Monday, July 05, 2010

Acknowledging a milestone birthday

He was born Hugh Anthony Cregg III exactly sixty years ago today in New York City. As a youngster, Hugh and his family would relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically Marin County.

After his parents' divorce, Hugh, a highly intelligent young man, graduated from the prestigious Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey at age sixteen. He even scored a perfect 800 on the Math section of his SAT. But his Dad, who treated Hugh like an adult since he was a young boy, encouraged him to see a little bit of the world before going to college. As such, Hugh hitchhiked across the country until he arrived in New York City. While waiting for rides along the way, Hugh killed time by playing the harmonica, eventually becoming very proficient.

From there, he hung around the NYC airport for a few days before stowing away on a flight to Europe. While visiting such places as Scotland and Spain, Hugh would get by financially playing the harmonica. He would earn enough money for a flight back to the USA where he enrolled in the engineering program at Cornell University. While at Cornell, Hugh struck up a friendship with several other aspiring musicians. As a result, his focus shifted away from academics and more on his newly formed band. Hugh would return to San Francisco after dropping out of Cornell in his junior year in 1969.

In the early '70s, while working odd jobs, Hugh joined the Bay Area band Clover, a country/rock band out of Mill Valley. He would stay with the band until it dissolved in 1979.

Hugh and childhood friend Sean Hopper, who also played keyboards with Clover, decided to form a band of their own. Johnny Colla (saxophone/guitar), Mario Cipollina (bass) and Bill Gibson (drums), who played with the Bay Area band Soundhole, were also recruited to play. The lineup would be rounded out with guitarist Chris Hayes. While tinkering with various stage names, Hugh would eventually settle on Huey Lewis.

Having settled on the name Huey Lewis and American Express, the band was in the midst of recording their initial album. However, credit card company American Express issued a complaint about the band's name in early 1980. From there forward, the band would forever be known as Huey Lewis and the News.

Later in 1980, the band would debut their self-titled album to little fanfare.

It was at that point where Huey began to assess his life and career path. Having just turned thirty years old with a mere $300 to his name, Huey realized the sense of urgency in producing a hit record. With that in mind, he reached out to a record producer whom he had known from his days with Clover. Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who was the brain trust behind AC/DC's hugely successful comeback album Back in Black, offered Huey a tune called We Both Believe in Love. With some slight adjustments, the band released the song Do You Believe in Love as the featured single on their second album Picture This. The song peaked at number 13 on the Billboard charts, and seemed to sustain the band's immediate future.

With some momentum, Huey & the guys began work on their third album Sports. When the finishing touches were put on said album, manager Bob Brown was convinced it was the best thing which he had ever been associated. However, when he attempted to contact the band's record label, Chrysalis Records, Brown learned that the company had disconnected its phone lines in Los Angeles, New York and England. With Chrysalis having experienced financial troubles, it was feared that the band had created a musical masterpiece without a record deal to release it. Huey recalled that the master reel-to-reel tapes had to be held under lock and key to ensure they not fall into the hands of a foundering record company.

Eventually, Chrysalis co-founder Terry Ellis convinced Brown that the company was stable, and thus Sports would be released. By far the band's most successful album to date, it has been certified 7x Platinum by the RIAA and had five top 20 hits. Sports was also ranked number two on Billboard's year-end album chart in 1984, behind only Michael Jackson's Thriller.

With the kind of enormous success brought on by Sports, there was a tremendous expectation for future albums. Despite scoring a number one hit with The Power of Love from the Back to the Future movie soundtrack, Huey's fans were clamoring for a follow up album. The release of Fore! in 1986 was a fantastic response. Having peaked at number one on the Billboard album chart, Fore! featured two number one singles in Stuck with You and Jacob's Ladder. The album had five top ten singles and was certified triple platinum.

Having the credibility of tremendous mainstream success, Huey decided to do something a little different with the band's fifth album Small World. With more of a jazz feel, the album did not approach the commercial success of the previous two offerings. While the album did reach Platinum status, it featured only one top ten hit with Perfect World.

In 1991, Hard at Play, under new record label EMI, would be Huey's last album of original material in nearly ten years.

While the lineup has changed over the past decade-and-a-half (both Hayes and Cipollina retired), Huey continues to thrive with whomever wants to come along for the ride. While there are plans to release a new album this year, Huey Lewis and the News continue to tour and play much smaller venues than in their heyday of the 1980s.

Having attended one of their concerts recently, I can tell you that Huey Lewis puts on the same kind of show in front of 5,000 people as if it were 50,000. As a fan of Huey's music for more than 25 years, I'm just as big a fan of the person. Despite more than a dozen top twenty hits and several million in album sales, Huey has never appeared to let the success go to his head. I recall a story one of his handlers told about a concert appearance at the height of the band's success in the 80's. After said concert, the band was ushered out the back door and into a non-descript vehicle to take them back to their hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, Huey and the guys entered in through the alley way and took a service elevator up to their suites. Yet despite going through the extra effort to smuggle in the band incognito, Huey was down in the hotel bar within thirty minutes, having a drink with all of the fans. It also wasn't all that unusual for Huey to stay up well past Midnight to accommodate all of the fan autograph requests.

So it is on this day I would like to wish my boyhood (and early college-age) idol a very happy 60th birthday. Admittedly, I don't keep a "bucket list". But if I did, meeting Huey Lewis would be in the top ten.


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