"I thought it was going to get easier by age 73...I guess I was wrong!"
Bill Medley is speaking to Rocks Off from the back of a car somewhere on the streets of New York City on the way to a radio interview as part of a whirlwind press tour for two projects.
First for one-half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted duo the Righteous Brothers is his autobiography, The Time of My Life (Da Capo, 228 pp., $26.99), written with Mike Marino. And then there's a new CD, Your Heart to Mine: Dedicated to the Blues (Fuel 2000), in which one of the originators of "blue-eyed soul" tackles a bevy of blues and soul standards including "Drowned In My Own Tears," "Your Precious Love," "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and "This Magic Moment."
The book title is adapted from "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," the theme song from the film Dirty Dancing, which Medley sung with Jennifer Warnes and hit No. 1 in 1987. It would also win an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe Award. The soundtrack record has sold more than 32 million copies to date, but Medley almost missed the boat.
"I was more than shocked that it became such a huge success, especially since I turned down doing that song for three months!" Medley laughs. "My wife was expecting our child at that time, and I didn't want to go to New York from California to record it and miss it. But she had our daughter, and I'd always wanted to work with Jennifer. We didn't think much of the movie or the song, but we were clearly wrong!"
Of course, parents of those '80s babies knew a different version of Bill Medley who, with partner Bobby Hatfield, scored many hits including "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Unchained Melody," "Ebb Tide," "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration," "Little Latin Lupe Lu," and "Rock and Roll Heaven" as the Righteous Brothers.
The pair also opened for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on their early U.S. tours.
With all apologies to the cast of Top Gun, The Brothers' version of "Lovin' Feelin'" is not only perhaps the best example of producer Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, but one of biggest hits of the entire decade.
In fact, the music publishing/royalty/licensing company BMI named it "The Most Played Record in the History of American Radio and Television" for the 20th century. And it ranks No. 34 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs.
"I couldn't wrap my head around it when the [BMI honor] came. It just seemed too big," Medley says today.
Things weren't always so big for the duo, though, as Medley and Hatfield -- put together by circumstance -- gigged at small clubs and U.S. military bases in and around the Los Angeles area in the early '60s as part of a larger group, the Paramours.
When the duo split off on their own in 1963, they took their name from the exhortation of black Marines, who would call out "That was righteous!" or "That was righteous, brothers!" after their performances.
The pair split in 1971, reconnected briefly in mid-decade, then came together for good in the early '80s until Hatfield's death in 2003 because of a cocaine-fueled heart attack hours before a show. Medley found the body with a road manager when they had to break into the hotel room, a story he tells in the book.
But one if it's most surprising revelations is that, for all the onstage camaraderie between the gravelly, gutbucket-voiced Medley and the sweeter, high-pitched Hatfield, it didn't spill over into real life.
"Bobby was more aloof," Medley offers. "He didn't let a lot of people close to him. He was funny and very outgoing, but we were two completely different guys thrown together and accidentally became successful.
"He was one of the best singers I ever heard and we got along fine," he adds. "But there was a lack of communication, though we never confronted each other about what was bothering us."
Ironically, Medley says that the last 13 years of their collaboration were the best in how they related to each other.
"We were 22 when we first got together, and then we were 60 year old men with a lot of life lessons. It was a different deal," he explains. "Bobby was in his comfort zone and I was in mine, and it was phenomenal."
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Medley's hit list both with Hatfield and solo could have been bigger, though. But as he details in the book, he or management turned down recording a bunch of songs that would later become major hits for others: "In the Ghetto," "Kicks," "You've Got a Friend," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and "Neither One of Us Wants to Be The First to Say Goodbye" among them.
Still, he is very grateful to have had two amazing showbiz mentors, the first being Frank Sinatra, who upon first meeting the Righteous Brothers shooed his musicians and hangers-on out of the room to give the young duo a 45-minute private vocal lesson.
"Frank treated us like we were his kids," Medley remembers. "He was very caring and wanted to always make sure that we were OK with our voices. Of all the stories you've heard about how tough of a guy he could have been, he couldn't have been sweeter to us, and took us under his wing."
Later, as Medley pursued a solo career in 1969, he crossed paths almost nightly at the International Hotel in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley, who headlined the venue's big room while Medley player a later show in a smaller theater.
Presley would include "Lovin' Feelin'" in his set as a friendly jab, and sometimes play jokes during Medley's show, like stroll across the stage during mid-song with a dozen Memphis Mafia members in line, each patting Medley on the back as they passed by before disappearing just as quickly.
"It's interesting to think that here was the biggest rock and roll personality ever, and he was so quiet and insecure a lot of times," Medley remembers. "He wasn't a cocky guy, he was sweet. And -- and I say this in the best sense -- he was really a mama's boy, he loved his mother. And he wasn't afraid to voice his religious beliefs, so I admired him for that."
On his new record, Medley sounds surprisingly vital, and he certainly didn't take the easy route in choices of covers. But then again, this was a man who once sang "Georgia On My Mind" with Ray Charles sitting feet away from him.
"I'm still sweating out that one!" Medley laughs, adding that the actual challenge of singing the songs he'd picked didn't hit him until he set foot into the studio. "They're all great songs, but I thought 'Man, I've really put my head on the chopping block here!'
Medley says he wanted to pay tribute to the "great black artists" that inspired he and Hatfield early on, but consciously tried to steer away from how those original artists interpreted the tunes by changing tempos and vocal approaches.
As for the future, Medley has dates booked for the rest of the year, including gigs in the Far East. "I'm just gonna keep on keeping on," he sums up. Now that's righteous.
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