When rocker Huey Lewis turned 30, he had a harmonica and $300 to his name.
Just two years later, Huey Lewis and the News released their biggest album ever, “Sports.” The 1983 album, which features the hit singles “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “Heart & Soul,” “I Want a New Drug” and “If This Is It,” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard chart — selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.
“When I look back at the ‘Sports’ record, it really looks to be a record of its time,” Lewis, 63, said, both in terms of its sound and its success.
On Friday, the band will celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Sports” at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. Contemporary jazz band Zzah opens the show, which is part of the “An Evening of Music & Wine” concert series.
Struggle for success
When people ask him for advice on pursuing a career as a professional musician, Lewis said, “I tell them that unless it’s the only thing you want to do, you might do something else, because the odds are you aren’t going to be successful.”
“You don’t approach (such a career) sensibly,” he added.
In fact, Lewis — who was born Hugh Anthony Cregg III in New York City and raised in Marin County — never planned on being a musician.
After his parents divorced when Lewis was 11, his mother rented a room to folk singer Billy Roberts, best known for the song “Hey Joe.” It was Roberts who introduced Lewis to what would become his signature instrument, the harmonica.
After graduating from prep school, “My dad insisted that rather than go straight to college I take a year off and bum around Europe,” recalled Lewis, who took his harmonica with him.
He credits the experience with making him a better musician.
“I learned how to play for sure,” he said. “The fact that I needed a meal was pretty good motivation — enough to get myself out there and playing in the train station or the square.”
Upon his return, Lewis enrolled in the engineering program at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., but he left after two years to pursue a musical career.
In the early 1970s, he joined the Bay Area jazz-funk band Clover — following the group first to Los Angeles, then Great Britain, in pursuit of fame. Lewis eventually left the band, forming Huey Lewis and the News with a former Clover bandmate, keyboard player Sean Hopper, in 1979.
The band struggled to find traction at first, releasing two albums — a self-titled album in 1980 and 1982’s “Picture This” — to modest acclaim. By the time their third studio album, “Sports,” began gaining ground, Lewis and his bandmates were hungry for a hit.
“In Clover, we were always going to make it, and we didn’t, frankly,” Lewis explained. “It’s harder to keep bands together so much through success. Failure is pretty easy because you keep striving and you think you’re going to make it any minute.”
So when “Sports” found its audience, “(We) realized that this was our time. We even had a band meeting about it. We sat down and said, ‘This is it. Let’s enjoy this,’ ” he recalled. “You only go from nowhere to No. 1 once.”
Topping the charts
On the heels of “Sports” success came the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” Producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale approached Lewis — who famously sued Ray Parker Jr. over similarities between Parker’s “Ghostbusters” theme song and Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug” — with the idea of writing the movie’s theme song.
“I said, ‘We’ll send in the next thing we’ll write,” Lewis recalled, which happened to be “The Power of Love.”
The chart-topping song was nominated for an Academy Award, while “Back to the Future” went on to become a beloved science-fiction blockbuster. (Lewis appears in the film as a Battle of the Bands judge who deems time-traveling teen Marty McFly’s band “just too darn loud.”)
Huey Lewis and the News followed that hit with another platinum-selling album, 1986’s “Fore!”, featuring the No. 1 singles “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Stuck with You” and “Hip to Be Square.” The latter song was featured in a pivotal scene in the 1991 novel and 2000 film “American Psycho,” about a yuppie serial killer with a penchant for pop music.
“It was supposed to articulate a phenomenon called ‘Bobos in Paradise,’ ” Lewis said of “Hip to Be Square,” referring to David Brooks’ book about the privileged upper classes. “That’s what the song was about, and that’s what the film was about.”
Huey Lewis and the News agreed to have the song appear in “American Psycho” but “politely declined” to feature it on the soundtrack.
“Literally the eve before the premiere of the film, they issued a press release that said, ‘Huey Lewis has seen the film and judged it too violent so he pulled the song from the soundtrack,’ which is (nonsense),” Lewis recalled, “and so I felt I had to boycott the film.”
Lewis has since seen the film. In April, he and “Weird Al” Yankovic appeared in an “American Psycho” spoof on FunnyorDie.com.
“Once ‘Sports’ hit and we were able to pay the bills, I made a deal with myself that I would only do creative stuff,” Lewis explained, whether that meant music, movies or writing a book.
“At first it’s very sort of romantic,” he said of his career as a professional performer. “You want to be a rock star or you want to be a cool guy or you want to be attractive to the ladies, but ultimately you either love playing music or you don’t.
“The object is to be able to play music and have people show up.”
Huey Lewis and the News
7 p.m. Friday
Paso Robles Event Center, 2198 Riverside Ave. in Paso Robles
$40 to $60
800-909-3247 or www.midstatefair.com