April 13, 2023

FTV: What’s the News, Huey?


     Are Huey Lewis and the News a thing of the past?  It depends on which source one looks at.  One site proclaims “Huey Lewis and the News are on tour in 2023-2024,” while another states, “There are no concert dates for Huey Lewis scheduled in 2023.”  In a November 2022 interview with U.K.’s Express, the 72 year old Lewis explained he has lost 80 percent of the hearing in his right ear.   Diagnosed with Meniere’s disease more than 25 years ago, Lewis stated he had  symptoms of the affliction for ten years prior to that diagnosis:  “I’ve been having vertigo attacks for 35 years.  Now my hearing still fluctuates.  I measure it on a scale of 1 to 10.  If it’s six and I have hearing aids in, I can hear speech for sure, and I can hear the phone and TV ok.  Can I sing?  Maybe, but I can’t book a rehearsal, because if it goes to two, then I can’t hear anything.”  He went on to describe his condition as, “A ‘syndrome’ more than a ‘disease’, which means [people] really don’t know much about it.”

     Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) describes Lewis’s symptoms as, “An inner ear condition causing sudden attacks of vertigo, tinnitus, pressure felt deep within the ear, and hearing loss.  Vertigo is the term used to describe when the room feels as though it is spinning when it really is not.  Tinnitus, which is another symptom of Meniere’s disease, is when you can hear a ringing noise inside of the ear that is not audible to other people.”  The late Alan Sheppard, NASA’s first man in space, experienced similar symptoms that removed him from active flight status for many years.  In his case, he was able to undergo a surgical procedure that corrected his condition and paved the way for him to walk on the Moon as part of the Apollo 14 mission.

     In the later stage of their career, Huey Lewis and the News were playing some 75 dates per year and and as he described it, “We’re not very prolific.  We weren’t in a hurry to record.”  Their last album came out in 2001 (Plan B) and they spent the next 19 years performing while slowly accumulating songs for a new album.  That album, Weather, was completed in 2018 just before his hearing issues became debilitating.  Huey’s symptoms had come and gone irregularly, but on July 27, 2018, just before a show in Dallas, his hearing disappeared.  The show (and the rest of the tour) was canceled and everything has been up in the air since.  Most were surprised when Weather came out in 2020 and assumed things had improved, but as noted, the album had been in the can before his hearing went south in 2018.

     As Lewis told AARP Magazine in August of 2021, “I’ve been to experts at the Mayo Clinic, Massachuesetts General, and the University of California in San Francisco, I’ve tried all sorts of holistic stuff, from acupuncture to chiropractics to cranial massage to supplements and all kinds of herbs.  Nothing seems to work.  Zero.  It’s such a crazy inner-ear disorder.  The first six months tormented me, but you can get used to anything.”  Huey feels fortunate because he says, “I think, ‘Wow, this could have happened years ago.’  I have to be grateful and I have to admit I’m a lucky guy.”

     If his hearing improves to a 6 out of 10 (he says it is about 4 now), he may be able to perform live again.  In the meantime, “I’m a fly-fishing fanatic.  I fly-fish all over the world.  I’m not conventionally a religious person, but I believe the closest I ever get to God is through Mother Nature.  When you’re fly-fishing, your senses are so attuned to nature, and you’re connecting more deeply.  It is a wonderful feeling.”  Lewis currently lives on a ranch near Stevensville, Montana which he considers his permanent residence, but what about the rest of the band?

     Original bassist Mario Cipollina was hard to miss with his trademark dark shades and the ever present cigarette hanging from his lips.  He cultivated this brooding persona as a member of the band from 1979 to 1995 and reportedly left because he was tired of the touring grind.   Mario remains active in the San Francisco music scene to this day playing with a variety of bands.  He spent some time during his News days playing with his guitarist/brother John as a sometimes member of  Quicksilver Messenger Service (John passed away from a chronic health disorder in 1989).   There was less information available on second guitarist/sax player Johnny Colla and keyboard player Sean Hopper.  Both are still active in the Bay area music biz keeping busy doing their own musical projects and session work.

