Bill Medley, 78, has been part of the Righteous Brothers for nearly six decades and the music still has transformative power for him.
“People don’t believe me, but when I’m on stage and the curtain goes up, I go from 78 to 25 in about three minutes,” he said in a telephone interview. “It makes me feel young again. I love singing those songs because they still mean something to me, and the people who want to hear them.”
The current version of the Righteous Brothers – Medley and Bucky Heard – play The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on Jan. 20 for a sold-out concert.
“I can’t wait to get to The Villages, I’ve heard so much about it,” Medley said. “I might move there.”
Medley teamed with the late Bobby Hatfield on such Righteous Brothers’ classics as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Unchained Melody,” “Rock and Roll Heaven” and “Soul and Inspiration.”
Medley also is known for “The Time of My Life” with Jennifer Warnes, which was featured in the film “Dirty Dancing.”
The Righteous Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year Hatfield died.
After Hatfield’s death, Medley took 13 years off from the Righteous Brothers.
“When Bobby passed, I went out on the road to do some shows we had obligations for, but it was just too early,” Medley said. “Emotionally, I just couldn’t’ handle it, and I had to stop. I could do shows on my own, but I just couldn’t do the Righteous Brothers.”
“My friends, performers, and fans wanted me to come back with the Righteous Brothers. But it didn’t feel right for me.”
Then, about three years ago, Medley saw Bucky Heard perform some Journey songs. He had known Heard for over a decade, but that night was a revelation for Medley.
“Bucky was singing Steve Perry (Journey’s lead singer) and he just killed those songs,” Medley said. “I figured if he could do Steve Perry, he could do Bobby Hatfield.”
Medley, however, did not want Heard to imitate Hatfield. He was looking for a singing partner with talent and personality. Also, the chemistry between the two singers on stage was vital.
“Bucky can never replace Bobby Hatfield – and I didn’t want him to imitate Bobby,” Medley said. “He didn’t have to sound like Bobby, but he had to sing like Bobby. Bucky picked it up right away.”
Hatfield did more than sing. He had a quick sense of humor and a robust stage presence that played off the taller and deeper-voiced Medley.
“Bobby was a funny guy, he loved to laugh, crack jokes and have a good time,” Medley said. “Look, there are a lot of singers who can sing the songs. I was looking for someone people would like, someone with charisma and personality. Bucky’s got it. It’s a similar chemistry that I had with Bobby, but in a different way. The big thing is people can see it when we work together on stage.”
The Righteous Brothers own a special place in music history during the golden, revolutionary decade of the 1960s. Back then, it seemed pop and rock were divided in two camps: The English bands, led by the Beatles, and Motown, dominated by African American acts like the Temptations.
In a way, the Righteous Brothers were the bridge between those two musical forces.
“The ’60s was a very strange time for rock and roll,” Medley said. “I think you could say we were a cross between the Beatles and Motown. We were two white guys who sounded black, and we loved rock and roll.”
The Righteous Brothers practically invented the tag, “blue-eyed soul.” And like the English and Motown acts, Medley grew up listening to Little Richard, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly and early rockers.
“We were all raised on that music,” Medley said. “I think Little Richard is the greatest rock singer, ever. Bobby and I loved rhythm and blues and we kept singing it.”
Medley and Hatfield had a couple of minor hits in the early ‘’60s: “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “My Babe.” The records attracted kind of an underground following in England, where the Beatles heard them. The Beatles asked the Righteous Brothers to open on their first American tour in 1964.
“The Beatles knew all about us,” Medley said. But the tour was no fun.
“Nobody in the audience knew us,” Medley added. “We came on, and the kids were shouting: ‘We want the Beatles.’ Thousands of kids were screaming. When the Beatles came on, the kids were so loud, the Beatles couldn’t hear their own music.”
The Righteous Brothers got out of the tour early to become regulars on a new television rock show called “Shindig!” It became one of the best and wildest rock shows in the history of television. The show’s house band included such noted musicians as Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Billy Preston, who later played keyboards for the Beatles.
“’Shindig!’ was so cool and so much fun,” Medley said. “The talent was amazing. I remember the pilot show had Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was crazy.”
The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark 5, Supremes, Temptations and just about every other ’60s major rock act appeared on the show.
One guy who noticed the Righteous Brothers was famed producer Phil Spector. He was noted for his crazed antics in the studio and dictatorial treatment of performers.
“But I loved working with Phil Spector in the studio. He was and is a flat-out genius,” Medley said.
It was Spector who produced “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” a song written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
“Everything about that song was special: the writing, the production and the way we sang it,” Medley said. “It’s just a great song, and even today, I love hearing it.”
Spector, who was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2009 and is serving time in prison, would let Medley produce some songs.
“I produced ‘Unchained Melody’ with Bobby singing,” Medley said. “Phil didn’t think it would be a hit. He was wrong.”
The song was not only a smash back in 1965, it was a hit all over in 1990 when used in the movie “Ghost.”
Despite all their success, the Righteous Brothers waited nearly two decades to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Spector may have been the reason for the delay.
“People told me that Phil did not want his acts in the Hall of Fame,” Medley said.
Eventually, that view changed and the Righteous Brothers made it in March 2003 – while Hatfield was alive to enjoy it. It’s a comfort for Medley that the two were able to share what might be called a righteous moment.
“I’m glad we were able to go in together,” Medley said. “It was a lot of fun and a great night for both of us.”
Tony Violanti is a veteran journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.