Huey Lewis on 30 Years of 'Sports': 'Our 15 Minutes Were a Real 15 Minutes'
Huey Lewis was so famous in the mid-Eighties that when Pepsi signed Michael Jackson, Coke felt they had little choice but to reach out to Huey. "They had to play catch-up," says Lewis between bites from a club sandwich at Rolling Stone headquarters. "They told me I had the largest Q score of anybody in America. I didn't know what that meant, but they told me it was based on likability, recognizability, credibility and all that crap. They actually said to me, 'We think you have what we call 'Cokeness.'"
Coke offered him millions of dollars, but he turned them down. "In retrospect, it was probably a mistake," he says. "It could have been good for the career – forget the money." At the time, Lewis didn't seen to need much more attention. His 1983 LP, Sports, spawned five massive hit singles, and in 1985 he appeared in Back to the Future and released the huge hit "The Power of Love" on the soundtrack.
Things cooled down after that, but he still had enough hits to play to big audiences for decades to come. A deluxe edition of Sports hit shelves this month, and we spoke with Lewis about the landmark album, as well as American Psycho, Back to the Future, "We Are the World" and many other things.
Let's start with Sports. What did you hope to accomplish with that album when you started it?
Well, our first album didn't do anything. We produced the second album ourselves and kind of broke even. The third single from that was "Working for a Living." That was a hit, but our future was anything but secure. This was the third album on our contract, and we knew we had to have a hit.
There was no Internet. There was no jam-band scene. FM radio was very programmed. There was only one avenue to success, and that was to have a hit record. We produced it ourselves and wanted to make sure we did it on our terms. Our style was to take something old and make it modern. Around 1980 we heard Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen," which was cut with the LinnDrum. Our idea was to take the modern technologies of the day as kind of the cake, if you will, and then have the icing be saxophones and voices and old-school stuff. It was the old and the new at once.
Tell me about writing "The Heart of Rock & Roll." I'm a native Clevelander, so I've always loved that song.
We're from San Francisco, and we think it's the greatest place in the world. We had heard that Cleveland was this great rock & roll town. I thought, "Cleveland? How can Cleveland be anything? What can they have in Cleveland that we don't have in San Francisco?" Then we played a gig in Cleveland, I think at the Agora, around 1980. It was a great gig, and the crowd was amazing. We're driving the next day, and I'm looking at the gray skyline. I sort of absent-mindedly say, "You know guys, the heart of rock & roll really is in Cleveland." Then I went, "Oh my gosh, that's a great idea for a song."
The other guys said, "The heart of rock & roll is in Cleveland?" So then I rewrote it as "The heart of rock & roll is still beating." But that was the original idea.
I've heard the story about you guys playing with Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True so many different ways. Can you just clear it up for the record?
I was in a vintage pub rock band called Clover in the 1970s. A plan was hatched for us to go to England and take the country by storm. Literally, the day we landed, Johnny Rotten spit in the face of an NME reporter, and the game was on. It was the wrong place at the wrong time. These people we had worked with started Stiff Records, and Elvis Costello was their first hire. They needed a band for Elvis, so they stuck him with us.