THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS’ BILL MEDLEY
A VOICE OF SOUL & INSPIRATION
By Paul Freeman [1990 Interview]
Medley’s partner in the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Hatfield, passed in 2003. Earlier that year, the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bill Medley continues to perform. His daughter, McKenna Medley, is also a vocalist.
When it comes to the Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, pop music fans have never lost that lovin' feelin'. Though this dynamic duo split in 1968, public demand has sparked numerous reunion concerts.
"Our getting together," Medley says in a deep, laconic voice, "depends on a lot of things-what Bobby's up to at the time, what I'm up to, what the country's up to. We're not interested in running all over the place all year long anymore. We have young families. Bobby has a little girl and little boy, 6 and 7. I have a little girl 3. We pretty much missed out on our first families. We both have children who are in their 20s now. It's a matter of priorities. We've been doing this close to 30 years now. We're both financially to the point where more work is tempting but not necessary."
Both have maintained solo singing careers. Medley hit the jackpot in '87 with the Grammy-winning No. 1 song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," a duet with Jennifer Warnes from the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack. But Medley admits that with Hatfield, he creates something that can't be duplicated.
"There's some sort of chemistry and magic, especially for the audience. We don't quite understand it, and we don't try to figure it out. We feel real good together, real natural, and I guess the audience can sense that.
"As far as outside appearances, it's nothing but opposites. I'm tall. He's shorter. I have a low voice. He has a high voice. He's blond. I'm dark. But as guys, we're pretty much alike. We have the same likes, the same lifestyles. Neither one of us wants the fast lane, the glitter or any of that. We still live in our Orange County hometowns, leading pretty normal lives. That's probably what's kept us sane in an insane business."
Medley grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., and listened to two black radio stations in Los Angeles. He was moved by the R&B sounds of Fats Domino, Bobby "Blue" Bland and, most important, Ray Charles.
In '62, Medley joined forces with Hatfield and found success with such rousing numbers as "Little Latin Lupe Lu." In '64 they were the opening act for the Beatles' U.S. debut tour. The Righteous Brothers were not overly impressed with the Fab Four.
"You have to remember that we were 24, 25, and we were raised on rhythm and blues. Bubble gum music wasn't anything we ever paid attention to. It seems strange, but, at the time, bubble gum was pretty much what the Beatles were doing, songs like 'I Want To Hold Your Hand.' They were performing to screaming 12-year-old kids. It was quite an experience. I called it 'the boot camp of rock 'n' roll.'
"Then we went on the first Rolling Stones tour and that was much better. These guys weren't so cute. They were into more straight-ahead rock 'n' roll than the Beatles. That made for a better combination as far as we were concerned. But in later years we came to respect the Beatles as they grew musically."
The Righteous Brothers were one of the few home-grown acts to thrive during the period of the British invasion: "I remember once looking at the charts, and "Our song 'Unchained Melody' was about the only American song in the Top 40. I don't know why we were able to survive. I think the disc jockeys were trying to hold on to a little bit of America. They called us 'those clean-cut American boys' because we didn't have Beatle haircuts. We thought that was odd because in the early '60s we were the bad boys of rock, the hard, tough men singing this black R&B thing."
The mid-'60s saw the Righteous Brothers' greatest triumphs as they flourished under the supervision of legendary producer Phil Spector. Spector leased their contract from Moonglow Records and placed them on his Philles label, where he blended their supple, sensuous blue-eyed soul with his wall of sound on such classics as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'."
"What he did was incredibly complicated for those days, not so complicated now because you have 100 tracks to record on. But back then you're talking about two-, three-, four-track machines. He knew what he wanted. It had never been done before. He heard it in his head and was bright enough to know how to do it in the studio. He was phenomenal, a genius."
Some believe Spector to be a mad genius. But Medley says the Righteous Brothers had an ideal working relationship with him: "Apparently his problems came later. With us, he was fine. I've heard the stories about his run-ins with John Lennon. When he got together with the Beatles, they must have just worn him out and messed with his ego."
Legal wrangling between Moonglow and Philles prevented the Righteous Brothers from continuing their collaboration with Spector. They moved to MGM/ Verve, where Medley produced "Soul and Inspiration."
