If you have a chance to catch the Righteous Brothers, you know they’ve got a helluva band.
The Righteous Brothers, the soulful duo of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, were perhaps the first band with white members to be featured to black radio audiences. A disc jockey called them “blue-eyed soul brothers.” Medley sang baritone and Hatfield hit the high notes.
After teaming with producer Phil Spector, the Righteous Brothers recorded “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” in 1964 — the most played song in the history of radio. They followed that up with more hit songs, such as “Unchained Melody,” “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” and the aforementioned “Rock and Roll Heaven.”
The Righteous Brothers toured on both the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ first U.S. tours.
Shortly after Righteous Brothers were inducted into, and performed at, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Hatfield died.
Medley reformed the Righteous Brothers a couple of years ago, and over the winter played Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Las Vegas. Before the duo of Medley and Bucky Heard takes the summer off, it will perform Friday, May 25, at the Carson Valley Inn.
Still one of the nicest artists in rock and roll, Medley spent time with Tahoe Onstage for an in-depth interview:
Tahoe Onstage: Is it true that you first connected with record producer Phil Spector when the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes were playing at a gig at San Francisco Cow Palace?
Bill Medley: Yeah, that is true. A couple of great disc jockeys, Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell, would put on these big, big concerts at the Cow Palace. One year, the Ronettes were on and Phil Spector was directing the band. We met him there and I guess he was impressed with what we do and when he got home he called our record company and said, ‘I want to lease the remainder of the Righteous Brothers contract.’ ”
And then he took you into the studio and utilized what he called the ‘Wall of Sound.’ Can you describe that process?
He would do the rhythm section first and the rhythm section would be about three or four guitars, three pianos, two basses, drums, percussionists and in those days he had to mix everything while everybody was in the studio, which was pretty remarkable. Then he would put the strings on, then the horns and then the voices, and in those days you would lose a generation every time you overdubbed. But he was smart enough to make the original recording with a little too many highs and a too many lows, so by the time we lost the generations it would be about right. He was a genius. He was brilliant, and he was fun to work with in the studio. Everybody wants to hear a horror story but this was before he … I think he wanted people to think that he was very eccentric but he wasn’t as eccentric as people thought. Apparently, over the years he worked his way into it.
Again, please correct me if I’m wrong on any of the stuff, but that’s when you joined Spector’s Phillies Records label and as the first white artists the expression “blue-eyed soul” came to be.
When Bobby and I first started we know we had some hits … all these rock ‘n’ roll songs. Black stations wouldn’t play us because they knew we were white, and white stations wouldn’t play us because they thought we were black. So we were kind of caught in between all that, and it wasn’t a racial thing. It was just what they did. Then when “Lovin’ Feelin’” came out, the black stations just started playing it. They just thought it was legitimate and they loved it. And there was a disc jockey in Philadelphia that would say, “You want ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ by my blue-eyed soul brothers,” which really was his way of telling the audience that we were white.
Did you get any flack for singing what was considered black music in the early ‘60s?
No. The white people thought it was really hip and cool for white musicians to sing with emotion. (Until then), white records were slick and cute, so I think white kids really didn’t understand or realize it was OK to express emotions like that. And black audiences accepted us because in their opinion we were the real deal.
In your show, I understand you promote the originators of R&B.
I do a rhythm and blues song. I made a CD that was dedicated to all the rhythm and blues singers from the ‘50s and I tell the audience if it wasn’t for those wonderful people there never would have been the Righteous Brothers, and then I do one of the songs off the CD.
Which R&B singers did you record?
I did my favorite Ray Charles song, and B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Sam and Dave, Bobby Blue Bland. The guys I was heavily influenced, but didn’t get a chance to do a Little Richard song because I couldn’t figure out a way to do it that would fit on this album.
It must have been amazing to open for the Beatles on their first U.S. tour.
It was an amazing experience for us and the Beatles. I don’t think the guys expected what happened but it was pandemonium and it was it unbelievable. We did really well on the West Coast but when we got to the East Coast, we hadn’t recorded “Lovin’ Feelin’” or any of that stuff yet, so when we got on the East Coast it became a little tougher. We heard a lot of “We want the Beatles!”
Did you have to play a short set?
We started out doing about a 20-minute set but then the other acts that were on the show, as they started having voice problems, (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein would come to us and say, “Can you guys do an extra song?” So we were doing 40 minutes in front of the Beatles, which sometimes was death.
The technology was so much different in 1964. It must have been really tough to dial in your sound.
