Huey Lewis: Time for The News
Huey Lewis is one of an increasing band of rock musicians who love to golf. Each year he goes on tour, to places like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach. He loves to play as much as he loves to party, and it helps keep him young. Paul Trow, accompanied by photographer Leon Harris, caught up with him on the Road—the Road Hole, that is.
What’s the News, Huey? How the man must be sick of this line of questioning. Naturally, I steered well clear. But I needn’t have bothered. The guy’s so cool, and charming, and life-embracing, he couldn’t give a @*!#.
On this occasion, though, as we bumped into each other in one of the many labyrinthine corridors of the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews, I didn’t even have a chance to ask. I was an old friend of 24 hours’ standing and he was bursting to tell me. “Shot a 79 today at Kingsbarns, Paul. Played well, really happy! Awesome place!”
Seventy-nine is good, even for a 9-handicap golfer, especially when compiled round one of Scotland’s most beautiful and challenging courses. Apart from anything else, it sounds a lot better than 80, even though there’s only one shot in it. For the uninitiated, Huey—Hugh Anthony Cregg III, according to his birth certificate—is the lead vocalist, harmonica player and main songwriter for Huey Lewis & the News, perhaps best known for their third album Sports and their contribution to the soundtrack of the 1985 film Back to the Future. He’s also an occasional actor, on Broadway (Chicago) as well as films (Duets and Short Cuts), and a more-than-occasional golfer.
But in recent times, his fans might have been forgiven for taking the view that their hero’s only a part-time rock star. More of a Sibelius man myself, I couldn’t comment, but I know a force of nature when I meet one. After all, you don’t become one of the biggest-grossing stars of all time without a bit of go in your mojo.
So it came as a surprise to discover that prior to his forthcoming world tour early next year—to promote his first album since 2001—he had to undergo a heart bypass. True, he’s 60 years old (the age when this sort of thing might become necessary), but you tend to forget that when you’re in his company.
Fit, tanned, ebullient, dynamic. Huey Lewis fitted all those descriptions the evening before his fine round at Kingsbarns. We met in the iconic Jigger Inn next door to the Old Course Hotel and he was tucking into a pint of Belhaven Brewery’s finest ale and a triple-stack cheeseburger (not precisely what his doctor ordered, but I won’t let on about the side plate of French fries).
Appetites refreshed, a most enlightening interview unfolded. First up, he was keen to tell us about his new album. “We make a record every decade,” he boasted. “This one’s called Soulsville and it’s a collection of 14 cover tracks from great artists from Memphis, Tennessee. Most of these artists are relatively unknown but they all recorded on the Stax label, which was famous for tracks like The Midnight Hour, House of Sound and Dock of the Bay. I’ve picked a collection which I believe we’ve captured faithfully.
“While Motown was very much black music for white people, Stax specialized in R&B music for R&B people, black and white. The artists whose tracks we’ve recorded include William Bell, Eddie Floyd, the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes.”
So how did this unlikely, though extremely eclectic exercise come about?
“It was actually my manager Bob Brown’s idea; then we rehearsed everything and went to Memphis to record it. I was a little wary because I’m a big fan of this stuff. But I figured there’s no harm in trying to work 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.
“We’re not spring chickens. And the public isn’t clamoring for new Huey Lewis & the News material. We’ve 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 in the Sixties 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.
“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 clearly we were influenced by Johnnie Taylor. I’ve never heard it in our music before. Now I hear those Johnnie Taylor tunes, those tunes could have been our tunes.”
No doubt, much of this was the background music to Huey’s upbringing in the San Francisco Bay area, subliminally absorbed though he was largely unaware of it at the time. “When I was 15 years old, my favorite radio station was KBIA which was a sister station to WBIA in Memphis—and these were the only two stations to play this type of music. In a sense, I was returning to my roots with this album. B.B. King made his name in Memphis, and Aretha Franklin was born there.”
From one form of swing to another, why golf?
“I didn’t take it up till I was 33. Why do I love it? It’s a gentlemen’s game, but we all give in to pressure which is a wonderful lesson for life. The Ryder Cup creates the most immense pressure, obviously—but it tells you that you must concentrate on every shot. At the same time, though, you must relax. What does it mean to me? Golf to me is not a game or a sport, it’s a pastime. It’s America’s pastime, not baseball. The object is to enjoy yourself while passing the time. Golf is about the smelling of flowers, as Walter Hagen once said. I’m a huge fan of golf and I love its integrity. Everyone who plays is transparently honest.
“I got married in 1983 to my wife, Sidney, in Hawaii—we separated after six years, but we’re still pals. I was over there with my wife-to-be, her mother and sister. They wanted to sit on the beach all day. So I went to Kapalua, rented some clubs and I was hooked. I played baseball as a kid [he’s being modest here because he was all-state at high school in New Jersey] so I had a little hand-eye coordination going for me.
“The next season we were in Dallas and I said to the boys ‘let’s go play golf.’ It’s the perfect complement to rock touring because there’s always a great golf course nearby and it’s the ideal way to fill the day before you go on stage to perform. My job takes me to some of the best golf destinations on the planet—Orlando, Hawaii, Puerto Rico to name but three. If you’re in places like that and you don’t play golf, it’s a drag. But if you do, wow!
“My band members who I’ve been playing [golf] with for 18 years are Bill Gibson (drums), now off 9, and John Pierce (bass), off 12. We beat each other’s brains out for 5 dollars a game. We may be the most together band in the world, but when we play golf someone’s going to owe 5 dollars. We’ve been together as a band for 32 years—we all grew up together. Gibson and I met in 7th grade when we were 12 years old.
