Nearly 30 years before MTV became a platform for Snookie and the Situation, it spawned the era of the music video, turning a select few musicians into global pop icons. And while Madonna and Michael Jackson were the dominant forces of that medium, no one used the arrival of the music video quite like Huey Lewis.
In an expansive interview with author and columnist Joan Ryan at 142 Throckmorton Theatre Monday night, the 60-year-old Mill Valley native reflected on his four decades in the music business, from learning the harmonica while hitchhiking around Europe in the 60s to his band's forthcoming album of Stax Records songs, due in November.
Before the discussion even started, a video screen played a series of Huey Lewis and the News' music videos, reminding attendees that for a four-year span in the 1980s, the group churned out a ridiculous string of hit singles, each propelled by a goofy music video.
The band sold tens of millions of albums, and 1983's Sports sold 10 million copies alone. Along the way, they powered the Back to the Future soundtrack, collaborated with some San Francisco 49ers on "Hip to be Square" and Lewis landed a slot on the hit charity single "We Are the World." The band slid off the charts in the 90s, and are now in the midst of their 30th anniversary "Still Workin' For a Living" tour.
"It's not brain surgery, this rock 'n roll," he said of his band's music. "We're not John Coltrane. It's a hamburger, not foie gras."
Lewis said Mill Valley and the Bay Area in general was a vital part of his band's success over the years. His pop sensibility, he said, came in part from his interest in R&B music at a time when psychedelic rock dominated the Bay Area scene.
"A little backlash against our hippie parents," he said.
Lewis was born in New York and arrived in Mill Valley at age four. He attended Tamalpais Valley Elementary for a year and then Strawberry Point Elementary before moving on to Edna Maguire, which was a junior high school at the time. He recalled that his mother Magda was a regular at Sausalito's famous no name bar, a gathering place in the 60s for beat poets, writers, jazz musicians and an array of free spirits.
"I woke up at the age of nine with Allen Ginsberg in my living room," he said. "She would bring the no name bar home with her every once in a while."
After Edna Maguire, Lewis shipped off to the Lawrenceville School, an all-boys boarding school in New Jersey, where he graduated a year early, scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT and got into Cornell University.
Before going to Cornell, he took a year to travel Europe, hitchhiking all over and developed a love for the harmonica.
"I really loved playing harmonica," he said. "But I never thought about making it."
After a year and a half at Cornell, Lewis dropped out and came back to the Bay Area. He started a landscaping company and a natural foods distribution business, but kept playing music. He eventually became a member of Clover, a jazz-funk-rock fusion group that developed a following in England in the mid-1970s. Before Clover broke up in 1978, the band played its last gig at the Throckmorton.
Lewis then started a Monday jam session at Uncle Charley's on Paradise Drive in Corte Madera, inviting future News members to join him in his Monday Night Live house band. They eventually recorded a song called "Exo-Disco," a disco version of the theme from the film Exodus, featuring Pee Wee Ellis on saxophone.
"The whole thing about this band is that we weren't trying to make it," Lewis said, noting that while he didn't personally like the punk rock that was emerging out of England at the time, "I loved their stance of thumbing their noses at the system."
"Exo-Disco" drew some attention from label executives, and the house band became American Express, a briefly held moniker until the credit card giant objected.
"I felt like American Express really was what we sounded like," he said. "Even if you can't get the card, get the record. Then we had 24 hours to come up with a name. The News is all we could come up with."
The group's self-titled debut album garnered no attention. Its next three were just the opposite, riding a wave of MTV hits, from "Do You Believe in Love," and "I Want a New Drug" to "The Heart of Rock & Roll" and "If This is It," to massive success.
"For a four-year period, I knew what was a hit," Lewis said. "You have to strike a nerve. I always tried to be timeless."
The pinnacle for Lewis may have been his inclusion on the "We Are the World" charity single, where he stood shoulder to shoulder with the some of the biggest named in the history of recorded music, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and others.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "Normally you wouldn't get to meet all of those people in a lifetime, let alone in one night."
As for the modern music age of iTunes, file-sharing sites and an Internet-driven culture, Lewis said, "I'm not very cheerful when it comes to this stuff. The value of recorded music is going down to zero."
Lewis said he still loves playing music with his band, and is looking forward to the release of the tentatively titled "Soulsville," an album of obscure Stax covers produced by legendary soundman Jim Gaines.
"We as a band now are still getting better," he said. "And we really are a band in every sense."
Here are a few more zingers from Huey Lewis Monday night:
On serial killer Patrick Bateman of the book and film American Psycho being a huge Huey Lewis and the News fan:
"Serial killers everywhere (are fans). I'm just happy to sell some records."
On Mill Valley:
"It's home and it always will be home."
On the Internet's negative impact on local communities:
"Before the Internet, communities used to be autonomous. Marin used to be a very unique place. Now it's just a unique place."
Recounting a Paul Simon quote about the level of stardom at the "We Are the World" recording:
"If a bombs drops on this place, John Denver will be back on top again."
On seeing Ray Charles at that recording session:
"I couldn't summon the courage to say hi to Ray Charles. I just stood near him the whole time."
On who would fill out his ideal golf foursome:
"Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush. Now that would be a foursome."