Very tough. I mean, in those days sound systems just weren’t built for rock and roll. So you couldn’t hear yourself on stage and then on the Beatles, with everybody screaming, it was kind of like insult to injury. But it was a lot of fun. Now we look back and say, “Man, we had a front-row seat to history. That was pretty cool.”
Then you played on the first episode of the music program “Shindig?”
Yeah, we actually left the Beatles tour about three quarters of the way in so we could go back and do the pilot for “Shindig.” We had to meet with Brian Epstein on the Beatles and told him we have this opportunity and he said, “Sure, fine.”
How did that go?
We went back and did the pilot and that show took off. And then we were regulars on the show, and at the same time, that’s when Phil Spector came into the picture and produced “Lovin’ Feelin,’” and between “Shindig” and “Lovin’ Feelin,’” boy, we jumped ahead of the class.
I read that you also opened for the Rolling Stones in 1964. Was that also their first U.S. tour?
Yeah, that was their first the U.S. tour — and they haven’t stopped yet. I think we did the tour with them and I think the next week they were the biggest thing in the country. It was a West Coast tour and we kind of were bigger than them at one singular point. But they’re great guys and they remain good friends of mine and that tour was really a lot of fun.
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” is called the most played song on the radio in the 20th century, but I can’t imagine any song being played more in the 20th and 21st centuries combined.
I think it’s just flat out the most played record in the history of radio and probably will be forever because radio is changing and records are changing. I don’t see how anybody could catch that record and pass it.
Back then people were recording for singles and then albums came along and now it’s singles again.
Yeah. It’s almost a full circle.
I’ve never heard the song “Hung On You,” which was released as a single. But the B side, “Unchained Melody,” sure did well.
Phil Spector would do the singles and he asked me to produce the albums and “Hung On You” was a great song. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote it. But he put “Unchained Melody” on the B side thinking that it wouldn’t get in the way of “Hung On You” and for some reason just every disc jockey in the country just started playing “Unchained Melody.” Spector tried to stop it but it was just too fast of a big moving train at that point. “Unchained Melody” has had a remarkable career.
Right. The movie “Ghost” brought it back to life. You’ve had a lot of songs in movies, haven’t you?
“Lovin’ Feelin’ ” was in “Top Gun,” then the next year I did “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for “Dirty Dancing” and then the next year “Unchained Melody” was in “Ghost.” It was just it was remarkable. We were bigger than ever in 1990.
After the Righteous Brothers disbanded, it was reported the solo work put a strain on your voice and that inspired reunion with Bobby in the early 1970s.
I was working a lot, too much. I was doing three shows a night in Vegas and it’s like running on a sprained ankle: You know it is going to get worse and it did. Bobby was in town performing down the street, so I’d go see him and jump on stage with him and vice versa, and we just figured maybe it’s time to give this another shot.
That was more than 40 years ago. How have you been able to preserve your voice?
When I kind of lost my voice, I took voice lessons and went to a shrink and changed my diet and my spiritual walk and everything I could do. I finally got it back and now it’s better than ever.
Can you elaborate on your spirituality?
I’ve always been a Christian. I accepted the Lord when I was probably about 13 or 14 and I’m from a very religious family. And when things go wrong, we always look to God or Jesus to help us out, so it just it just heightens my belief.
How did you connect with Bucky Heard and bring back the Righteous Brothers?
My management and people in the industry, who I really admire and respect their opinion, said you had some huge songs that were very important to people and their lives and they still want to come out and see it and hear those songs.
I was in Branson, Missouri, doing some work and I knew Bucky Heard for about 12-14 years and I went to see him and he was doing some a couple of Journey songs and I didn’t know he could do that. He just killed it. I said, “If I am going to reform the Righteous Brothers, and if I can’t get Bobby Hatfield, Bucky Heard would be the guy.
So we met and talked and sat around the piano and sang and felt great and I really liked him as a friend and he’s a great guy who’s got a great sense of humor, and all the above everything that you’d want, and it’s just worked out remarkably well.
How have you remained a nice guy after all these years in show business?
Both Bobby and I never took ourselves very real serious. We took our music real serious. We just felt that we were just two a very fortunate guys. I think the main thing that worked for me is that I was raised in Orange County, which is only about 40 miles out of Hollywood, so I never have to leave my hometown. I just stayed home and didn’t you didn’t get caught up in the Hollywood thing.
I feel like I’m a pretty good singer but I feel like that I’m very fortunate and I just love to do what I do. And I know the Bill Medley who was the one was driving up and down Main Street trying to pick up girls in my car and couldn’t do it. So reality is reality. Then you have hit records and girls are kind of throwing themselves out to you and you’re getting paid more money than you should. I just keep the priorities straight. It’s about the music and the audiences.
— Tim Parsons