“After high school, we all gravitated together. We’re the union of two rival bands in high school. Three were from a band called Soundhole while Clover was my band. Johnny Colla (sax, guitar), Sean Hopper (keyboards), and Steph Burns (guitar) form the rest of the current band along with a three-piece horn section.
“We play 75 dates a year, always in the U.S. We come to the rest of the world every third year. We’ll play anywhere. We play a lot of Indian casinos. They all have neat little rooms that hold up to 2,000 people. We also play in wineries, outdoor amphitheaters and suchlike. In our heyday we were the business. We were a hotdog band, now we’re the wine and cheese set. We get smaller crowds, but we charge considerably more for the tickets. The money’s the same [as it used to be] but we get a more intimate atmosphere.”
From hotdog to wine and cheese, via a few pints of Jigger Ale and the odd cheeseburger, Huey has served his dues. He’s also a veteran of the celebrity golf circuit. How come? “I’ve played for 22 years in the AT&T at Pebble Beech, which is what the Dunhill is over in Europe, but I’m going to miss it next year because of our tour.
“The most fun here [at St. Andrews] is in the practice rounds. We played the Old Course today [Wednesday, the day before the tournament] in three hours and 45 minutes, but on Monday we played it in three hours. For this reason, I get angry when we celebrities are accused of playing slowly. It’s not our fault, and you can quote me on that. We all pick up straight away when we’re out of a hole.
“I ask you, how many days of the year do you get to play the Old Course? This  is my fourth Dunhill in a row. Nick Faldo originally got me in. He turned 50 and asked me to sing at his birthday party. He got me tickets to the Masters and we played together in the Dunhill. I will do anything for attention or money, usually in that order! Since playing with Faldo, or Sir Nick as we now know him, I’ve played in the Dunhill with Oliver Wilson, a Ryder Cupper two years ago, Nick Dougherty and this year Peter Lawrie who is from Ireland.
“I’m a member of two clubs back home—Meadow Club in Marin County, northern California, which was Alister MacKenzie’s first U.S. course design, and Stock Farm, a Tom Fazio layout in Missoula, Montana. I’ve had a home there for six or seven years, it’s my bolt-hole. I fly-fish there with Mark O’Meara, who’s a good friend. I use a two-handed Spey rod which has a graphite shaft. I’ve been fly-fishing all my life. I’ve been sea fishing as well with O’Meara and Faldo.
“I ride horses on my ranch in Montana—I’ve got 600 acres. It’s known as the Garden City because its winters are so mild compared to the rest of the state. My caretaker on the ranch is 80 years old, so the place must be really healthy.
“Getting back to golf, among the places I’ve played is Latrobe—with Mr. Palmer as it happens. He’s my man, he’s the King, but he’s so sweet. Howdy Giles [Mr. Palmer’s longstanding friend] is a big fan of our band and he arranged for me to get invited to play. When I got there Mr. Palmer was so friendly. ‘Huey, how you doing?’ he said. ‘Would you like a beer and a bite before we go out?’ So we sat down and had a meal. For my generation of golfers, you’re either an Arnold guy or a Jack guy.
“But that wasn’t the first time I came across Mr. Palmer. I know Kit [Mrs. Palmer] from the Meadow Club. Her first husband was a member there. One day, about seven or eight years ago, I was playing at the Meadow Club when word circulated that Arnold Palmer was playing the course with Peter Jacobsen, who’s a good friend of mine. When I was on the 14th, they were playing the 5th so I went up and introduced myself. Our pro was caddying for Mr. Palmer and our club champion was playing with him. When I got to the green at 18, he was in a greenside bunker on the 9th—they’re alongside each other—and about 60 people were watching him. I was on the front of the green, about 35 feet from the cup. I holed the putt for a gross 75, but only one person saw it—me. The spectators only had eyes for Mr. Palmer.”
But those with eyes for Mr. Lewis yearn to know where he’s come from, what turned him from a promising mathematics student into a rock musician. And whether he regrets any of the decisions he’s made along the way.
“I had to skip second grade. My Dad said ‘don’t go to college straight away,’ so I went bumming round Europe for a year. That was back in 1966-67. I hitchhiked everywhere. I did it all on my own. My father didn’t realize how potentially dangerous an exercise it was. Certainly, I’d never have let my kids do it. In retrospect, though, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I learned to play the harmonica. Heck, I made four dirhams a day playing it in Morocco.”
The kids, who protective Dad would never have exposed to the follies of his youth, are daughter Kelly, who’s 27 and works as a journalist for Bloomberg, and 25-year-old son Austin.
As for Huey’s own academic education—well, that went out of the window, sooner rather than later. “When I got back [from his European jaunt], I attended Cornell University and I got in a band straight away. Really, I was only there for five minutes and then dropped out when the exams caught up with me. I wish I’d played golf back then. Who knows how good I might have been?”
Perhaps as good as he is at rock music, but, as he says, who knows? That said, he’s in the prime of life at the time of writing, and he’s off on tour again soon.
To be fair, he does have half an eye on the distant future, well till April at least, and he does realize he’s not getting any younger. “The fortunate thing about my job is that you can always reduce your schedule. Even though I still enjoy it, I don’t have to do it, but I have to feed the company. Everyone, from the trumpet player to the roadies, needs to work.
“We’re a big band and overall we have 25 employees. So that makes me a small businessman. 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 75 nights a year because I have to keep my business alive. I didn’t get a bailout.” Bailout? Huey Lewis the golfer would never want such a thing, surely?