At the beginning of 1983, Huey Lewis and the News were coming off of the breakthrough success of their second album from a year earlier, Picture This, which contained their first-ever Billboard Top 10 hit “Do You Believe in Love.” So when it came time for the follow-up, the goal was to make an album that had radio-friendly songs. According to Lewis, the music landscape in the early 1980s was quite different compared to now with the Internet and social media.
“There was only one avenue to success, and that was radio,” the singer says today. “[It was] CHR–contemporary hit radio–which was FM’s version of Top 40. And in order to exist, you had to have a hit record. The good news is when you got to hit, you got a hit. So when it came time to record the Sports album, as with Picture This, we needed a hit single.”
Sports more than delivered on that goal upon its release on September 15, 1983—it became the band’s most popular and commercially successful studio, yielding four Top 10 hits, and catapulted the News to stardom. To mark its 40th anniversary, Sports was recently reissued on black and olive green vinyl.
“You never know these things,” Lewis reflects on the album’s milestone. “Songs are gifts, and I think some of them just get up and fly and then others don’t. And there seems to be no rhyme or reason for that. I mean, timing is obviously important. But Sports was really the record that assured us that we were going to have a career. So in that sense, it was a very important record for us.”
For what would become the Sports album, the San Francisco-based News—Lewis, guitarist/saxophonist Johnny Colla, guitarist Chris Hayes, keyboardist Sean Hopper, drummer Bill Gibson, and bassist Mario Cipollina—produced it themselves. “Every song on that record was aimed at radio,” says Lewis. “Interestingly, they’re all kind of sort of slightly different genres mainly because we knew we needed a hit record. And we didn’t know if it was going to be a rocker. ‘Here’s a rocker for you.’ ‘Here’s a ballad.’ ‘Here’s a little bluesy thing.’ ‘Here’s an a cappella.’ And so we knew we needed to hit record. We didn’t know we were going to have five of them.”
The music on Sports represented the merger of the News’ bar-band rock and the sleek sound of New Wave. A good part of that was due to the band’s use of state-of-the-art technology at the time, particularly the Linn drum machine for several of the album’s tracks including “I Want a New Drug,” “Walking on a Thin Line” and “Bad Is Bad.” “I was very inquisitive about that,” recalls Lewis, “because I felt that that kind of would be our production style: old-school vocals and writing old-school songs cut with a little techno edge.”
The feel-good and bouncy “Heart and Soul,” written by Mike Chapman and Nikki Chinn, was the debut single unveiled from the album; it was also recorded by the groups Exile and the Bus Boys. ““Heart and Soul” was an outside song that I heard,” Lewis recalls. “It was a demo sent to me by a publisher who said, “Here’s a demo of a song that I think would be great. And I heard the song and I went, ‘Wow, that sounds like a hit to me.’ Little did I know that what he sent me was Exile’s recorded version of their record…And that was our first single.”
The aforementioned hard-hitting rocker “I Want a New Drug” followed “Heart and Soul” as the next single. The idea for that song came to Lewis after he woke up on the day he was scheduled to see his attorney. “I had a long night and I woke up and hung over. I drove to his house, and on the way I had this song—it just came to me. When I stopped at his house, he opened the door and I said, ‘Do you have a pencil and paper I can borrow for a minute?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I just wrote pretty much the whole song all the way down. So I had the lyric, and I didn’t have a song yet.
“So now I tried a couple of different things. And I wrote a little thing with Mario that didn’t work. And then finally Chris Hayes called me up one day and he said, ‘I got it.’ I said ‘What?’ ‘“I Want a New Drug.” I got it. I got a riff for you. Come on over.’ And he came over and he played the riff and I sang it into a little Sony Walkman. And there you have it.”
The band originally recorded “I Want a New Drug” using a Linn drum machine and sequenced bass, which didn’t make the rhythm section of Gibson and Cipollina happy, so the band re-recorded it sans the technology. Upon revisiting the track later prior to Sports’ release, Lewis wasn’t satisfied with what he heard. “When we went back to cut “I Want a New Drug,” and I was convinced that we had to use the machines, I took the machines up again. And instead of 105 [beats per minute], I put it on 107. And it made all the difference in the world. It just leaped out and popped.”
“The Heart of Rock and Roll,” which opened the album, was the third single released from Sports. It was sparked when Lewis heard from people who said Cleveland is the best rock and roll town in America: “I said, ‘Cleveland?’ I mean, [in San Francisco], we have the Grateful Dead. We have Jefferson Airplane. I mean, we created the whole ’60s thing. How can Cleveland be the most important? But then we played this show at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, and it was amazing. The crowd was amazing.
“On the ride out on the bus in the morning, it was a kind of a gray overcast day, and you could see the skyline, the kind of smoky skyline in Cleveland. And I said, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ kind of thinking out loud, ‘You know, they’re right: the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland.’ I said, ‘Wow, wait a minute, that’s a good idea for a song.’”
“If This is It,” a soulful track with a memorable doo-wop vocal hook, became another smash hit for the band. “It was a ballad that Johnny wrote the progression to,” Lewis says. “And he had it as ‘ooh wha, ooh whoa’ forever. And it was my job to try to find the lyrics. Man, it was a hard one because the song is kind of complex. It’s got major and minor chords. I remember I was in my bunk on our bus when we were driving and doing shows, and I had the idea. I went to the back lounge and hammered it out.”
The musical and lyrical diversity of Sports also extended to its other songs on the record such as the doo-wop/blues of “Bad Is Bad”; the anthemic “Walking on a Thin Line,” which tackled the plight of returning war veterans; the New Wave-ish rockers “Finally Found a Home” and “You Crack Me Up”; and a rockabilly-styled cover of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues.” “The diversity is kind of interesting,” says Lewis. “And that comes from our tastes. A normal producer wouldn’t have done that. First of all, nobody produced their own records back in 1982. Bands weren’t producing themselves. And so one of the reasons that the album is disparate is that we just did what came to us, what spoke to me. And so in that sense, it kind of worked.”
The popularity of Sports and the News themselves was further solidified by the quirky and imaginative videos for the singles that got played on MTV. Lewis acknowledges the importance of the cable channel decades later. “In terms of breaking your band and popularity, MTV was huge. And it was a huge thing for us. I mean, it probably hurt our credibility a little bit. I think people still see us as a pop band. I don’t think we’re a pop band, but whatever. All things being equal, it’s nice to have the popularity.”
Thanks to the success of its hit singles, Sports gradually peaked at number one for one week in June 1984, several months following its original release; this was during a time of blockbuster releases including Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the Police’s Synchronicity, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and the Footloose movie soundtrack. It introduced the band to a much wider audience and enabled them to have more hit singles in the subsequent years including “The Power of Love,” “Stuck With You,” “Hip to Be Square,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Perfect World.”
While the News haven’t recorded new music (their last album of original material was 2020’s excellent Weather) or played live in the last couple of years due to Lewis’ hearing loss, the band continues to be in the public eye—most recently via the Back to the Future musical on Broadway featuring the News’ “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time.” And Lewis is eyeing the News’ own musical, The Heart of Rock and Roll, to hit the Great White Way next year.
“If Back to the Future is still running, which of course it will be, there’ll be two shows running on Broadway that share two songs,” he says. “First time that’s ever happened. The neat thing about The Heart of Rock and Roll is that the musical director Brian Usifer is brilliant. And he lent them all completely different settings than our versions. I mean, it’s wonderful what he’s done. And the gratifying part for me as the songwriter is to see those songs live in another context being sung by other people with different arrangements. It’s really nice. It’s like a whole second life for all these songs, which is kind of fun.”