Bill Medley’s days as a Righteous Brother may be well behind him, but the legendary soul singer is still having the time of his life.
As one half of pop music’s most celebrated duos, Medley enjoyed a wave of commercial success that flooded his life with fame, fortune, and females in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Teaming with doo-wop tenor Bobbie Hatfield, the baritone-voiced Medley either wrote or co-wrote early Righteous Brothers hits like “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “My Babe” for the Moonglow Records label. But it was the Phil Spector-produced hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” that launched the pair to stardom and paved a path for continued recognition even decades later: Tom Cruise revisited the tune with his pilot buddies in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun.
Medley kept close to the music after splitting with Spector and taking on more songs by other writers. Although history affords Spector the credit, it was Medley who engineered the Hatfield-sung hit “Unchained Melody.” Likewise, it was Bill who worked the console on the 1966 smash “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” which featured his distinctly rich, deep pipes.
The “brothers” floundered in the late ‘60s but eventually reunited to tour—and sometimes recreate—their oldies. Medley himself enjoyed several minor solo hits, ironically scoring his first with “I Can’t Make It On My Own” in 1968. He followed up with “Brown Eyed Woman,” “Don’t Know Much,” and “Right Here and Now,” and even made a smooth transition to the country music circuit for a spell.
But Medley’s biggest comebacks came in the ‘80s. Even as his Righteous Brothers chart-toppers showed up in some of the day’s highest-grossing films, Bill was in the studio tracking tunes for Sylvester Stallone actioners like Cobra and Rambo III. His duet with Jennifer Warnes, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” gave the Patrick Swayze film extra emotional heft—and rocketed up the Billboard charts.
The song’s been covered many times since, transcending its era of origin and inspiring a younger generation of music-loving romantics. Its unexpected success had such lasting repercussions that Medley titled his new autobiography after it: The Time of My Life—A Righteous Brothers’ Memoir (Da Capo Press, 258 pages).
We recently had a chance to speak with Medley about the book and his time as a “brother” with Bobbie Hatfield. Checking in by phone, the Grammy and Oscar-winning singer remembers far more good than bad. He effused satisfaction and joy over his new album, and is enthused to be touring again with his singing daughter, McKenna, who will appear with him at Chautauqua Resort’s Hoover Auditorium in Lakeside, Ohio (The Islands), on May 24th.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Mr. Medley, fans have heard you tell some of these stories at your concerts. What made you decide to finally jot them all down in book form?
BILL MEDLEY: I had all these stories rattling around in my and thought, maybe it’s time to do it, and delete some of this stuff from my brain! I used to do kind of an unplugged kind of storytelling thing, and I’d talk about opening for The Beatles or Elvis. And the audiences loved it so much that I thought, maybe now it’s time to do it. And I’m glad I did it; it was really good for me. It helped clear up a lot of stuff in my brain about Bobby and me. I mean, we had a good relationship. It’s just that we didn’t have much communication. So we didn’t grow very much.
EXAMINER: You mentioned your Beatles story, which comes early in the book—how the stadiums used to light up for The Fab Four when you and Bobby opened for them.
BILL MEDLEY: Yes! It went dark on me! It was the weirdest thing. Every night, we were on right before The Beatles. It was dark when we were on, then we’d go off and The Beatles would come on. And I thought they were just turning the house lights on, just lit. Totally lit up. Come to find out, it was just flashbulbs. Everybody was taking pictures, and they lit up the whole joint!
EXAMINER: You guys also toured with The Rolling Stones shortly thereafter.
BILL MEDLEY: Yeah. Touring with the Stones was a lot easier than with The Beatles. With The Beatles it was just pandemonium. The Stones hadn’t made it real big yet, and we were kind of big on the West Coast—where the tour was. So we were probably about as big as The Stones at that point. It was just a fun tour. They’re just a bunch of great guys. The Beatles are great guys, too. The Stones were just trying to break into the U.S.A. and were just straight-ahead good guys.
EXAMINER: Would you mind discussing how you and Bobby first teamed up? Your book talks about how you were in different singing groups, The Paramours and The Variations—friendly rivals.
BILL MEDLEY: My guitar player—the same that was on The Beatles tour—he was my guitar player, and he was in Bobby’s band. He told me, “Boy, you ought to hear this kid Bobby Hatfield. He’s an incredible singer!” And he would tell Bobby the same thing. So I went in to see Bobby, and he came to see me. And a mutual friend of ours put us all together. And Bobby’s drummer, and me and my guitar player. All The Paramours. Then I wrote a song, “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” and we haven’t looked back since!
EXAMINER: Was this the same guitar player whose family owned the gas station where you and your fellow “greaser” friends used to hang out?
BILL MEDLEY: No, that was Don Fidducia. Don was my guitar player. He’s actually the one who turned me on to writing songs and really jumping into music. The guy that put us together was a gentleman—John Wimber—who became a born-again-Christian, and boy, he opened up a thousand churches all over the world. He became a huge guy.
EXAMINER: Some of The Righteous Brothers’ biggest records were produced by Phil Spector. But in your book you discuss how you watched his methods and applied them yourself later on other songs.
