By Ken Sharp
With “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” The Righteous Brothers transformed heartbreak from an abstract emotion into 3:51 of palpable audio anguish. Whether pleading, teasing, coaxing or playing, Bill Medley’s husky, soulful baritone paired with Bobby Hatfield’s heartfelt, soaring tenor made you believe whatever it was The Righteous Brothers were singing about.
Over the course of a decade, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees and poster boys for blue-eyed soul landed 20 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100. They even managed to land “Unchained Melody” on the Hot 100 chart in 1990, 35 years after the song peaked at No. 4. (OK, a shirtless Patrick Swayze and a pottery wheel in a scene from the movie “Ghost” may have helped a little bit.)
These days, Medley is a solo act — Hatfield passed away in 2003 — but he continues to tour regularly (Visit www.billmedley.com for tour dates.) Most recently, Medley published his autobiography “The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother’s Memoir,” and re-released his 2007 album “Damn Near Righteous” with a bonus track.
GOLDMINE: Who is Bill Medley’s soul and inspiration?
BILL MEDLEY: Well, my family, all of them. I have a 48-year-old son, a 27-year-old daughter, a lovely wife and my grandchildren, too. Those are the people that keep me alive. And I can’t forget my audiences. Life is good.
GM: What made your chemistry and vocal blend work so well with longtime partner Bobby Hatfield?
BM: If you looked at The Righteous Brothers on paper, you would say, “Well, this is really wrong.” (Laughs.) Bobby was a legitimate first tenor, and I was a legitimate baritone bass. So I had to sing a little higher than I should have been, not on “Lovin’ Feelin’,” but on a lot of stuff that we had recorded. I was singing pretty high on that stuff so Bobby’s voice could have the same energy. I think by doing that, we just sang really hard. But probably more important than that is we so much loved what we were doing and loved the music. It was kind of like the beauty and the beast. Bobby had a beautiful voice, just a stunning voice, and I’ve got this voice. (Laughs.) It’s kind of gravely and a little more dirty, and Bobby’s is cleaner. So you put those two together, and it made for an interesting combination.
GM: Bobby’s vocals on “Unchained Melody,” for example, are stunning. Did he recognize his gift?
BM: I don’t think he knew how good he was. I don’t think either one of us were thinking, “Are we good or not?” I think we were just saying, “Thank God people enjoy what we’re doing.” We admired so many other people, and we certainly didn’t feel we were above anyone, but Bobby was sensational. I happened to produce “Unchained Melody;” I know a lot of people think Phil (Spector) did it, but I produced and arranged it. I had the arrangement all done, and Bobby came in and sang it twice and that was it. I played piano and sang vocal background on it. “Unchained Melody” was supposed to be the B-side of “Hung on You.” If I knew that it was gonna be a hit, I certainly would have brought in a better piano player. (Laughs.)
GM: What’s the difference between a good and a great singer?
BM: Boy, that’s a tough one. You might be asking the wrong guy. (Laughs) For me, I can listen to great singers like Glen Campbell and Andy Williams, and they just have great, great voices. Not taking anything away from them, but I also really loved somebody like Ray Charles, who had that soul. I think the difference between a good singer and a great singer is how they relate to the song and how they can interpret it and make you believe it. I guess making an audience believe what you’re saying is really the art.
GM: Were your surprised that before people had laid eyes on The Righteous Brothers they thought you were black?
BM: We understood it, but it wasn’t anything that we were striving for. I was brought up on rhythm and blues, and so was Bobby, and I wrote the song “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” and it became a hit. When we went into the studio, naturally we wanted to do stuff that we loved, and what we loved was rhythm and blues. You have to remember back in ’62 and ’63, being two white guys sounding black was not a commercial thing to do. But it ended up where a lot of white kids listened to us and saw us and said, “Man, I didn’t know I could feel like that; that’s great!”
GM: “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” is one of the most-played songs in music history. When you heard back the finished take, you didn’t think it would be a hit. Why?
BM: You gotta remember, this was back in 1965, and every record had to be about 2 minutes and 20 seconds. Even though Phil Spector listed the time of the record as 3 minutes and 50 seconds, “Lovin’ Feelin ‘” was over 4 minutes, so it was long. Disc jockeys loved it; they called it their “potty song” (laughs) and because it was long they were able to take a “potty break.” It was a very unusual record. There were three or four things about it that went against the grain, but those negatives ended up becoming a real plus. We weren’t sure if it was a hit. I can remember Bobby and I listening to it the first couple of times and thinking, “Man, what a shame. Wouldn’t it be great if this was a hit?” (Laughs.)
“I think the difference between a good singer and a great singer is how they relate to the song and how they can interpret it and make you believe it.” — Bill Medley
GM: Barry Mann, one of the song’s co-writers, thought it was at the wrong speed.
