I used to think my dad would one day show up on MTV, back when MTV played all music, all the time. It seemed reasonable enough: the people on MTV played guitars and sang, and my Dad played guitar and sang. The people on MTV were cool, and everyone in Chicago seemed to think my dad was cool.
This childhood delusion of mine gained traction in the 1980s, when my dad began getting some big career breaks: requests for month-long tours in Europe, Asia and Australia. He’d finally found substantial success at the age of 50, which is pretty much the norm in the blues. It seemed to me that the sky was now the limit, and as far as I could see, the sky meant only one thing: face time on MTV. I remember I would sit at home in front of the TV watching Prince or Madonna’s latest video, Van Halen w/Roth blissfully unaware of how good they were for each other, LL Cool J breaking it down, or Aerosmith and Run D.M.C. respectively rocking and breaking it down (until that fateful day when they came together, rocked, and broke it down, as one.)
But to me, one MTV star stood out above the rest.
Bret Eason Ellis has already done just about everything possible by way of extreme Huey Lewis worship, and so I won’t even attempt to wax nostalgic here, but suffice to say, I really loved Huey Lewis as an ‘80s kid. We’re talking near-Michael Jackson readings, here. Huey Lewis played harmonica and sometimes had a bluesy thing going on; my dad could play harmonica, and definitely had a bluesy thing going on. The comparisons went on and on as far as I was concerned, and I couldn’t understand why my dad couldn’t just get his shit together like everybody else and show up on my MTV already. I was sure that if only he would invest in some tighter, or baggier, or brighter, or more tight-and-leathery clothes, add a synthesizer to his band and get in touch with Huey’s people, then he too could frolic around on a beach with hot bodies for the MTV cameras, to the acute envy of all my friends. I remember I especially had my heart set on a reprise of “If This is It” (this one featuring Eddy Clearwater, who would be the only black person in the video).
All of this culminated in what I would come to remember as the Huey Lewis Incident—a shameful stain in the history of my relations with my father, and by extension, the entire history of the blues (at least to my mind). In order to place the Huey Lewis incident in context with the broader history of the blues, I present you with:
A VERY BRIEF SKETCH OF BLUES AS POPULAR MUSIC, EARLY 20th CENTURY—HUEY LEWIS INCIDENT AND BEYOND.
1901: Traces of the blues first begin to surface in historical documents; the most well-documented being the 1901 notes of archaeologist Charles Peabody, who, while on a dig in Mississippi on behalf of Harvard University, noticed that the black laborers were singing and playing a new form of music, which Peabody was mostly at a loss to describe.
1914: The popular jazz composer W.C. Handy, after having come across a man with a guitar singing our titular lyrics of “going where the Southern cross the Dog” at the Tutwiler train station in Mississippi, 1903, composes the quasi-blues, “Saint Louis Blues,” released in 1914, which would go on to become one of the most covered songs of the 20th century. Though the song is as much ragtime and habanera rhythm as it is blues, it still provides the larger world with its first taste of the blue note.
1920: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” becomes the first big hit blues recording performed by a black artist and marketed to a black audience, selling 75,000 78s within a month of its release. The “Classic Blues” era is ushered in, and white America begins to get acquainted with the blues in the manner in which it feels most comfortable: female singers only, performing blues/Tin Pan Alley fusions. The most popular of the vaudevillian blues singers, hands down, is Bessie Smith.
1927: Blind Lemon Jefferson becomes the first male blues singer with a big selling record, “Black Snake Moan”: a formative blues standard, double entendre and all. The record labels begin sending talent scouts out into the South, lugging old-timey recording equipment around in order to search out country blues singers. Their MO is to find a country blues singer with songs in their repertoire that had not yet been recorded, cut a record with the singer, pay the performer a hundred or so bucks, and then never contact him or her again. The records are marketed as “Race Records,” in a manner that most would find offensive today. The album covers feature images of black people on plantations happily picking cotton, thanks to the enriching music (e.g. “You know that harvest sure am GOOD when it’s Blind Lemon Jefferson singing these blues!”) The occasional female country blues singer-guitarist, most notably Memphis Minnie, finds popular success as well.