BILL MEDLEY: Yeah, I sat there in the studio the whole time he was making the tracks for “Lovin’ Feelin’,” especially the rhythm tracks. And I watched what he did and how he did it. It was quite amazing. “Soul and Inspiration” was supposed to be the follow-up, but it wasn’t. So I went to the writers when we left Phil and said, “Get me that song, ‘Soul and Inspiration!’” And I produced it. Because it was supposed to sound like “Lovin’ Feelin’,” I just kind of did what I thought Phil might do.
EXAMINER: It certainly came off well.
BILL MEDLEY: Well, it did pretty good [laughs]!
EXAMINER: Until your book, few people—myself included—were aware “Unchained Melody” was actually the B-side to another single, “Hung On You.” Funny how that one turned out, eh?
BILL MEDLEY: I don’t know why the jockeys flipped it over. I produced “Unchained Melody” because Phil asked me to produce the albums, because he took too long to do the songs and cost too much money. So I did the albums, and on the album I did “Unchained Melody,” which Bobby Hatfield sang lead on. For some reason, Phil put it on the B-Side. And he always put songs on the B-Side that he knew the radio stations wouldn’t play. He produced A-Sides, and they’d always play the right side. But for some reason, they flipped it over—and he couldn’t stop it. It just became this big hit. And they put it in the movie Ghost in like, 1989. It just became bigger than life.
EXAMINER: Your book has a chapter on your residency in Las Vegas in the mid- to late-1960’s. The Vegas you depict then is quite different from today’s weekender tourist destination.
BILL MEDLEY: Well, Vegas in the early ‘60s or late ‘50s…they would dress up to go to the dinner shows. I can remember, Frank Sinatra was in the main room. And people were just dressed to the nines. All dressed, and they’d have dinner in there. Now you go out onstage and there are guys in cutoff pants in the front row. I get asked all the time when I’m in Vegas, “How has Vegas changed? What’s the difference then-to-now?” And there’s no difference so much, it’s just that that Vegas isn’t here—literally. The buildings are gone, everything’s gone. I don’t know, man. But it was amazingly cool, you know?
EXAMINER: It’s fun reading about Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and how Frank would upgrade you to the “big room” and fancy suites when he was away.
BILL MEDLEY: Yeah, it was just a remarkable town when the boys—the mob, or whatever you want to call them—kind of ran the place. It just had a totally different feel then, than when the corporations came in. It just became all about…it wasn’t about fun. Vegas is a lot of fun. It’s still a lot of fun, but nothing like how it was in the early days.
EXAMINER: You describe the ‘70s and being the one decade you’d get rid of if you could. Obviously, the tragic loss of Karen probably colors that whole era for you. But your book talks about how you were able to step up as a father to the boys in a big way, and turn your own life around.
BILL MEDLEY: When Karen passed away in ’76—this terrible attempted rape and murder—Darrin was ten years old. There I was, a single rock and roll singer living on the beach. And now I’m a dad, so I left The Righteous Brothers. Actually, I just took some time off. Took time off to make sure Darrin’s life got on track, and that he was okay. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Karen passing away was horrible. But being a father was about Darrin, not about me. And I was kind of pulled back into the reality of life, you know?
EXAMINER: You were quite the ladies’ man back in the day, and your book recounts how you stepped right over racial boundaries without even knowing—or perhaps not caring—that the greater part of society still considered it taboo to mix things up like that. You dated singer Darlene Love of The Blossoms, for example. Nice work!
BILL MEDLEY: [Laughs] I mean, Darlene and I didn’t have a clue that it was a big deal. We were friends for three or four years before we hooked up. You know, we just…it was just me being with Darlene. Obviously, I knew she was black and I was white. But I didn’t understand that there was still such a divide in all the racial stuff that was going on. So it was either a pretty stupid or a pretty ballsy move. But we were in love, and that’s what you do!
EXAMINER: I didn’t really know who she was until high school or so, when I saw her play Danny Glover’s wife in Lethal Weapon. That’s when I made the connection: “Oh, that’s Darlene Love, the singer!” Great-looking lady.
BILL MEDLEY: She’s had a remarkable career. I mean, she was with The Blossoms—who were the big background singers in the early ‘60s and were regulars on Shindig! with us. I think Bruce Springsteen was a huge admirer of hers and helped her out a lot. Now she’s been in movies, and she’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she’s done a book. And I think Oprah’s going to do a special on her for her television network. I just did two concerts with Darlene, and she’s just sounding and looking better than ever. She’s unbelievable.
EXAMINER: Speaking of movies…I’m a huge fan of the Rocky films, and your book hits on a few of your movie soundtrack contributions, including several Sylvester Stallone titles. For instance, you covered “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” on one of the Rambo soundtracks, and you did a song for Stallone’s Cobra. But the clincher for me was reading how you were filmed singing the national anthem for a boxing match in Rocky III, only to have it left on the cutting room floor!
