How Huey Lewis Scored a Surprise Hit With ‘Jacob’s Ladder’
"It wasn't meant to be a single, necessarily," Lewis tells UCR. "I was surprised it was a hit. I just thought it was a wonderful song. Still do."
"Jacob's Ladder" wasn't even supposed to be a Huey Lewis & the News song either.
The song was written by Bruce Hornsby and his brother John while the former was recording his debut album, The Way It Is. "[Bruce] asked me to produce some songs for his first record," Lewis recalls. "I could only do three, and I wanted to do this one. 'Jacob's Ladder' is one of my favorite Hornsby songs. But I had a straighter arrangement, a different arrangement in mind. He said, 'Nah - you do it then.' So I thought maybe I would." Hornsby would subsequently release his version of "Jacob's Ladder," melodically similar but dynamically different, on his sophomore album, Scenes From the Southside, in 1988 and then released a live bluegrass version for his Greatest Radio Hits compilation in 2003.
Lewis was immediately taken with the song, especially the American gothic images of evangelists proselytizing in Birmingham, Ala. "I loved the lyric, 'cause they get it," Lewis says. "[The Hornsbys are] from Virginia. That's where that evangelical craziness really lives, in a large part, so I just loved the song. We gave it a much more straight-ahead arrangement and vocals, and a little harmonica."
His one regret? "It's ill-mixed," Lewis acknowledges. "I wish we could mix that record again. The great Bob Clearmountain did not mix that one. I'll take responsibility for it, but a bunch of us screwed up on that. I wish it could sound better."
Listen to Huey and the News' 'Jacob's Ladder'
"Jacob's Ladder," backed with a live version of "The Heart of Rock & Roll," was released in January 1987 as the third single from Fore! - following "Stuck With You" and "Hip to Be Square." The former hit No. 1 as well, while the latter reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Fore!, meanwhile, was the News' second consecutive No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went on to be certified three-times platinum.
The News' "Jacob's Ladder" music video was filmed during a New Year's Eve concert in Oakland, an appropriate choice since the song has been a staple of the group's concerts ever since Fore! was released. In later years it became a showpiece for the band, extended to include harmonica and guitar solos.
"That happened organically," says Lewis. "It was just a fun piece to play and jam on, and we would just stretch it out."