     Drummer Bill Gibson was also an original member of The News.  When Lewis’s previous band, Clover, ended, a group of musicians began a weekly jam at a Marin County bar called Uncle Charlies.  If you have seen the video for The Power of Love single, then you have seen the place as it is featured prominently in the video.  As the band started to gel, they became Huey Lewis and the American Express with Sean Hopper on keys and Johnny Colla on guitar and Sax.

They toured under that name and early efforts recorded with the new lineup were not exactly successful.  

     The band signed with Chrysalis Records after Pablo Cruise manager Bob Brown heard their demo and helped them land a deal with the label.  Chrysalis feared the American Express credit card company would object to the name, thus they became Huey Lewis and the News in 1980.  Their first self-titled album escaped notice but their 1982 sophomore effort, Picture This got more traction due to the single Do You Believe in Love that had been written by producer Mutt Lange when he worked with Clover.  For some reason, the suits at Chrysalis kept pressuring Lewis to replace Gibson on the drums but Huey stood firm for his friend and bandmate:  “No Bill, no Huey Lewis and the News,” was how he put it to the powers that be.

     About the time the band was making the switch to Chrysalis, guitarist Chris Hayes auditioned for the band.  In an interview with Guitar World magazine (Vol. 44, No. 5 – May 2023), he said it was a departure for him.  Hayes recalled, “I used to be a real jazz snob.  That is all I listened to, and I thought everything else was inferior.  Mike Stern blew me away.  I was way into John Scofield.  That’s the level I aspired to.”  He was playing in multiple bands for less than stellar wages when the call came to audition for the News:  “I just kind of fell into it. I got lucky.  I lived next door to this lady who said, ‘I know this guy who needs a guitar player.  Are you interested in auditioning?’  I went in and remember I was looking down at my fingers the whole time.  Huey said, ‘He plays really well but we have to work on his image.’  I wasn’t much of a performer at the time.”

     Watching video of Hayes on stage could make one doubt that last statement, but he gives Lewis the credit for showing him the ropes on how to become a better performer.  When the offer to join The News came around, Hayes thought it was a great opportunity to break out of the fifty bucks a night gigs he had been chasing:  “Huey and the band were going places, so it felt like a good situation.  I learned a lot from Huey.  He got me to start performing more, got me into putting on a show and jumping around.  He built up my confidence.  I give him a lot of credit for that.  He changed my onstage persona.”  

     As the band transitioned from a hard rocking bar band to a mainstream radio juggernaut pumping out platinum selling hits, Chris proved to be more than just an energetic presence on stage.  Hayes proved his worth on stage adding what writer Joe Bosso calls, “Insanely catch riffs and punch, adventurous solos to the group’s rapidly growing number of knockout hits.  [Hayes] also proved to be an ace songsmith.  Among the tracks that bear his name are Workin’ for a Livin’, I Want a New Drug, and the Oscar nominated The Power of Love (written for the blockbuster film Back to the Future, it was the first of the group’s songs to hit Number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100).”

     “That was a magical time for us,” Hayes says.  “We sold out two nights at Madison Square Garden, and then we were nominated for an Oscar.  Richard Dreyfuss sat next to me at the Academy Awards ceremony.  I tried to say something to him, but he ignored me.  Other than that, it was incredible.”  With the rise of hip-hop and grunge, the band no longer commanded the airways or charts and their album releases grew spotty.  By 2001, Hayes made the decision it was time to get off the road.

     He told Bosso, “My motivations for leaving were personal.  I had a son who I didn’t see that much because I was traveling.  Then I got a divorce and stopped drinking – things had gotten out of hand.  When I hit 42 and started a new family, I decided I wanted to be present for my children.  Being on the road with a band is no way to raise kids,  It was time to change everything, so I did.”  He and his current wife split their time between Reno, Nevada and Springfield, Oregon.  He picks up a guitar when he feels like it and like his band brother Huey, he does a lot of fishing.

