Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers
Greg Prato (Songfacts)
As one half of the vocal duo the Righteous Brothers, singer Bill Medley has experienced it all through his long-and-winding career: working with producer Phil Spector, touring alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, befriending Elvis.
In 2014, he finally put pen to paper and looked back on his entire life and career with the release of his autobiography, The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother's Memoir
, via Da Capo Press.
During the '60s, the Righteous Brothers (which also included the late Bobby Hatfield) scored several of the decade's most enduring hits - and helped popularize a style commonly known as "blue eyed soul" - including "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'
," "Unchained Melody
," and "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration
." Outside the Brothers, Medley scored a #1 smash with the Dirty Dancing showstopper "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," which saw the singer duet with Jennifer Warnes.
Medley turned out to be an extremely friendly and talkative chap, as he explained why the time was right to issue his autobiography, the stories behind several Righteous Brothers classics, and how two tracks he was involved in will forever be linked to Patrick Swayze films.
: If you want to start off by talking about your book, The Time of My Life
, what made you decide to write your life story now?
: Well, I've had all these stories running around in my brain and I've always had people say "you should write it down." I started writing it down, then I had a great offer to write the book.
It's kind of like when I write songs: I don't get them down on tape, I keep them up in my head. So I thought, "Maybe if I get all these stories out of my head, I'll be able to start thinking correctly."
: And by going back and retelling your story, were there any memories or stories that you had forgotten about that suddenly came back?
: My band was asking me that last night, oddly enough. They said I didn't put in the part where I was producing "Unchained Melody" and Bobby came in and put his voice on. He sang it twice, and he left. He came back into the studio and said, "Bill, I just want to try one thing." He was famous for that. This was back when it was two, three or four-track machines, so when you punched somebody in, you were erasing what you already had, so I was scared to do it.
But he went in and he did that real high note in "Unchained," you know, [singing - play to hear], "I neeeeed," that real high part in "Unchained Melody," which isn't how the song was written.
So I punched that in and he left. He said, "No, I can do it better." And I said, "No, you can't." [Laughs] And I think it's a big part of that song.
Songwriting credits are scattered throughout the Righteous Brothers catalog. Bill wrote their first chart entry, "Little Latin Lupe Lu" (#49, 1963), and co-wrote their next one, "My Babe" (#75, 1963) with Hatfield. "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and "(You're My) Soul And Inspiration" were written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; "Unchained Melody" - written for a 1955 movie called Unchained
where it was sung by Todd Duncan - was written by Alex North and Hy Zaret. The Gerry Goffin/Carole King team composed their hits "Just Once In My Life" and "Hung On You"; "Rock And Roll Heaven
" came courtesy of Alan O'Day and John Stevenson. (Phil Spector also got a songwriting credit on the Mann/Weil and Goffin/King hits).
: Looking back at the songs that you wrote for the Righteous Brothers, which ones would you say are your favorites?
: Unfortunately, we didn't write "Lovin' Feelin'" or "Soul & Inspiration" or "Unchained Melody." Boy, I would love to have the writer's right to "Lovin' Feelin'!" But actually we wrote all the early stuff - the stuff before "Lovin' Feelin'" - which, looking back, was very important. We had hits with "Little Latin Lupe Lu," "My Babe," "Koko Joe," and "Try To Find Another Man." They were West Coast hits, and they were kind of rock & roll. But they got the ball rolling for us and I think those songs were the perfect kind of songs and the way we recorded them to show who the Righteous Brothers were.
: As far as "Lovin' Feelin'," how would you say that that song changed your life?
: "Lovin' Feelin'" changed our life dramatically. There was two things that went on. We were filming a rock & roll show, Shindig!
, which was a national TV show back in the '60s. We didn't realize it, because we were a California act. We started doing Shindig!
, and we just didn't realize that people in Chicago, New York, all over the country were watching the show, and we were becoming very popular. Then we did "Lovin' Feelin'" at the same time. So, between getting all that exposure from this great TV show every week - it would be like being on American Idol
every week - and then recording "Lovin' Feelin'," it had a dramatic change in our life, and it was very fast. We went from 1 to 60 in a heartbeat.
: Do you have any special memories of the actual song's recording?
: Of recording "Lovin' Feelin'"?
: Well, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote it. We had been doing all of this rhythm and blues stuff, and they wrote "Lovin' Feelin'" for us. And we just thought, "Wow, what a good song for the Everly Brothers." But it didn't seem right for us.
They were singing it a lot higher than we did, so they kept lowering it and lowering it and lowering it, and Phil slowed it down to that great beat that it was. I remember being in the studio with Phil and we weren't used to working that hard on songs [laughs]. But we were smart enough to know every time he asked us to do it again, that it was getting better.
"Lovin' Feelin'" was done on two or three-track machines. So every time you went to do it again, you were erasing what you had, so it was pretty tedious. When I was producing we would spend about a half an hour on a vocal. I think we spent about 8 hours doing "Lovin' Feelin'."
: You just mentioned Phil Spector. How was it working with him? I've read interviews with some other artists who say that he was very difficult to work with.
: You know what, he wasn't difficult for us. I think he probably treated the girls different than he treated us guys, because we were kind of a street group. We were rhythm and blues. Not that Phil was scared of us, but I don't think he wanted to push our button.
