Q&A: Bill Medley
No one, especially Bill Medley, thought the late Bobby Hatfield could be replaced in the Righteous Brothers after the first tenor’s death in 2003, eight months after the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Later, Medley realized he could pay tribute to Hatfield with friend Bucky Heard taking the high harmonies. The latest chapter in the history of the voices behind “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” commenced with a Harrah’s residency that was just extended. Medley spoke recently with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
When I first heard about this show I remember thinking that this was the right time, that you had to wait at least this long before you could do a show like this.
Yeah, I was asked to do this a few years ago and I just didn’t feel that it was right, and I really never ran into the right guy to replace, to fill in for Bobby. But yeah, after … I think now it’s going on 14 years or something like that, it feels right and it’s comfortable. Bucky Heard, the guy that’s my new partner, is just a wonderful guy who I’m very comfortable to work with, a lot of fun to be with. Yeah, you’re right. It needed a lot of space.
With the first run of shows behind you, how do you feel about the Righteous Brothers’ revival so far?
Actually it’s been a lot of fun. It’s great fun to do the songs, all the songs going back to ’63, ’62 and on up. We’ve got a great, great band that’s local. They’re all local, except my daughter is singing background, and my musical director. They’re not local. I’m just thrilled to death with it.
Do you think this would have worked if the idea had struck you to work with Bucky Heard in 2008? Do you still think you’d have had to wait?
Yeah, I do. Bucky really ended up being my partner because he was a friend of mine for years, and it was really important to me that we really got along well.
He was an in-demand singer in Branson when you met him. It’s interesting that rather than audition for a tenor you had a revelation while catching him singing Steve Perry songs.
Yeah, well Steve Perry is one of the great singers in our industry, so for Bucky to be able to do that, I knew for sure he’d be able to at least sing Bobby’s parts and do the songs. He certainly can do that, and he’s doing a phenomenal job.
What do you see in the faces of the audience when he sings Bobby’s parts?
Well, he doesn’t sing “Unchained Melody.” I do “Unchained Melody” as a tribute to Bobby and I show a lot of video, but he does do “Ebb Tide” and they just love him. They accept him from the first song, which I was pretty surprised with. But they are really accepting, a lot (laughs).
Was “Unchained Melody just too sacred to have anyone else do?
Yeah, I thought it was … it’s a tribute to Bobby. He sang lead on that, and it just seemed unfair for the audience and really unfair to Bucky to put him in that position.
That’s a very respectful way to handle a delicate situation. The way you’re doing it almost seems like a no-brainer way of paying tribute and taking the pressure off of Bucky.
Yeah, and I don’t do the (original) arrangement of the song. I do it a little quieter and not so dramatic, and it fits the video real well.
Did the experience of writing your book (The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother's Memoir, 2014) prepare you for storytelling on the stage?
Yeah, the book opened up my mind to a lot of things. I really was going to come over to Harrah’s to do a Bill Medley show that was pretty much storytelling. I played the piano a little and sang the songs, but more of a storytelling thing. This show is real musical. It’s a musical tribute to Bobby and the music that we made.
As the book details, your career exploded fast. It was like you rode a whirlwind from playing the Black Derby in Orange County to opening for the Beatles in a few short years. I mean, you did the work, but it just took off.
We were more than fortunate (laughs). Bobby and I were together for about six months before we had a hit with “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and then the Beatles took us on tour, their first American tour. Then Phil Spector got us to do “Lovin’ Feeling” and all that, so it was just one explosion after another.
I think the perception has always been that Phil Spector had a lot to do with your career because of his relationships with other acts. I didn’t realize how extensively you had produced your own songs while you were with the Righteous Brothers.
Like Jimmy Rogers says, “I’m not a songwriter. I just know how to write songs.” I don’t consider myself a producer, I just know how to produce. I did all of our albums, and “Unchained Melody” actually was just on one of the albums, (and was) the B-side of I think our third release from Phil Spector. Disc jockeys just flipped it over. So a lot of people don’t know that I produced “Unchained Melody” and “Soul and Inspiration,” and obviously our early stuff.
I think a lot of people think you appeared on the scene as the fully formed Righteous Brothers. Your parents had a swing band, and you came of age with rock ‘n’ roll. Do you think you became successful because you followed a natural path rather than let ambition dictate your decisions early on?