     Hayes doesn’t feel the need to write a book telling the tale of his road warrior days, nor does he have anything negative to say about his former bandmates:  “I love them all.”  No sordid tales of debauchery or tell all, bridge burning stories come from his lips.  Chris never ruled out rejoining the band or doing a couple of reunion gigs, but with Huey’s hearing problems, neither of those options are on the table at present.  Hayes says, “The situation with Huey’s hearing is really unfortunate, but you know, if he called me tomorrow and said, ‘My hearings better.  Do you want to do a reunion?’ I’d probably say yes.  I like Huey.  He’s a great friend.  We talk on the phone about fishing – we have that in common.  It’s so funny.  Back in the day, we talked about music.  Now it’s fishing.”

     Chris isn’t afraid to admit his life had kind of spun out of control.  In answer to the question, “Was drinking a big issue?”, he responded, “That was an issue.  I became a Christian, and drinking just wasn’t conducive to my lifestyle.  On the road, I found myself drinking when I didn’t even want to.  I am not bagging on people who drink, but for me, it wasn’t working anymore.  It was fun while it lasted [laughs].  I certainly had lots of fun, but after a while you have to decide when enough is enough.  I spent about five years touring with the band, and I was completely sober.  That was a little strange, then I went back to drinking after being sober for five years.  That is when I said, ‘If I keep doing this, it’s not going to get better.’  I left the band for personal reasons.  It had nothing to do with the rest of the guys.”   

     Bosso asked Hayes to explain his input on a few of their hits like I Want a New Drug.  Chris explained, “I kind of fashioned it after Workin’ for a Livin’.  That song was something of a success, so I said, ‘I’m gonna write a song like it.’  I came up with that bouncy guitar riff, and that was that.  It was actually super easy;  it came right out.”  As for the latitude Lewis gave him in constructing solos, Hayes recalled, “Huey was great.  He gave me a lot of leeway on solos.  He always ‘got’ me.  He knew what he wanted out of me, and he did it in a very gracious way.  A lot of times we’d try a guitar solo, but sometimes we’d listen to it and go, ‘No, it needs the sax there’.”  Having a second guitar player and skilled sax player like Colla in the band certainly gave them a variety of ways to do their arrangements.

     Hayes told Bosso working in the News was very democratic.  He described Huey as ‘the benevolent dictator’ but not in a negative sense:  “Huey could be tough, but he had to herd cats, and that wasn’t always easy.”  One song Chris didn’t cotton to at first was Hip to be Square:  “The lyrics are a little cutesy, so I can see why some people are turned off.  It took me a while to say, ‘It’s a good song.’  Maybe it’s because I’m old now [laughs].  Now I actually like it.  The video we did was killer.  It’s the kind of song that they like to put in commercials.  It’s had a life.”

     What does a former high profile rock star do when they decide enough is enough?  Hayes noted a lot has happened in his life since he left the road:  “I’ve raised a family and have been to a lot of soccer games.  Careers in music have  definite periods, and I think I left the band just at the right time.”

     In one of those happy accidents of concert bookings, Huey Lewis and the News played a gig at Lakeview Arena in Marquette in the summer of 1984.  We attended that show and wondered if the band was hyped that their Sports album had just gone to Number 1 on the charts.  It isn’t very often that a small market concert town like Marquette can land the top selling band in the land but it happened with the News.  Huey didn’t brag on it, but he did make mention of it during their show.  I rarely rank concerts I have seen because I pretty much like all live music.  In this case, I will go out on a limb and say this show would be in my top five.

     I can relate a bit to his hearing problems.  In the mid-1980s, I came down with a virus and ended up seeing a specialist when the hearing in my left ear did not come back.  After ruling out something more serious like a tumor, he said, “A virus can do that.  Some people lose their sense of taste.  You lost the low and middle frequencies you can hear with your left ear.”  At the time there was no solution to my problem, but perhaps it is time to get it re-evaluated.  I find it hard to follow conversations when there is a lot of background noise.  On the plus side, and much to the dismay of my students, I got pretty good at lip-reading to compensate.  Kids were often amazed I knew what they were gossiping about in the back row well out of earshot.

         It is sad to hear Huey Lewis and the News as we knew them might be done.  On the other hand, it is good to hear that Lewis and Hayes are still living a good life and have accepted the fact that they had a good run and wouldn’t change a thing.


Top Piece ‘Video:  Speaking of The Power of Love . . .