In 1979, Huey Lewis and a few friends formed a little rock band. Thirty-four years later, Huey Lewis and the News is still rocking, and will play Anchorage this week as part of their "Sports" 30th anniversary tour. The band still features four of its original members.
"Even the new guys have been here for almost 20 years," said Lewis.
Lewis knows the secret to keeping a group together for a long time: "pay well." After a chuckle, he offered a more nuanced response. "I don't know what there is to tell you -- it works for us. We are brothers. People ask me sometimes, 'are you still friends with the guys in your band?' Friends doesn't begin to describe it. Friends could never be so mean to each other. Or so dependent on each other. We are a family."
Lewis has not always been surrounded by success. His career in music began when he was in Europe and playing harmonica for travel money. Then, Lewis toiled as a member of the band Clover for seven years before leaving the group. Lewis claims to have turned 30 with only $300 to his name. He and former Clover band member Sean Hopper started Huey Lewis and the News the following year with Bill Gibson and Johnny Cola. But it wasn't until their third album, "Sports" in 1983, that they achieved commercial success.
"The 'Sports' album meant that we were going to have a career," Lewis said. Their success was no accident. Lewis and his bandmates knew in 1983 that they needed to write a hit song to get any kind of radio airplay. "Although MTV had started by then, it was a radio-driven world. Everything was programmed. You had to be in the Top 40. We needed a hit."
So Huey Lewis and the News set about producing an album designed to be listened to in parts. "If you listen to 'Sports,' you will realize that it's a series of singles. We didn't want anything repeated or similar. We had one rocker, one ballad, one of each. It's a record of its time."
The band produced it themselves. "We decided if anybody was going to make those commercial decisions about our music, it was going to be us, not a producer. That was pretty rare for a band back then."
The result was "Sports," more of a ploy than an album, populated by catchy singles. Like a venture capital firm investing in 10 risky startups, the band was hoping for just one of their songs to be a hit.
And the ploy worked. Five times over.
"Sports" sold 10 million copies in the U.S., producing five singles that peaked between sixth and 18th on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, including "The Heart of Rock & Roll," "Heart and Soul," and "I Want a New Drug."
"We knew we'd have one [hit], but never thought we'd have five," said Lewis. "Sports" also made the band a lot of money, setting the stage for three decades of creative freedom and commercial success.
After "Sports," the band was tapped to write a single for the movie "Back to the Future." The result, "The Power of Love," benefited from the movie's success and rose to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, cementing the band's place in rock culture.
The band was then able to focus on a different kind of success. "After selling 10 million copies, we made a decision to do things for creative reasons. So our records hold together as albums after 'Sports.' And, fortunately, we've been successful. You want to be able to play music and have people show up."
And they continue to show. The band's performances in Anchorage were 90 percent sold out a week in advance.
This isn't the band's first visit to Alaska; they played in both Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1995. Lewis joked that "some of the new guys" -- Rob Sudduth and Marvin McFadden, who joined the band in 1994 -- "were there for that one, too."
Anchorage fans can look forward to an exciting surprise at the early November shows. "We have a fabulous new song to play for you," said Lewis. A new album or EP, however, may not be right around the corner. "Unfortunately, we don't have five or 10 new songs just yet."
Always a good sport, Lewis answered a few more questions for Play.
Play: But seriously, how did your band stay together for so long?
Lewis: What breaks bands up is a lot of success. Sometimes when you are struggling and nobody's making any money and everybody's pushing as hard as you can -- and it's fun, if you think it's just around the corner all the time. But now, bingo, you have success, and that can be tough on a band. But, fortunately, our chemistry works, and I'm a fabulous bandleader, what can I tell you?
Play: Is there a central message in your music? What does Huey Lewis want the world to take away from his music, his lyrics?
Lewis: We have a song called "We're Not Here for a Long Time (We're Here for a Good Time)." Does that answer the question? Sort of. But not really. I think the central message from us is that it's not torture for us making this music; it's fun. But it's also not lightweight from us; it's true. So when the guy sings "I'm going to Kansas City to get some crazy little women there and I'm gonna get me one," we gotta believe he's going to Kansas City, he knows about the crazy little women, and he's gonna get him one. If we believe that, then it's true. The appeal is that it rings true.
Play: What would you do if you were instructed to stop being a successful musician?
Lewis: I would be an unsuccessful musician.
Play: Do you have plans to go fishing in Alaska? I know someone who says he can show you a great time fishing in early November.
Lewis: Boy, I'd like to -- I love to go fishing, but I am kind of a dry fly snob. I am a little bit of a surface fisherman.
Huey Lewis and the News will play 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 8-9, at the Atwood Concert Hall. Tickets $40-$95 at centertix.net. For more see hueylewisandthenews.com.