“I never should have written ‘Hip to be Square’ in the third-person,” says Huey Lewis of the News fame. The man who has sold more than 30 million records, spawning such ‘80s classics as “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “I Want a New Drug,” the Oscar-nominated “The Power of Love” and the song he’s fretting about now, a narrative lynchpin in both the book and film of Brett Easton Ellis/Mary Harron’s “American Psycho.” “People though I was singing about myself.”
The 69-year-old, longtime pal Jimmy Kimmel’s favorite rock star, is making a push for his under-appreciated legacy with a pleasingly backward-looking blues/R&B, horns-heavy seven-song album, “Weather,” out on Feb. 14 via BMG Rights Management.
The album arrives at a bittersweet time, as Lewis has been suffering from a rare inner-ear disorder called Meniere’s Disease that causes his hearing to suddenly diminish, making it impossible for him to perform. He was first diagnosed with it 30 years ago, when doctors noticed hearing loss in his right ear, but on January 2018, just before taking the stage in Dallas, he suffered a drastic episode.
“It was like an explosion,” he recalled, which left a buzzing radio static in his ears that “made it difficult to hear what people were saying. I couldn’t sing in tune.” According to the Mayo Clinic website, “no cure exists.” On good days, Lewis rates his hearing a “6 out of 10,” on days when he’s a “3,” he can barely carry on a phone conversation. The frustration is not knowing what to expect from the condition, which also includes bouts of vertigo.
The seven songs on “Weather,” the group’s first album of original material since 2001’s “Plan B,” were recorded over the last 10 years, all of them before “the crash,” as Huey calls it (the band was hoping to record two or three more). The disc is self-produced, as Lewis and the band have done since the beginning, including their 1983 seven-times-platinum, chart-topping “Sports,” which boasted four Top 10 pop hits, all ubiquitous back then on radio and MTV.
“We made this in the same way as that album,” he says. “I’m proudest of the fact that we did it all ourselves. I think our success has sometimes been used against us, but I’m not crying about it. I wouldn’t change anything.”
With a return to the live stage increasingly unlikely — the group still includes original keyboardist Sean Hopper, drummer Bill Gibson and guitarist/saxist Johnny Colla — the first track on the new record, “While We’re Young” says it all. “Life is short/ Let’s take advantage of every opportunity.”
Live Nation’s Jonathan Wolfson, whose Wolfson Entertainment has done wonders as manager of Daryl Hall & John Oates — helping to change the narrative about a blockbuster ‘80s blockbuster group that had not aged well, until suddenly it had — has been working with Lewis since last year. The album release comes as the singer continues to film a documentary, “Huey Lewis: If This Is It,” which is being shopped by CAA Media Finance and Submarine, while a jukebox musical, “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with Imagine Entertainment’s Tyler Mitchell aboard as producer, is looking to Broadway after a successful 2018 run at Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
The doc’s director, USC film school grad Kurt Kuenne (“Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”), approached the project as a labor of love, financing it himself from when he began filming last June. The trailer captures Lewis’ fight against the hearing disorder with typical good humor and hearty optimism.
“We all want this film to have a happy ending, I couldn’t wish for anything more,” says Kuenne, who has directed episodes of NBC’s “Blacklist” and is also a film score composer. “As a musician, his plight hit me right in the gut,” says Kuenne. “It’s an unflinching look at what Huey is going through. I don’t know how many people could have his [positive] attitude. He can’t even listen to music because of this condition; it distorts notes and makes them sound out of tune. But it’s also a way to explore the story of the band itself, a love letter to Huey Lewis and the News.”
Although the group is generally considered more square than hip, Lewis has rock-solid bona fides. His original Bay Area band, Clover, was brought to London by Stiff Records’ Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson and were the backing group on Elvis Costello’s legendary 1977 debut, “My Aim Is True.” Clover’s two records were produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange (producer of blockbuster albums by Def Leppard and Shania Twain). Lewis played harmonica on Thin Lizzy’s iconic 1978 “Live and Dangerous,” then produced Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll),” had a vocal solo on “We Are the World” and a memorable on-screen cameo in “Back to the Future,” scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “The Power of Love.”
“Honestly, I would die to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he laughs about his inadvertent pun. “It says that you’ve moved that ball forward a little bit. You put your shoulder to the wheel of honest rock and roll. And that’s all you can hope to do.”
In the end, though, Huey Lewis has had his own rewards. “What’s touching is when people tell me how much our music has affected their lives for the better in a myriad of different ways,” says Lewis. “Whether they’ve lost a loved one or overcome a disease or getting married — it’s a wonderful thing to have happen.”