Huey Lewis Still Plans to Entertain His Fans Despite Hearing Issues

Huey Lewis and Jimmy Kimmel - Getty - H 2020
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In conversation with his friend and superfan Jimmy Kimmel, the '80s pop icon looked back on his high-flying career and his new album.

Is Huey Lewis about to go Hollywood, all over again? While visiting the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live for an onstage conversation Wednesday with Jimmy Kimmel, the '80s hitmaker — who’s been making the promotional rounds for Weather, the first album of original material from Huey Lewis and the News in nearly two decades — revealed that since his hearing and ability to sing on pitch has been severely impaired since he was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, he may find a new creative outlet in acting.

"I enjoy acting,” Lewis, who’s had roles of varying prominence in Hollywood output like Short Cuts, Duets, Back to the Future, Hot in Cleveland and One Tree Hill, told the audience in the museum’s Clive Davis Theater. “Unfortunately, I don't get a lot of parts because I'm a singer, not an actor — they go to real actors, but I really enjoy it, and if I can't sing, I need to be creative somehow, so why not?"

Lewis made it clear that despite his hearing issues keeping him from live performance and thus far preventing him from returning to the studio, he was still very much engaged in entertaining audiences. Lewis also has a jukebox musical in the works featuring his band’s enduring hits — an enviable list including “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “I Want a New Drug,” “If This Is It,” “The Power of Love,” “Hip to Be Square” and many more — having recently staged an early incarnation in San Diego. “We’ve workshopped it in New York and partnered up with Tony Award-winning executive producer Hunter Arnold, and we're going to try and get it to Broadway next season,” he revealed.

And there’s that new album, dropping Friday, cheekily titled to reference the biggest LP of his heyday, 1984’s Sports — which was itself a play on the band’s name. “We’ve got News, Sports and Weather. It’s like an AM radio station,” cracked Kimmel.

“And if I can get my hearing back, we're going to do Business next,” replied Lewis without missing a beat.

Lewis conversed with Kimmel with little difficulty throughout the hourlong Q&A, but admitted he was having a rough hearing day. “It fluctuates, but it's bad today; I go [on a scale of] one to 10, and I'm a two and a half today,” he revealed. “A six is as good as I've been since my hearing collapsed two years and a month ago.”

Lewis remained cautiously optimistic that his hearing will improve enough — through treatment, technology or healing on its own — to return to his musical endeavors. “We really don't know. I thought I was kind of getting better for a while,” he said. “I was a six for nine weeks until Dec. 12. And as a six with my hearing aids, I'm pretty good … [I] could maybe even sing. I don't know that, but I haven't been able to figure it out because as soon as I'm booking a rehearsal, my hearing crashes."

“So the prognosis, they don't know,” he added. “There's still stuff I'm trying, but unfortunately since Dec. 12, I was like a four or five for a handful of days, but the rest of the time I've been less than a three.”

Before the panel, Lewis also debuted his band’s new video for the song “Her Love Is Killin’ Me,” which also provided a nice through-line to the News’ tongue-in-cheek clips from the MTV days. The video featured a huge assembly of the band’s celebrity fans, including Brandon Flowers, Joe Montana, Brad Paisley, Jimmy Buffett, Trace Adkins, Sean Hayes, Patrick Warburton, Wendie Malick, June Lockhart and Kimmel himself, lip-syncing the new song. “I feel like that's the closest I'm ever going to get to being on The Love Boat in the '70s,” quipped the late-night host.

The cross-genre, cross-demographic and cross-generational appeal of the band’s music was something that Lewis said he felt was missing from the modern day industry.

“Today, society is much more integrated, but music is segregated — it's weird,” he said. “You can listen to one kind of music all day long; you can listen to one kind of politics all day long — that's just not healthy. And what was nice about Top 40 radio was it was an editing process where we all tried to have a hit. If you heard a Huey Lewis and the News song on KFRC, the next song might be a Garth Brooks song or a Commodores song or an AC/DC song. … It was an editing process that was, I think, kind of good, in retrospect. You can't have a hit like that today. They just don't exist.”

Throughout the conversation, Kimmel made no secret of his fanboy love for Lewis, which has blossomed over the years into a genuine friendship: The two go fishing together, and Lewis’ son Austin works on the host’s late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! Kimmel’s cousin Sal Iacono, a writer and regular castmember on the show, was also in the audience, as was bandleader and Kimmel’s childhood friend Cleto Escobedo III.

“Cleto and I have been very, very close friends since I was 9 years old and he was 10 years old,” Kimmel told Lewis. “He grew up across the street from me, and in 1984 Cleto broke into a boat and stole a carton of cassette tapes, and one of those cassette tapes was Picture This, your second album." 

Lewis vividly recounted his various adventures in music-making with the skill of a natural-born storyteller, including the first time he heard himself with the band on the radio, when he and the members of the News had gathered together to hear “Do You Believe in Love” play on a station in the Bay Area, where the band was formed.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” he said. “They put it on and the song, and I remember thinking two things: One was, 'Oh, my God, it sounds like somebody else!’ We had produced it ourselves and I'd sung it way too many times, but it just sounded like somebody completely different. And two, it sounded like a hit! I thought it was gonna be a hit.”

He also recalled a serendipitous moment in 1984 when his first mega-smash song was in heavy rotation. “I'm driving into New York City in a rent-a-car. … It's big, heavy traffic and suddenly ‘Heart of Rock and Roll’ comes on Z100,” he recalled. “I'm listening to it and [the song] goes ‘New York, New York, there's no place that I'd rather be — honk, honk!’’ And right at that moment, as we're merging, a car in back of me goes ‘Honk! Honk!’ It was just wild!”

Lewis also revisited his time in the studio alongside a legion of music superstars when they recorded the culture-shaking charitable record “We Are the World.”

“It was an unbelievable evening, as you can imagine — I mean, you don't get to meet these kinds of people in your life, let alone hang out with them,” he remembered. “I got Prince's line. Prince didn't show up for some reason — he boycotted the thing — and so I'm out there in the foyer somewhere after we've sung the whole chorus and somebody comes to me says, ‘Quincy [Jones] wants to see you.’ ‘Okay.’ I come out and he goes, ‘Hey, Smelly, come over here’ — Michael Jackson’s nickname was Smelly, because he was so clean. ‘Sing the line to Huey.’ Michael sang the line, and Quincy said, ‘Sing it, Huey.’ And I sang the line, and he says, ‘You got it.’ That's how I got the part.”

A byproduct of that historic recording session would, surprisingly, lead to one of Lewis’ greatest career regrets. He’d grown up idolizing Bob Dylan (“He just painted the moon, as far as I'm concerned”) and found himself and Willie Nelson regaling the legendary folk singer about relieving on-the-road boredom playing golf. Not long after, “Dylan sent me a song — he sent me a song that I did not cut,” Lewis revealed. “He sent me a lovely note that said, ‘Huey, I loved your last record and I know the next one will be good, too. Here's the song of mine I think you might like.’”

“I don't know what I was thinking,” Lewis admitted to the audience about his decision not to record the offered tune. Kimmel pointed out that Lewis has always followed his own instincts throughout his career, and Lewis laughingly conceded: “I've never been a good listener. And now I have an excuse.”