The '80s rocker was diagnosed in 2018 with Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes hearing loss

By Jordan Runtagh
February 05, 2020 10:00 AM
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Huey Lewis was backstage, preparing to rock a crowd at a private gig in Dallas on Jan. 27, 2018 when he heard a sudden roar. The sound was unrelenting, and literally deafening. “Like a jet engine, or warfare going on,” he tells PEOPLE. He turned to his band, the News, to see if anyone else heard it. No one did. “I said, ‘What is that?’ And they said, ‘Oh that’s, that’s the opening act.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

He went onstage and tried in vain to sing hits like “The Power of Love” and “If This Is It,” but the sound in his head made it impossible to follow the band. “I couldn’t find pitch, it was just the worst hour and a half of my life.”

Within months he had been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that causes vertigo and hearing loss. Affecting roughly 615,000 in the United States, there is no known cure. The illness simultaneously robbed Lewis of his greatest passion, and the ability to share his gift. “It’s really weird,” says Lewis, 69. “Normally music is fun. You get in the middle of a song and it just sings itself, man. It just sings itself and you ride that wave. Now I have to just struggle to hear pitch.”

Credit: Brian Ach/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

His 2018 tour was promptly canceled as he attempted to get his health under control. “That was the worst thing about it. I never was the greatest singer in the world, but I was reliable. I have 20-something guys and girls who we tour with. Some have been with me for almost 40 years now. But we had to let everybody go.”

For all the details on Huey Lewis’ struggle with Meniere’s disease and new album, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Lewis struggled with intense depression in the wake of the diagnosis. “I just laid in bed. I had terrible thoughts. I contemplated my own demise, actually,” he admits. But with the help of loved ones, he came out on the other side. “I talked to my kids and my family. That helps. After a couple months, it turns out you can get used to pretty much anything. I started to think about people who are less fortunate than I am. I mean, I don’t have cancer. And I have all this wonderful support from fans.”

Lewis spends most of his time on his ranch in Montana, where he enjoys fishing and riding his horse. “You have to stay positive,” he says. “You can’t stress over this. And so I just try and stay creative. When I think of new creative stuff, that makes me feel better.”

On Feb. 14 he’ll release Weather, the first new album of original Huey Lewis & the News material in 19 years. They were in the midst of recording when Lewis received his diagnosis. “I waited, trying to see if I was going to be able to sing again, and I haven’t been able to. So we thought we’d release the record and share with the fans.”

The album’s lead single, a retro-tinged blues-rock track called “Her Love Is Killin’ Me,” has been kicking around for nearly 20 years as a work-in-progress. “We just couldn’t get it right. We played it live, then we tried to rearrange it somehow. And then we just dropped it. [News bandmate] Johnny Colla revived it with another horn arrangement. We tried it again and it just kind of clicked. It’s funny because it’s a simple song, but the simplest songs are the hardest ones to get right.”

Lewis is also working on bringing a jukebox musical of his hits, The Heart of Rock and Roll, to Broadway. “It’s a chance for all of these songs to get a whole new appreciation,” he says of the production, which opened to rave reviews in San Diego. The show features a new song by Lewis, “Be Someone,” written with orchestrator Brian Usifer and Johnny Colla. “I heard this song in my head but I can’t play with a band.”

Huey Lewis.

His hearing continues to vary from day to day. “It can get so bad that I can’t hear the phone ring. Those periods can last as long as a week or eight days. I’m really basically deaf. I can hear if you’re a person talking right here maybe, but that’s it. With my hearing pieces, I can hear speech fine. But music is not so easy.”

Since his diagnosis, Lewis has fought the illness by undergoing a battery of tests and treatments ranging from steroids and acupuncture to low-sodium diets. So far, nothing has been completely effective.

“I’m hopeful my body will take care of itself,” he says. “I’m still fluctuating, so I take that to be a good sign. I hope my body can just find a way to defeat this thing.”