Music News & Reviews

Bill Medley still righteous after all these years

In the 1960s, the term “blue-eyed soul” emerged in reference to white artists performing and recording soul music and rhythm and blues. The Righteous Brothers became its most famous embodiment. And their soulful “wall of sound” ballad, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” produced by Phil Spector in 1964, was hailed in 1999 by Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) as the most played song on U.S. radio in the 20th century.

This monstrous success surprised no one more than the liquid-amber baritone Bill Medley, who performs at the Crest Theatre Friday night, and the late tenor Bobby Hatfield.

“With ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu,’ ‘My Babe,’ ‘Koko Joe,’ all that kind of rock and roll stuff,” said 73-year-old Medley about the Brothers’ early-1960 gigs, “we just were going out and working and having a ball because we thought it probably was a fad. We used to say: I wonder what we are going to do when the fad’s over.”

Both vocalists grew up in Orange County. Medley had a nervous twitch and a father who implemented frequent corporal punishment. Medley adopted a greaser persona, rode motorcycles, got into street fights, dropped out of school at age 16, and failed the state board exam after attending beauty college. Hatfield was a high school student body president who excelled at baseball and enrolled at the former Long Beach State University.

In 1962, the two performed regularly in the Paramours at Jon’s Black Derby. They were influenced by what was then labeled as “black music,” and they even sounded black. Their emotive, gospel-tinged delivery and organic sweat-drenched theatrics (falling to their knees, tossing microphones back and forth) often elicited calls of ‘That was righteous, brother!’ from their audience. Moonglow Records took notice and recorded Medley’s original “Little Latin Lupe Lu” as a single for the evolving duo. And the two paraphrased the fan shout-outs into their new name.

“When ‘Lupe Lu’ was first getting airplay in L.A.,” said Medley, “we hadn’t done any television, and a club in Los Angeles booked us. We showed up, and it was an all-black club. The guy was in shock. He said: ‘Oh my god, I didn’t have any idea you were white.’

“The clubs in those days closed at a quarter to 2 (a.m.),” said Medley. “They called us up around 1:30. Bobby and I decided to do the most R&B thing we could so we did ‘Sweet Little Angel’ by B.B. King, and they just went nuts. There are a million black guys that could do what Bobby and I were doing. They could have said, ‘Listen, we just want to support our own people.’ They didn’t. They opened up their arms and let us in.”

Atlantic Records, whose roster included Otis Redding, let them in, too. The label distributed “Lupe Lu” nationally, and it also resonated with young English bands. The Beatles, who covered artists such as Chuck Berry and the Isley Brothers, hired the Brothers to join their first U.S. tour in 1964. And The Rolling Stones, who covered such the likes Willie Dixon and Rufus Thomas, did the same.

Then came The Brothers’ run as regulars on TV’s “Shindig!”, friendships with Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys, a string of hits including “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” and Hatfield’s vocal solo “Unchained Melody,” and residency in the lounges of Rat Pack Vegas, where Sammy Davis Jr. once asked Medley for pointers on how to sound “black” and Sinatra dispensed advice while putting on his toupee.

Hatfield was unhappy with all the pressure and stress. The Brothers disbanded in 1968, but without a single skirmish. Medley went solo. The Brothers reunited in 1974 for the hit “Rock and Roll Heaven,” and again after their songs were featured in the films “Top Gun” and “Ghost,” and Medley teamed with Jennifer Warnes for “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for “Dirty Dancing.” They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2003.

Medley published his “The Time of My Life” memoir this spring. It does not skirt sadness (Hatfield died in his hotel room in November 2003 before a gig), tragedy (Medley’s ex-wife was murdered), drama (Medley lost and regained his voice), or lost opportunity (Medley turned down numerous future hits such as “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”). His warmth and candor as a conversationalist saturates every page.

Medley will be backed Friday night by piano, guitar, bass, drums and his vocalist daughter McKenna, age 27. “She does “Time of My Life” with me, and everybody in the band sings, so we have Bobby covered. You’re never going to find another Bobby, but we do a pretty good job.”