1930s: The Depression hits the recording industry hard, spelling certain doom for the glitzy Classic Blues era. Country-style race record sales continue at a trickle during this period, with the occasional record gaining modest popularity outside of the black Southern market. The most high-profile blues event of the 1930s is the sensation of Huddie William “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, the Louisiana-born prisoner who’d been convicted of murder and incarcerated in various prisons, each time having performed his way to freedom by way of flattering songs addressed to wardens and governors. After folklorist John Lomax discovers and records him in Angola Prison in 1933, the two proceed to tour the nation as a team, with Leadbelly acting as Lomax’s driver and walking black folklore exhibit. Leadbelly becomes the darling of academics everywhere, all the way to LIFE magazine (April 19, 1937, pg. 39: “Lead Belly — Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel")
1940s: The blues band begins to gain wide popularity (as opposed to the lone singer guitarist) along with the electrified blues, beginning the trend toward the rhythm and blues form which would soon evolve into rock ‘n roll. Louis Jordan moves to California and popularizes his “jump” blues style, slick and jazzy, striving toward a “clean” presentation (partially the result of blues singers looking to the phenomenal success of Nat King Cole as inspiration), while in Chicago, that city’s hard-hitting electric sound begins to make waves. T-Bone Walker’s slick blues classic, “Stormy Monday” hits in 1947, followed by Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948—an electrified return to popularity for the country blues style.
1951: Rhythm-and-blues artist Ike Turner records “Rocket 88” with a fuzzed-out guitar on the recording, making it a good contender for the title of “first rock ’n roll song." With the rise of electric blues, followed by R&B and then rock ‘n roll, demand for the mother source, acoustic blues, begins to wane. The increasing popularity of jukeboxes serves to further reduce the demand for blues singers in juke joints and dance halls across the nation.
1954: Elvis Presley covers blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup’s “That’s All Right”; the record burns up the Memphis airwaves, and the blues takes its permanent backseat position to rock, with a blues singer’s marketability being largely determined by his or her ability to cross over to R&B and rock ‘n roll. Those who can do so are the ones who maintain the greatest mainstream popularity (e.g. John Lee Hooker, B.B. King), which is why my father, right around this time, begins selling himself to Chicago blues club owners on the strength of his Chuck Berry covers. Popular blues is now a young person’s game, if anyone’s.
1960s: With the civil rights movement and the attendant soul-searching of liberal white America, a blues revival begins. More than ever, the blues now becomes, in one of those rare twists, an old person’s game—the older the performer, the closer to the music’s roots, the more “authentic.” The annual Norfolk Blues Festival begins in 1962. In 1964, when Paul McCartney names Muddy Waters in response to a reporter’s request to list his biggest influences, the reporter asks, “Muddy Waters? Where’s that?” provoking McCartney to admonish the reporter for not knowing his own country’s music. Mick Jagger demands Howlin’ Wolf be allowed to appear with the Stones on Shindig! in 1965. This marks the beginning of the trend that would have more white people listening to the blues than black people, as soul and gospel dominates the African American market in the 1960s.
1970s: Disco ruins everything.
1980s: The release of The Blues Brothers, along with the decline and fall of disco, single-handedly breathes new life into the blues. The blues begins to settle into an equilibrium with America.
1987: I tell my father that he sucks compared to Huey Lewis.
1990: Robert Johnson’s complete recordings are released, selling nearly half a million copies in its first six months, helping the blues stabilize into something like the relationship it has with the U.S. today: sort of an unofficial UNESCO musical heritage badge for the U.S., tourist money and all.
1992: The first House of Blues opens, paving the way for other similar tourist-oriented mega venues
2009: I begin to feel guilty for having told my father he sucks compared to Huey Lewis.
Just the other day: I asked my dad if he remembered The Incident. “Huey Lewis?” he said, blinking, as though I’d stirred up the sort of thing that eyelashes keep out. Then he smiled a little.
“Yeah, I remember, now. You just loved you some Huey Lewis, didn’t you?”
When he told me that there were no hard feelings concerning my musical preference for Huey Lewis over him, I realized that I’d probably been making too much out of it.
I think that the reason the Huey Lewis incident hovers over me in such a cloud of guilt is because I am retrospectively identifying with my father as an artist. At this point in my life, I am certainly familiar with rejection, as nearly all aspiring writers are, and looking back at the history of the blues and my father’s place in it, I recognize the sting of rejection in all his years in the ‘60s and ‘70s spent covering Clapton and Beatles and Stones songs, while his own original material was pushed to the sidelines night after night by venue operators. I can only imagine what it would feel like for me to suffer rejection (as we writers are always doing) and then try to unwind and forget about it with my family, only to have a blundering little knife-wielding Brutus come at me with something like, “Why can’t you write a really funny and popular play like Tyler Perry? You’re no Tyler Perry, Daddy.”
All of this represents just one reason why I really don’t see kids on the horizon for me. I consider language to be a powerful and unstable thing—to be handled with only the greatest of care—and kids tend to use language with all the precision of a sawed-off shotgun.
I guess I’m willing to concede that my dad’s just a better man than me, and that, in his handling of the Huey Lewis Incident, he gave me one lesson about parenting that I’ll take to heart, just in case I ever need it:
You have to love your kids just as they are, even when they wish you were someone else.