The Righteous Brothers originally comprised the duo of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, who began singing together in the early 1960s.
They had some ups and downs during the ‘60s and 70s, but churned out a string of hits during the ups — “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” “Ebb Tide,” “Soul and Inspiration,” and their take on the R&B standard, “Unchained Melody.” “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” hit No. 1 on charts in the U.S. and UK, and was the most-played song on radios during the entire 20th Century, having been played more than 8 million times, according to BMI.
What made the duo work was their vocal range — Medley’s bass giving their lyrics guts, and Hatfield’s tenor carrying the tune.
Hatfield’s death in 2003 brought that magical sound to an end, but in 2016 Medley connected with Bucky Heard to reform The Righteous Brothers, and they continue to tour today — including a July 21 show coming to the Big Top Chautauqua.
We spoke with Medley about 50 years of singing hits and getting back on the road at the age of 78:
Question: Tell me about the name – the Righteous Brothers. When other bands were taking names like the Shirelles or Sensations or Marvelettes, you took a different tact.
Answer: Bobby and I were raised in Orange County, Calif., and at that time Orange County was very, very white. We were working in a nightclub called John’s Black Derby, and we were called the Paramours.
I had written a song called “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” and it was a hit in California. Well in Orange County there was a Marine base there, and a lot of black Marines heard that these two guys were down at that club singing R&B. Now back then, if you had a cool car, they would say “Man, that’s a righteous looking car.” And if a black guy liked you as a friend, he would call you a brother. So a lot of times we would come to work and they would say, “Hey righteous brother, how you doing?” When we were looking for a new name, we just said, “Why not call ourselves what those Marines keep calling us?”
Q: Obviously with no idea it would stick for 50 years, right?
A: Oh, no. The first two or three years, we used to talk all the time about what we would do when the fad wore off. We had these West Coast hits and it was fun and cool and everything, but we didn’t take it serious like it was going to be a career.
Q: So much could be said about “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” and the records it set, its ranking in songs of the century its inclusion in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But what’s maybe most interesting to audiophiles is that your recording is the iconic expression of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recording technique.
A: We knew of Phil because he was making hits with the Ronettes and others. We were a little skeptical because he did mainly girl groups. But when we went in to record it and he did his wall of sound, it was remarkable. I think “Loving Feeling” was recorded on two- or three-track machines, and we had no idea the sound could be that big.
He really knew exactly what he wanted to hear.
Q: And that sound is something artists have been trying to replicate every since?
A: Guys like Bruce Springsteen and other people have picked up on the wall of sound. It’s a real genius way of recording. We had probably 15 or 20 rhythm instruments in the studio — three pianos, four guitars, three basses — and he would just layer those sounds on top of one another until he heard the sound he wanted. It really was remarkable.
Q: “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years — Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick and Hall & Oates — but it also played a role in the movie “Topgun.” How have all those versions affected you and kept your music alive?
A: Certainly “Topgun” and Hall & Oates did introduce us to a whole new audience. “Topgun” itself brought it right back to everyone’s mind. A lot of kids would go see the movie and come home and tell their parents, “Boy, wait til you hear this new group The Righteous Brothers!”
Q: Another of your songs, your duet “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” with Jennifer Warnes, was a hit in the movie “Dirty Dancing,” and you can hardly turn on the TV now without hearing it in an ad for a cruise ship or exotic vacation.
A: I joke about that song — it’s the song that keeps on giving. I’ve never seen anything like it. Some guys from New Jersey wrote it and I’m sure they can retire off it. I know what Jennifer and I made over the years and it’s just remarkable — it was in a great little movie in the perfect place. And it’s such a positive song — I’ve had the time of my life — you don’t get a lot of songs that say that anymore.
Q: You sing it now, on tour, with your daughter?
A: My daughter is 32 years old and she was born right when I was recording “Time of my Life,” and now she’s on stage singing it with me. It’s wonderful to have her along on the road.
Q: What compelled you to get back on the road at the age of 75, and how do you replace a voice like Bobby’s?
A: I didn’t set out to do that. I had a lot of friends in the industry that told me I should reform The Righteous Brothers and keep the music alive, and a lot of fan mail and stuff. But I never took it serious. About 12 or 13 years after Bobby died I was working in Branson, Mo., and I ran into Bucky (singer Bucky Heard). He was singing a couple of Journey songs and I was like, wow. I thought, if I was going to reform The Righteous Brothers, this is the guy. You can’t replace a voice like Bobby’s, he’s one of a kind, but Bucky’s doing a heckuva a job.
Q: And you’re still selling out concert halls?
A: I’m amazed that I am out here, and amazed at how many people show up for our concerts. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we have a residency at Harrah’s in Las Vegas, and then during the summer we go out on the road. I feel blessed to do it. I am thrilled my voice has held up.
Q: I have to ask you, you and Elvis were buddies? How did that happen?
A: Elvis was a fan of The Righteous Brothers back in ‘63 and ‘64, before “Loving Feeling,” and he would come see us perform. When I left the Righteous Brothers in ‘68 to try to finish my dream of being a singer-songwriter, I was at the Hilton in Las Vegas and I think Elvis was instrumental in me getting that job. Elvis and I just kept getting closer and closer. It was very difficult to be with Elvis without a million people around, but I spent some time at Graceland in ‘69. We had a lot in common.
Q: You were both white artists singing R&B when that still wasn’t acceptable everywhere.
A: He was a huge fan of rythym and blues and black artists. A lot of artists he grew up loving were the same ones I loved. And we both sang gospel music and loved it.
Q: So you’ve been singing these same songs for 50 years. How do you keep the passion alive?
A: It’s really about the music. If you love what you do, Bobby and I always told each other we would do each show like it would be our last show. I’ve said a million times, the minute you do the opening bars of “Loving Feeling” on the stage, the audience goes right back to when they first heard it. The love they pour on you makes you feel like it’s a brand new song. When the curtain goes up on stage, I still feel like I’m 25 years old.
Q: So what can we expect from the show in Bayfield?
A: I’ve gone to see some of my favorite artists over the years and have been disappointed that some of the hits I grew up with, they didn’t play them. So we’re very conscious that we do all the hits. We have a tremendous band, and we make sure the audience gets everything they thought they would get and maybe a little more.
Q: And they’ll hear “Loving Feeling,” which is still on the radio today. What’s it like to be driving down the road and you hear your voice come out of the radio, “You never close your eyes…”
A: It isn’t right. It isn’t right at all. It’s really amazing to me that the songs are still being played. “Loving Feeling” was the most-played song in the history of American radio and that just doesn’t make sense. But having those songs still played, going into the Hall of Fame, it’s like a stamp of approval on a career. It is a recognition that you touched people.