"Although I never considered myself a producer, I did our early R&B records and I did the albums, sitting beside Phil, who did the singles. A lot of people don't realize it, but I produced 'Unchained Melody.'
"Soul and Inspiration' was written as a Phil Spector production. So I just went in and produced it the way I thought he would have done. The truth is, even though it went to No. 1, Phil would certainly have made it a better record."
Even the Righteous Brothers couldn't survive the changes brewing in the late '60s.
"Music was changing. The business was changing. It was going from the Four Seasons and the Supremes and the Righteous Brothers to Jefferson Airplane, long hair, T-shirts and beads, the hippie thing. We had already gone from being the bad boys to being the clean-cut boys.
"In '68, I'm sure we were viewed as something along the lines of the Osmond Brothers. It was an awkward time. It usually is when a fad comes in or when the business is starting a big turnaround. I'd always wanted to try a solo career, so I thought this might be the time."
Naturally, rumors flew about an angry break-up.
"Just like with our leaving Phil, people want to hear these horrendous tales of fights. There were no bad incidents between Phil and us. There were no bad incidents between Bobby and me. We never argued in our whole career, which was probably good news and bad news. We just didn't have real good communication. I have a feeling if we ever had gotten our feelings into the open, it would have cleared the air."
Medley began his solo efforts with a hit, 1968's "Brown-Eyed Woman." It took him a while to feel comfortable on his own: "Oddly enough, I felt good on stage. But it was strange offstage because I'd always had my companion there after the show, horsing around, traveling. I missed Bobby more as my friend than as my stage partner. I got used to not being with him. It's a weaning process, kind of like being married and then not married."
Medley became aware that, no matter what he did, he would always be considered a Righteous Brother by fans.
"I was real proud of what Bobby and I accomplished, of the music we did, but it's frustrating to be constantly referred to as 'formerly of . . . ' But now I see that it's OK. In fact, I thank God for it."
In 1987, Medley broke Aretha Franklin's record for having the lengthiest gap between No. 1 hits by any act in the rock era. She had gone 19 years 10 months. He went 21 years 7 months. He almost turned down "(I've Had) The Time of My Life."
"I could hear that it was a good song, but on the demo they sent me, the guy sang real high, I mean Air Supply high. Besides, 'Dirty Dancing' sounded like a porn flick. Patrick Swayze wasn't a big star. Sure, Monday morning quarterbacks will say, 'What, are you crazy? Why wouldn't you want to do it?' Thank God I did do it.
"Actually, my main reason for initially turning it down was that they wanted to record it in New York at around the same time as my wife was due to have our baby. I wanted to be here for the birth of my child. The executive producer persisted, agreed to do it in Los Angeles and said that Jennifer Warnes would do it if I would. I thought we would make a good combination. So I finally agreed."
Medley has a new single, "Don't You Love Me Anymore?" and an album,"Blue-Eyed Singer," that came out in August. But he hasn't turned his back on nostalgia. "Unchained Melody" is featured in the new movie "Ghost" and has put the Righteous Brothers back on the pop charts.
In addition to his ongoing appearances as a Righteous Brother, he keeps busy operating Hop, a '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll dance club in Southern California. Plans are afoot for more sites around the state. Medley co-owns a Reno nostalgic rock club, Kicks, with Paul Revere. The clientele, like the Righteous Brothers' audience, though it is primarily comprised of baby boomers, contains many youngsters.
"Fifties and '60s rock is so palatable to a 12- or 13-year-old. 'Dirty Dancing' proved that. They can understand the simplicity of the lyrics and even the mix of the record. It isn't this loud, confusing, high-tension sound. When you get to be 16, 17, 18, 19, you're ready for that hard rock, metal sound, because that connects with how you feel inside, your frustrations. But between 11 and 15, kids don't need that. Their life is still pretty much bubble gum."
Medley plans to keep recording as long as possible. But he won't lose sleep over any career slumps.
"I've been blessed. In the early '70s, the success of a record might have seemed like life and death. Now, as I'm about to turn 50, I know that there's a lot more to life."