In his new autobiography The Time of My Life, singer Bill Medley comes across as an affable, down-to-earth fellow. The kind of guy you’d want to write a song with, have a beer with, and call neighbor.
But mere congeniality wasn’t what prompted African-American enlistees at El Toro Marine Base to call Medley and partner Bobby Hatfield “righteous brothers.”
Medley explains the familiar moniker and more in his memoirs—subtitled “A Righteous Brother’s Memoir” (Da Capo Press, 288 pages). Before his fast rise to fame in the mid-1960’s, Medley was just another “greaser” with a ducktail hairdo and leather jacket hanging out at Fidduccia’s Gas Station in Orange County, California. Born the son of ex-musicians, Bill took instantly to the raucous sounds of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, taught himself basic piano, and formed The Romancers with his guitar-playing friend, Don. If doo-wop and R&B failed him, Medley—a student at Bartmore Beauty College—could continue styling hair for old ladies. Things certainly didn’t good after he “froze” at a talent show hosted by L.A. disc jockey Al Jarvis.
But fate had a different agenda: Medley crossed paths with Hatfield, who was member of another group called The Variations. Together, the singing California State University boys took up residence at John’s Black Derby Club and beguiled radio listeners into thinking they were seasoned black performers with their rich, soulful harmonies. The true progenitors of “blue-eyed soul,” Bill (the tall, dark-haired guy) was the husky baritone, while Bobby (the shorter “cute” one) handled tenor. Original songs “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “Koko Joe” became regional hits on Moonglow Records, prompting gigs at Rendezvous Ballroom and The Cow Palace—and widespread record distribution by Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic label.
Following a 1-Y dispensation from the draft and a pregnancy scare with then-girlfriend Karen ) O’Grady, Medley joined Hatfield on TV shows like Shindig and appeared in campy “surf” films before touring with a couple upstart English groups called The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Bill recalls wondering why stadium officials always left the lights on at Fab Four concerts; he later learned the lights were actually generated by camera flashbulbs clicking constantly throughout the shows. Medley also rubbed elbows backstage with The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who invited him to listen in on the quintet’s a cappella version of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Medley dishes on the writers behind mega-hits like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” and the Carole King-penned “Just Once in My Life” and discusses the pressures (and peculiarities) of recording with Phil Spector. The producer famous for his “wall of sound” singles liked scoring A-side hits and attaching his name to his projects. Unfortunately for Spector, it was the B-side to “Hung On You” that grabbed listeners’ ears: “Unchained Melody” was a track for the ages. According to Medley, the tune’s lead vocal was assigned to Bobby because Bill rejected an earlier offer by Spector to go solo.
Righteous Brothers agent Jerry Perenchio introduced the boys to moneyman / manager David Cohen, whom Medley credits for keeping his finances in order through the years. Signed to MGM and backed by well-connected keepers, the singers landed prestigious gigs at Moe Lewis’ Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and were groomed by the Chairman himself: Bill remembers Frank Sinatra upgrading him to “the big rooms” whenever he was out of town.
“Bill was a genius,” says bandleader Mike Patterson in one of many testimonial sidebars by Medley friends and associates.
“He put the shows together, he produced the records. The arrangements, the light cues-everything came from Bill.”
Life in Vegas meant temptation for the two twenty-something singers: Medley confesses to his share of showgirls, spinning ribald tales of overindulgent wild nights, and draws hard distinctions between the Sin City of today and the one ruled by Sinatra and his Rat Pack years ago. We get the inside scoop on sultry dancer Lola Falana, and Bill’s near-fling with Goldie Hawn.
The hits dried up by the late Sixties. When Bobby formed a “New Righteous Brothers” with Jimmy Walker, Bill rebounded with a solo stint at Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood and entertained guests with his ironic new hit, “I Can’t Make It Alone.” Colorblind when it came to affairs of the heart, Medley struck up a romance with Blossoms singer Darlene Love, who lent moral support during sessions for the aptly-named “Brown-Eyed Woman.” Bill’s cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” astounded audiences the world over, but marriage to a 19-year old named Suzi was as short-lived as it was short-sighted. A nervous breakdown marked the end of the Medley’s first brush with fame—and the beginning of what the singer considers his least favorite decade.