BM: Yeah, that’s right. He thought the record was cut at the wrong speed. It was such a different record in those days. Everything that was wrong with The Righteous Brothers became amazingly right. First time we heard the song was with Barry Mann and Phil Spector singing it to us live. When they got done I said, “Boy, what a great song for The Everly Brothers,” because they both had real high, thin voices, and it sounded like The Everly Brothers. The song was beautiful; there was no question about that. They did it faster, but when we started to rehearse it, we had to keep lowering the key, because it’s such a huge range kind of song. I told them I couldn’t reach some of the notes so they were forced to keep lowering the key. Finally we hit on the right key. Phil slowed it down, and it just became a different song, especially from how we originally had heard it.
GM: In your book you opine that, “Just Once in My Life,” one of the follow-up singles to “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” is a superior song. Why?
BM: We were in New York rehearsing “Soul and Inspiration” with Barry (Mann) and Cynthia (Weil), and “Just Once in My Life” was supposed to follow “Lovin’ Feelin.” Phil, Barry and Cynthia got into a dispute, and Phil sent us back to California to start working with Carole King, who’d written the song with Gerry Goffin. You can’t beat “Lovin’ Feelin’;” that’s just a great song. But “Just Once In My Life” is really great. I think Phil Spector even did a better track on that. I think it’s one of our best songs, and so does Brian Wilson. A lot of people think that is the ultimate Righteous Brothers song. It’s one of our favorite records.
GM: The Righteous Brothers split with Phil Spector and Philles Records in 1966. Was that a mistake?
BM: It broke my heart to leave Phil Spector. We had a three-year career before we did “Lovin’ Feelin’” with “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “My Babe” — all this hard rock. For some reason, I ended up being the producer of that stuff. When we went with Phil, we were getting these great songs from these great writers, and all I had to do was go in and do my part. It was a blessing to me, even though Phil came to me and asked me to produce The Righteous Brothers albums, because he would have taken too long and it would have cost too much money. So that’s how I ended up producing “Unchained Melody.”
GM: The first single released on your new label, Verve/MGM was “Soul and Inspiration,” a track you produced, which became a huge hit.
BM: Because I knew it was written to be the follow-up to “Lovin’ Feelin’,” I just tried to dupe what Phil did. It went to No. 1 and was No. 1 for a couple of weeks. So it was a big record, but I still think Phil Spector would have made a better record of it.
GM: The Righteous Brothers served as one of the opening acts on The Beatles’ first tour of America in 1964. You left the tour midway into it, reportedly because of the difficulties of playing to crowds that only cared about seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo.
BM: I don’t know if it was confidence or stupidity that led us to leave that tour, but the truth is, we really enjoyed being on that Beatles tour, especially on the West Coast, because we were fairly well known. But playing to crowds on the East Coast was tough. Literally the crowds would clap and yell during our whole set, “We want The Beatles; we want The Beatles!” The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, was wonderful to us, as were The Beatles. In fact, Brian wanted to manage us. He told us, “You guys are doing great; don’t worry about it.” But it was a problem, because we were performing before screaming 13-year-old girls. The real reason we left the tour was we had an opportunity to go back to L.A. to appear on “Shindig!” We went to Brian and the guys and said, “God, we hate to leave the tour, and we don’t want to hang you up. We know everybody in the world would love to be on this tour, but we have this chance to be on this national TV show.” Brian and The Beatles were wonderful about it and gave us their blessing to leave.
GM: The following year, you toured with The Rolling Stones and enjoyed a warm camaraderie with the band.
BM: That tour, like The Beatles tour, was moving pretty fast. I just remember that we loved The Stones; they were great guys. Don’t get me wrong. We loved The Beatles, too; they were wonderful guys and wonderful to us, but The Stones were a lot more where we were coming from: bluesy. Their roots were similar to ours; what they really loved was R&B, and that’s what we were. We really loved The Stones, because they were real earthy guys. You’ve gotta remember — and this is a tough thing to say — The Beatles movement and Stones movement pretty much did away with the Fabians and Frankie Avalons, the real good-looking, teen-idol thing. Boy, The Stones were far from that. These weren’t a bunch of pretty boys; these were real guys. The Beatles were, too, but you couldn’t see it as much. When we released “Lovin’ Feelin’ and went to Europe to promote it, they met us at the airport. The Stones were huge at that time. They came to our press conference and helped make us an overnight success there.
GM: You became a trusted friend of Elvis Presley. He rarely went out to clubs to see music acts, but he was drawn out to see The Righteous Brothers play at the Red Velvet club in Hollywood in the early ’60s.
