing at a January 2018 corporate show in Dallas, his performing career appeared to be over.
But as he nears the Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) release of Weather, the first new album of predominantly original material from Huey Lewis & the News since 2001’s Plan B, the music lifer’s heart of rock ‘n’ roll is beating a little bit stronger.
“I’m pretty good with it now, and we’ve stayed somewhat busy — that’s the key,” Lewis tells Billboard. Though he “spent the first couple months in bed” and even had suicidal thoughts after his hearing collapsed, Lewis and company now have not only the new album but also a stage musical, The Heart of Rock & Roll, and a documentary film that’s being made. Some catalog projects are also on tap, and Lewis is contemplating writing a memoir when some of the current activity subsides.
“We’ve just been busy working on those things and staying as creative as I can be,” says Lewis, who’s sold more than 30 million records with the News since 1980, winning a Grammy Award and being nominated for an Academy Award along the way. “You’ve got to do something creatively. You can’t fish all day long, you know what I mean?”
Lewis and the News have been working on the Weather songs for several years. “Her Love Is Killing Me” even dates back at least 20 years, Lewis says, while the group has been playing that and the single “While We’re Young” in concert — ironically singing “life’s too short/let’s take advantage of every opportunity” in the latter. “Pretty Girls Everywhere,” meanwhile, is a cover of a 1958 Eugene Church single. And Lewis was commissioned by producer Dave Cobb to write the country-flavored “One of the Boys” — featuring Lewis’ former Clover bandmate John McFee, now of the Doobie Brothers, on pedal steel — for Willie Nelson; With lines such as “though I ain’t gettin’ any younger/I’m a long way from done” and “playing with my friends, until the music ends,” it provides a poignant epitaph if it is indeed the last song Lewis is able to record.
“Y’know, there’s a lot of people way worse off than I am — I know that,” says Lewis. After care at various facilities, including the Stanford Ear Institute and the Mayo Clinic, and making dietary changes, he uses bluetooth hearing aids and ranks his abilities on a 1-10 scale that changes almost daily. He’s occasionally called band rehearsals when he feels he’s improving, and has performed at a charity golf outing dinner, but he’s not yet achieved a consistency that would allow him to consider trying to play live again.
“The frustrating part is I can’t sing these songs that are written for me,” says Lewis, who had “bad ears as a kid” and began noticing hearing issues as far back as the mid-80s, eventually losing hearing in his right ear entirely. “They fit my range now perfectly rather than the earlier ones that I have to sing at the top of my register. These (new songs) are age appropriate and would be so much fun. And I miss the camaraderie the boys and I have.
“The disturbing part is that even though I’ve never been a great singer I always was reliable. I’m a workhorse — always have been. It’s a big disappointment, I must say. I feel like I let the boys down a bit. But Bill (Gibson, the News’ drummer) said it best — ‘It’s a good thing it didn’t happen 20 years ago.'”
Lewis and the News (Gibson, guitarist/saxophonist Johnny Colla, keyboardist Sean Hopper, bassist John Pierce and guitarist Stef Burns) recorded Weather at its own Trout Farm Studio in Marin County, with longtime collaborator Bob Clearmountain mixing. And Lewis is comfortable with it begin possibly the band’s last musical statement. “I hope it isn’t, but I think I’ve been comfortable with any of the records (as) our final statement, to be honest. I never really think beyond what we’re doing, to be honest, so, yeah, I’m fine with anything.”
As Weather surfaces, Lewis’ attention is turning back to The Heart of Rock & Roll musical, which debuted during 2018 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and, producer Tyler Mitchell has told Lewis, is a good shot for Broadway within the next two years. The show uses Lewis & the News songs, including new material written especially for it, to tell the story about a fledgling rock star who goes “straight” until he gets the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
“It’s really quite simple, but it’s really well done,” Lewis says. “There’s a lot of really talented people involved and it’s very well-written and it’s funny and poignant and sweet. It’s a cheer-up. It’s an upper, which is harder to do. It’s kind of a throwback. It’s really just a love story.” And it’s one he hopes will get some love on the Great White Way.
“A lot of it’s very arbitrary — just like a hit record, really,” Lewis explains. “It’s timing. And for the first time now, you don’t need great, rave reviews to have a hit. You used to need rave reviews; Now you can get by with C reviews and still have a hit. That’s a change. There’s a number of shows that got kind of lukewarm reviews that did well, business-wise. So hit shows need to get by the critics yet be popular with the people, and that’s a tough little line you’ve got to draw right there. It’s not easy, but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”
While that’s going on, Lewis is being tailed by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, although the planned documentary is still in its early stages. “He’s a really great guy and super smart and fun to be around — except he’s around all the fucking time!” Lewis says with a laugh. “He’s pretty hard to get rid of, this guy. You have to feed him to get the camera off him.”
All of this is helping Lewis keep his mind a bit off the bigger picture and his future as a singer. “I’m busy now, but then what will I do? I do think about what happens if I can’t sing again, obviously. I may write something, a memoir, and I can still write (songs) — I just can’t sing with a band.
“All said and done, it’d still be nice to sing something. But I really don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.”