So he was very respectful with us, fun to work with. Good guy. Even back then I think he wanted people to think he was eccentric, but I don't think he was nearly as eccentric as he wanted people to think. But that was in the '60s. How he was in the '80s, '90s, and 2000s I don't have a clue, because I didn't see Phil.
Although it is widely agreed that the Righteous Brothers' rendition of "Unchained Melody" is the definitive one, the song was actually recorded by other artists several times before Medley and Hatfield laid down their version. Al Hibbler was a singer in Duke Ellington's orchestra who went on to become a pop artist and issued his rendition of the song in 1955, while Roy Hamilton was an R&B singer who recorded his version of the tune the same year as Hibbler's.
: As far as the song "Unchained Melody," what were your first impressions of that song when it was first presented to the group to record?
: Well, "Unchained Melody" wasn't presented to us. We were big fans of Roy Hamilton and Al Hibbler from the '50s, so we loved the song from the '50s, "Unchained Melody." Phil Spector asked me to produce the albums, because he would have taken too long and it would have cost too much money. So Bobby Hatfield said on this album he wanted to do "Unchained Melody." I would do a solo, he would do a solo on every album. And he said, "I want to do 'Unchained Melody.'"
While attending California State University, Long Beach, Bobby Hatfield first crossed paths with Medley, and by 1962, the two were singing as part of a group called the Paramours. The duo recorded their first tracks as The Righteous Brothers a year later. Hatfield would release only one solo full-length during his lifetime (Messin' in Muscle Shoals in 1971) before passing away at age 63 on November 5, 2003 - the same year the Righteous Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So that's how we came to do "Unchained Melody." But "Unchained Melody" was supposed to be the B-side of a Phil Spector production song that he did called "Hung On You." So it kind of escaped.
: Did you have any idea that the song was going to be a big hit again once it was used in the movie Ghost
: Well, I don't think you ever know anything, do you? Until Monday morning. We didn't even know it was going into Ghost
. And we didn't know "Lovin' Feelin'" was going into Top Gun
After the song went into Ghost
, it started to get so much airplay because of the movie, we went back in and rerecorded it, because the record label said they weren't going to release it. And I knew that it would be a hit again, because I knew "Lovin' Feelin'" would have been a hit again if they would have re-released it because of Top Gun
. I mean, it would have been just like "I've Had the Time of My Life" that I did for Dirty Dancing
- it would have been a new song for new kids.
So I didn't know what it was going to do to the song, but, boy, when it came out in that movie, that song became a monster. I mean, a monster. I didn't see that coming, that's for sure.
: You just mentioned the song "Time of My Life." What were some memories of recording that with Jennifer Warnes?
: Well, I got a phone call from Jimmy Ienner in New York saying, "I'm putting the music together for this movie and I'd like you to sing one of the songs that we have for the movie." I said, "What's the movie?" He said, "Dirty Dancing." I said, "It sounds like a bad porno movie." [Laughing]
I said, "Who's in it?" He said, "Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey." And that was before they had their success. I said, "Who are they?"
My wife was expecting my child, our baby McKenna, and I promised her I would be there, so I turned it down for three months. And then Paula had our child.
Thank God for Jimmy Ienner. He stayed on me and he called and he said, "Listen, Jennifer Warnes wants to do it if she can do it with you." So I talked to Jennifer and she said, "Yeah, let's go do it."
We didn't think the movie was going to be a hit - we didn't think the song was going to be a hit. We just went in to work together, to sing together, and little did we know it was going to be the biggest movie of the year. Just unbelievable.
: Did you ever get the opportunity to meet Patrick Swayze since he was in two of those films that made the songs hits again?
: I sure did. Did a lot of promotion and things with Patrick, with Dirty Dancing
. "Unchained Melody," I had talked to him a few times over the years - I used to joke with him. I said, "Why aren't you calling us to do every one of your movies?" He just laughed. But he was a very wonderful guy.
: What about the song "Rock and Roll Heaven," what do you remember about the recording of that?
: Well, Bobby and I were separated from '68 to '74. We went back together in '74 and we signed with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter. They called us and said, "Listen, we have this song, but we need to do it right away." And literally we did it the next day. We ran into the studio and did this song, "Rock and Roll Heaven," which had been recorded earlier by the Climax band. Lambert and Potter kind of rewrote the second verse to update it a little bit [adding Jim Croce and Bobby Darin to the list of artists who had passed away].
And so we recorded it and it went to #3 immediately. It was the fastest song that we ever had climb the charts, so we had to scramble and get an album done.
But honestly, we liked "Rock and Roll Heaven," but we knew it wasn't going to be necessarily a great Righteous Brothers record. We knew it wasn't going to be the kind of song that people were going to get dressed up and come out to watch you perform. Because we had had "Lovin' Feelin'" and "Unchained Melody" and "Soul & Inspiration," songs that people really want to hear you do. We always felt that "Rock and Roll Heaven" was more of a hit record than a hit song.
: The last question I have is what is your take on the current state of pop and rock music, as far as technology being used to correct singers' voices?
: You're going to make me sound like an old man! I think parts of it are good. I think it's great when you take a really good singer or a really good act into the studio and they really can play. But because of technology, they can slow it down and do it again, or "You're a little flat there, but don't worry about it, I can Auto-Tune it." So I think it's a great thing when it's done for good people.
But when it's making average people sound good, I'm not crazy about it. They're making perfect records, but is that what you want? I don't know.
June 25, 2014. For more Bill, visit billmedley.com. Get The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother's Memoir on Amazon.