BM: Yeah, that’s true. He came to a few places to see us perform. Every time George Klein (Memphis Mafia member) and some of the guys would be in town, he’d come see us. Elvis was a big fan of The Righteous Brothers from the get-go with “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “My Babe.” Elvis always wanted to be a black bass singer. (Laughs.) He knew that’s kind of what I was, so he really related to us. Elvis was a wonderful guy and a wonderful friend.
GM: Why did you think you connected with Elvis beyond being a fellow entertainer he admired?
BM: It went a lot deeper than that. I remember being in Memphis recording with Chips Moman. I’d record during the day and one of Elvis’s guys, like Joe Esposito, would come and get me from the studio and take me to Graceland, and I would hang out with Elvis for about three weeks. We did a lot of hanging out and singing together. He had a piano there, and we’d horse around and do stuff. Then when he was working Vegas, I worked the same hotel, and I think Elvis was probably very instrumental in that (laughs). A lot of times before his second show, he would call my dressing room and go, “Bill, come on down.” And I would come on down. It would be about 15 minutes before he would go onstage, and I’d go down there and it would be just Elvis and Elvis’s hairdresser. So Elvis and I really got to hook up on a personal level. I knew Elvis as Elvis, and he knew Bill as Bill, not one of The Righteous Brothers or Elvis Presley.
GM: Elvis covered a few Righteous Brothers songs, including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” and “Unchained Melody.”
BM: His version of “Lovin’ Feelin’” was always one of my favorites. I thought Hall & Oates did a great job, and it was a hit, but Elvis’ felt a little more like ours. With “Unchained Melody,” he killed it. He stopped the show and said he had to do it. “Unchained Melody” was Elvis’s favorite song, but not by The Righteous Brothers; his favorite version was by Roy Hamilton. Roy Hamilton was one of our favorites, too. Elvis and I had so much in common. But to be entirely truthful, he really was doing Roy Hamilton on “Unchained Melody,” and he did an unbelievable job.
GM: What’s the weirdest concert bill you ever played on in the ’60s?
BM: One of the strangest and absolute best bills was when we were the opening act for Jack Benny in about 1966, ’67 in (Lake) Tahoe. We got to do a 20-minute monologue with him onstage. We were old enough to know who the hell Jack Benny was, and we were thrilled to death to be working with him. So that was one of the strangest. But as Bill Medley, I’ve opened for Loretta Lynn, and I’ve opened up for James Brown. I was Fats Domino’s opening act. I spent a year as the opening act for Alabama. It’s pretty interesting. As long as you’re singing street music, you’re OK. A country crowd is street; a blues crowd is street, and a gospel crowd is street. It’s all heart music; it’s not head music. As long as you’re pretty good and you believe in what you’re doing, you can pretty much pull it off. Here’s something you may not know … I was gonna go out and tour with Elvis. I was talking with Elvis one day and said, “I know those Jordanaires vocal background parts backwards and forwards.” He said, “Well come on out and do it.” And I said, “Would you be OK if I did vocal backgrounds and be one of the members of the vocal background group?” And he said, “Absolutely!” I said, “I don’t want you to introduce me as Bill Medley from The Righteous Brothers, but I’ll come out and do that.” But unfortunately, it never happened.
GM: While working on the book, you were able to more deeply examine your relationship with Bobby. Was that helpful?
BM: No question about it. Doing this book was like going to a shrink. It was just amazing. I would tell the story, and then I’d have to think deeper into the story. I feel so good now about all of it. My relationship with Bobby ended up wonderful anyway. We always got along, but he had his comfort level and I had my comfort level. I’ve always said if we were a trio it would have been a lot easier, because there would have been a tie-breaker. But when you’ve got one guy going, “No, we’re gonna go right,” and then you’ve got another guy saying, “No, we’re gonna go left,” where do you go? Neither one of us were good with confrontation. We never had an argument in our life; I just left. Read the book, there’s a lot about me leaving (laughs). Looking back, I think The Righteous Brothers had so much more to give, and if you don’t talk about things you don’t grow.
GM: Was it inevitable that Bobby would pass away early?
BM: About a year before he passed away, I said, “Bobby, you need to go see a doctor.” He was thin and didn’t look good. He said, “OK; do you have one?” He didn’t even have a doctor. He smoked, he drank and he didn’t take care of himself. I don’t know what words to say, because his death was shocking. It was dramatic; it was ugly. It was very painful when he passed away, but it was not a surprise.
GM: Lastly, pick a lesser celebrated Righteous Brothers song that deserves reappraisal.
BM: There was song that Bobby and I wrote back in the early ’60s called “Try To Find Another Man.” We wrote it, so that felt good. Glen Campbell played guitar on it, so that felt good. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler produced it, and that felt great. It just is the kind of song that really shows who Bobby and I are as artists