BILL MEDLEY: [Laughs] Yeah! Got cut! And Sylvester promised me he was going to give me that film. I was scared to death to do that song, and here I am in the movie. Thank God they recorded it first—I did it in the studio, then I lip-synched it in the movie. But it was real anticlimactic in the movie, because they were fighting before I even sang the song [laughs]. Pretty anticlimactic, so they cut it out. But it was neat. Sylvester Stallone directed it, and it was wonderful working with him.
EXAMINER: You’d think by now the footage would’ve resurfaced as “bonus material” on one of the DVD releases. I’d love to see that!
BILL MEDLEY: Well, I don’t know, but Sylvester owes it to me [laughs]! I should give him a call! I sang at his wedding reception when he married…the tall…
EXAMINER: Brigitte Nielsen.
BILL MEDLEY: Brigitte, yeah. That was cool.
EXAMINER: Of course, one of the highlights of your career—and the book—is your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. That must’ve been special for you and Bobby.
BILL MEDLEY: Yeah. That was the same year Bobby passed away. It was March of 2003, and Bobby passed away in November. But it was wonderful, man. There were a lot of singers we admired there: Elton John and Steve Tyler and Sting. Just a million guys. And to hear that we kind of influenced them or this-and-that, it just was a wonderful night. I had my family there and Bobby had all of his family. It was a special night, and a special honor.
EXAMINER: Your latest CD, From Your Heart to Mine: Dedicated to the Blues, has some great cover songs by some of the big blues guys you grew up listening to: Ray Charles, Otis Redding, B.B. King, just to name a few. You also included a new original
BILL MEDLEY: “This Will Be the Last Time,” yeah. I still do that in my show. I’ve waited for years to do this album because I always wanted to do an album to kind of say thank you to all these guys who taught me how to sing, you know? I was heavily influenced by all those guys, the black artists of the ‘50s. The men and women. Ray Charles was my hero, so I took my favorite song of his, and of Sam Cooke, and everybody. It was just so much fun to do. I’m glad I finally got around to doing it.
EXAMINER: Billy Joel—who inducted you and Bobby into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and wrote the forward in your book—was also a huge Ray Charles fan.
BILL MEDLEY: I think he named one of his kids after Ray. He was a big fan. I think everyone was a big Ray fan. Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin propelled our industry…pushed it up about twenty years, because they were so good, and everyone else was just trying to be as good as them. It never happened, of course—but by trying, I think it made everybody better.
EXAMINER: You and Bobby certainly did alright. But as you detail in your book, there was some confusion when it came to getting airplay. Your soulful singing style led some people to think you were black. Some of the black radio stations picked up on the secret, but you were kind of invited into the club, so to speak, which resulted in the coining of a phrase to describe your sound: “Blue-eyed soul.”
BILL MEDLEY: Even before “Lovin’ Feelin’” we had trouble getting our records played, because the white stations thought we were black, and the black stations knew we were white. So when we did “Lovin’ Feelin’” they just finally decided it was too good of a record, so they played it. And they’d play it in Philadelphia or wherever, and they’d say, “Now here’s ‘Lovin’ Feelin’’ by my blue-eyed soul brothers.” Because what he was really saying was, that we were white. Because in the old days the blacks would refer to whites as blue-eyed guys. So we were like blue-eyed soul brothers.
EXAMINER: It’s nice that it doesn’t matter so much anymore, and that music can be music, or that a song can be appreciate for its melody and lyrics and vocal performance and people aren’t as fixated on the color of the person singing or playing it.
BILL MEDLEY: Man, you know…nobody should dissect music that much. It’s really meant to be heard and felt. It’s nice that there’s so much crossing now. There are black singers in country music. What’s better than that?
EXAMINER: Right—like Darius Rucker from Hootie and The Blowfish. Or even Lionel Ritchie, who appears in your book. People seemed shocked when he did an entire country album a couple years back, but he’s always had it in him—like the song “Stuck On You.” But speaking of blue-eyed soul, there’s another singing duo who have been described that way: Hall and Oates. They’re going to be inducted into the Rock Hall this week, and I recall they did a version of “Lovin’ Feelin’” some years back.
BILL MEDLEY: Yeah! They did a great job. I was really surprised that they didn’t do the Phil Spector kind of “Wall of Sound” thing, which I think was smart of them. Because it’s a great song on its own, and Hall and Oates are great singers. They did the right thing and made a great record.
EXAMINER: You’ll be touring again soon. Does your daughter still join you for a few shows?
BILL MEDLEY: Yeah, we’re still all together. McKenna’s 27 now, living in Nashville and doing a lot of writing and recording. She comes out and performs with me and does “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” with me, and some other things. It’s fun. A lot of fun.
EXAMINER: So you cover all the bases? Do a few Righteous Brothers songs and your solo material as well?
BILL MEDLEY: Oh yeah, we do all The Righteous Brothers hits. As many as I can. And the Bill Medley stuff. I try and do what the audience came out to hear. I’m not one of those acts that want to show who I could have been!
Bill Medley: The Time of My Life book at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0306823160/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=U...
Bill Medley: Your Heart to Mine CD at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00FI2PIYS