By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
The star of this month’s Winterfest Boat Parade is actually no stranger to boating … or Fort Lauderdale … or boating in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, singer Huey Lewis will feel right at home on the deck of the Grand Marshal Showboat.
“I’ve been to Fort Lauderdale a bunch gigging but also I’m a salt-water fly fisherman,” says the ’80s ace of pop. “So I embark from there to go tarpon fishing, or the Keys, the Gulf, the Bahamas and all that stuff.”
Lewis practically owned the pop charts in 1984 when Sports, his third album with The News, became the year’s second-best-selling album, popping out four Top 10 hits and ultimately going platinum seven times.
One of those hits, The Heart of Rock and Roll, is the title of a new jukebox musical based on the group’s catalog that recently wrapped up a six-week run at San Diego’s Old Globe theater to mostly rave reviews and an audience response that was “off the charts,” Lewis says.
“It was all sold-out and standing ovations every night,” says Lewis, who lives now in Montana. “It’s really good, I’m telling you. And we’re gonna make it even better.”
Lewis says he’d been approached many times about turning his hits into a musical.
“I’d say, ‘Fine, show me the script.’ That usually gets rid of 99 percent of them.”
It took a twist of fate to finally get the production to the stage, when Lewis’ next-door neighbor from his small, Northern California town of Ross prodded his son-in-law, a theatrical producer, into approaching Lewis about the project.
Lewis remembers producer Tyler Mitchell as a hometown boy. “I was the biggest celebrity in town and he was like an 11-year-old bagging groceries at the supermarket, going, ‘Oh, there he is.’”
Mitchell and Jonathan Abrams came up with “a wonderful first draft of a script that knocked everybody out,” Lewis says. “And that was eight years ago, so we’ve been working on it since.”
For the 68-year-old Lewis, the timing of the musical was something of a godsend that has kept his music in the public ear after a hearing impairment called Ménière’s disease has kept him from singing and caused him to cancel his tour this year.
“What I’ve got is a roar down low, like a jet engine, and the lower frequencies distort,” he says. “I can’t hear music and I can’t sing.”
However — with the aid of an earpiece to offset what he called “roaring tinnitus in his ear” — he was hearing well enough for a recent rambling phone conversation about, among other topics, a new album, a four-decade career that’s included a Broadway stint as Chicago’s Billy Flynn and his affinity for South Florida waters.
So you’ve been to Fort Lauderdale many times before?
A million times. I love the Lauderdale area. Hey, I have fished with Carl Hiaasen, so there you go. I consider him a fishing buddy.
So you’re like an honorary South Floridian.
OK, I wouldn’t go that far. But I do like it down there and I have a lot of friends down there.
Have you ever seen the Boat Parade?
I have not. I hear it’s cool. I’ve seen little dinky ones like in Newport Beach, but this I know is gonna be ridiculous.
Yeah, you’ll be the toast of the town for the night.
I love it. I’m all over it. Do I have to dress up? Should I wear a tuxedo?
Hey, you’re the grand marshal. You could wear whatever you want and get away with it. How does that feel?
I’m flattered first of all. And you know I’m happy to do it. Because I can’t sing and I love getting down there and I love the people. And it’s also probably nice that people realize that I’m not dead.
Has there been any improvement in your hearing condition?
I’ve had maybe 14 good days in 10 months. The rest of the time I can’t listen to the television or any of that stuff. But the good news is it can change — and it does. It still fluctuates every once in a while, so I just gotta be positive and stay busy.
What does a singer do when he can’t sing?
That’s a really great question. You try to keep busy and creative. The Heart of Rock and Roll musical is very exciting. I wrote a couple of new songs for that and I’m a co-producer on it. We worked on it and made it better and by the end of the run it was really good.
Any shot at a Broadway run?
I don’t know. We’d love to take it to Broadway. The next step is we’re gonna workshop it a little bit and then invite theaters, Broadway included. So we’ll see.
Speaking of Broadway, what was your experience like in the revival of Chicago in 2005-06?
Chicago was how I fell in love with Broadway. It was just amazing. I was honored. It was a great play. I learned something every night. I just loved the humility and the hugely talented people — smart and fun and collaborative. Which I dig. I’m a team guy. I’ve got a nine-piece band. I like music as a team sport.
How did the Broadway experience compare with playing onstage with The News?
It’s so collaborative. I can’t do what I want in the play or there’ll be a gang of dancers just go boom and run me over if I don’t get out of the way. I need to hit my spots, you know? In my show, I can do whatever I want — I live breaking the fourth wall. But in Chicago you don’t ever want to do that. You want to be respectful of the play, and be Billy Flynn.
Your vocals are so distinctive. When did it first come to you that you had this great voice?
Well, that still hasn’t come to me. [Laughs.] Listen, I’m a pop singer, I’m not Pavarotti here. I’ve always had a big voice. All my family had big voices.
Was there a moment when you discovered you could make a living off that voice?
I hitchhiked around Europe and North Africa with a harmonica when I was 16 years old, and I panhandled and sang for the first time. Probably some Muddy Waters tunes. And lo and behold in Morocco, I made 3 dirhams. My youth hostel was only 1 dirham and all I could eat was another dirham — and I was a dirham to the good. I said, hey, I got something going here. I’m making money. Honestly, a bell went off in Morocco. I said, I’m gonna do this. Period.
Good decision there — considering you ultimately became an international pop star with the Sports album.
Radio was so important then, so we thought, damn, you gotta have hits. Sports was a record of its time. It was a collection of singles for us. That’s what we set out to do. We produced it ourselves. We knew we needed a hit, but we didn’t know we were gonna have six of them!
Sports was big enough that that was the last commercial decision we ever made. All the other decisions have been creative. I can honestly say that.
How is that working out?
It works great. We have a new record that’s going to come out in spring. It’s seven tunes that we had already done when I could sing. We got another couple worked up, but I don’t know that I could sing them. And by the way, it’s some of our best work. No bull.
What do you think of today’s pop music?
I bemoan that everything’s so segregated. It’s nice in the Top 40 radio days when you could come from left field with a hit. You think about the music I love the most, soul music from Memphis. In those days society was segregated. Booker T & the MG’s, two black guys and two white guys who couldn’t put their picture on the cover, were the band. But the music was integrated. And that’s what made it so good. So music was integrated but society was segregated. Today, society is much more integrated, but music is segregated! We want Top 40 radio back.
So, what’s it like living in Montana?
Great. More cheese, less rats. [Laughs.]
You should thank me for asking that one, right?
You set me up good.
IF YOU GO
Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade
“The Greatest Show on H2O” will go retro on Dec. 15 as the 47th annual Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade casts off with a “Best of the ’80s” theme and one of that decade’s top hitmakers as its grand marshal.
Pop star Huey Lewis, who has scored 15 Top Ten hits with The News, will command the Grand Marshal Showboat to lead a parade of private boats, mega-yachts and showboats emblazoned with hundreds of thousands of lights expected to be seen by over a million people.
The Boat Parade will launch at 6:30 p.m. along the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale and travel for 12 miles and two and a half hours east to the Intracoastal Waterway and north to Lake Santa Barbara in Pompano Beach. The Grandstand Viewing Area is at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. For more information visit winterfestparade.com.
— Greg Carannante