Bill and Bobby reunited and hit the charts once more with “Rock and Roll Heaven,” but Medley practically had to drag recalcitrant Hatfield out from semi-retirement to get the show back on the road. The author doesn’t mince words when describing his beloved late partner, noting how Bobby could be deadly serious one moment and downright immature the next—like a boy trapped in a man’s body. Medley attributes the personality quirks to Hatfield’s troubled childhood with an iron-fisted father who built up his esteem by cutting others down.
Bobby’s sister-in-law puts Hatfield’s fortunes in more colorful terms: “He has a lucky horseshoe up his ass.” Where Medley embraced the spotlight and aspired to glory, Hatfield shied away from it, turning down important TV appearances and coveted magazine interviews. Yet Bill carried the weight, always turning up at the most opportune times to nudge his less ambitious half back into the game. There’s nary a hint of mean-spiritedness in Medley’s recap of the brotherly bond; the singer tells all with a fondness that speaks to his affection for Hatfield through good times and bad.
Medley writes about losing his voice in the early ‘70s, how doctors told him he’d never sing again, and how divine intervention figured in his recovery: Under orders from God, vocal coach Jack Colman contacted Bill and gradually nursed him back to health. Elsewhere, in one of the book’s funnier bits, Bill spills a beer in his lap when unexpectedly summonsed onstage to sing with a friend and given no time to explain he didn’t wet himself. In a peculiar twist, Medley later wears an adult diaper post-surgery to protect against bladder accidents that don’t happen.
Rebounding from her own botched nuptials, Karen reconsidered Bill’s proposal and moved in with him. Following her brutal (and unsolved) 1976 murder, Medley gave himself over to raising their two boys (Damien and Darrin) between gigs, aggravating the tension between himself and Hatfield. The happiest moments during this stretch are spent with the lads—or hanging with Elvis in Graceland.
The ‘80s prove a decidedly joyful and more prosperous era (“dogshit to diamonds”) for Bill and new wife Paula, who gives birth to daughter McKenna. The entrepreneurial singer flips his failed restaurant into a wildly popular ‘50s-themed nightclub with a “Rock Around the Clock” revue, tries his hand at country music in Nashville, and continues making the rounds on television. Medley crosses paths with country “outlaws” Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, meets dream girl Kim Basinger, and enjoys jam sessions with Lionel Ritchie and Kenny Rogers (and hears Johnny Cash sing Rogers’ biggest hit). He signs an autograph for a young girl named Whoopi Goldberg, who remembers the gesture later in life.
Bill also talks about recording songs for the Sylvester Stallone films Cobra (“Living On Borrowed Time”) and Rambo III (“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”), and why his Rocky III national anthem ended up on the cutting room floor (“It slowed the momentum”). Fans are given the inside track on his second-coming collaboration with Jennifer Warnes for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack—and how close he came to declining the invite. Medley also discusses the resurgence in the Righteous Brothers’ popularity after their classic hits turned up in the blockbusters Top Gun (“Lovin’ Feelin’”) and Ghost (“Unchained Melody”).
Medley’s not above a little self-deprecation: He recounts passing up on several songs that became career-making hits for other artists, and how he lost out on a major TV role due to glitch in communication between agents. Bill also jokes about the “hippie beard” grown for his Jesus Christ, Superstar audition, and how he had to backpedal from the Andrew Lloyd-Weber musical when he told the musical director wouldn’t lower the key to his vocal range.
The book concludes with a bittersweet synopsis of Hatfield’s life and sudden death while on tour in Kalamazoo, Michigan in November 2003. It was determined that Bobby suffered a heart attack and showed signs of coronary disease, but Bill wasn’t shocked when toxicology reports showed traces of drugs in Hatfield’s body. Medley had no idea—but it just seemed par for the course. Fortunately, Bobby made it to the Righteous Brothers’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier that year, when he and Medley were saluted by lifelong fan Billy Joel—who contributes the book’s forward.