Yeah, I mean coming from a musical family certainly helps, or gives you kind of … my daughter, she grew up with music, so it’s not a magic act, you know? Music was a real natural for me. I certainly didn’t think that I was going to be as successful as I ended up being, but being in the music business was kind of a no-brainer.
I read that you froze the first time you sang. Did you have a picture in your mind of yourself as a singer before that, or did you step into that self-image that night?
I really kind of started out as a songwriter. Today you would call it a singer-songwriter. I was more interested in writing songs, and because I was raised on Little Richard, Ray Charles and all those great black acts from the ’50s it just kind of worked it’s way into me being a singer, and then being put together with Bobby Hatfield led to me being a singer more than a writer.
I love the story about how you got the name “Righteous Brothers.” It makes it sound like you crossed over from gospel, which probably contributed to why a lot of people thought you were black singers. One of the main reasons why there could never be another Righteous Brother is because you could never go back to that time and play for the African-American marines (at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro) who gave you that name. You can’t re-create that.
No. The past is the past is the past, and you can never duplicate that. Bobby and I were both raised on rhythm and blues, and loved gospel music. That was really who we were, and that’s why the black public kind of took us under their wing, God bless ’em. Lord knows there could have been a million black artists that could have been the Righteous Brothers, so for them to take two white guys and kind of give us the stamp of approval, that was pretty amazing to us.
You played at the Sands early on. The Righteous Brothers looked relatively clean cut despite the frenzy going on behind “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the high energy you exhibited on (mid-‘60s musical-variety TV series) Shindig. Did that image help you get into Vegas?
Well, I think it was a combination of a lot of things. When we came to Vegas in ’65 to ’66 we came to the Sands with Frank Sinatra, and I think Bobby and I were just a little older, and more influenced by the a lot of older guys—Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis Louie Prima, Keely. That was kind of our upbringing. We loved Jack Benny (laughs). I think Frank Sinatra and all those people saw that there was something more than being in a garage band. And we were kind of clean cut. We sounded like we were from prison or something the way we sang (laughs), but we were clean cut and our show had humor in it. I think we cut our teeth on performers, so I think it made a big difference.
In a few short years you went from playing with your friends to meeting Frank Sinatra and Elvis backstage. It’s pretty crazy when you think of it in that context.
It’s very hard to wrap you’re head around, and it’s real interesting ’cause when I did right the book a lot of that stuff, I found myself scratching my head and saying “Good God, did I … did we really do that?” You know, you’re so busy just doing it that you don’t realize what’s happening to you. It’s quite remarkable.
You made a few disclaimers: “You’ve got to understand what it was like for me at that time!”
(Laughs) Well, it’s true.
Sinatra would have appreciated you guys for your phrasing, because he was all about that. Did he give you advice on “Vegas Throat” too? I heard he like to help out singers by giving them for saving their voices in Vegas.
Oh, yeah. Frank Sinatra saved our life. I mean, he spent about an hour one night in his dressing room telling us what we needed to do and how to do it, and kind of demanded that we go into the health club and get steam on our throats. Thank God he did. That was a ritual to us, and it was very cool because he was down there every night, and every other performer in town would come to this health club at The Sands because they knew Sinatra was there. It was a really unbelievable, unbelievable time, and once again, we didn’t really realize what we were going through or what was happening because we were just doing it. If somebody told me now you’re going to go back 50 years and you’re going to be in the health club with Frank Sinatra naked, I would say, “You’re nuts.” It was just a magical time, and Frank Sinatra saved our life by having us go to the health club.
Do you think The Righteous Brothers had to break up that first time in order to take stock of what had transpired so far?
Yeah, absolutely. I think we really didn’t get it until, I think probably we had that resurgence at the end of the ’80s. We had another huge career from about 1990 until Bobby passed away in 2003. That’s kind of when we had a moment to look back at it and have time to talk to our fans and hear all the stories. We kind of didn’t realize what happened to us probably until we were 60. Sixty years old.
How long did it take to realize after you first broke up in 1968 that you had created what we now refer to as a “brand,” that would be something you could basically rely on for the rest of your life? Did it seem like that at the time?
No it didn’t, but our agent at the time, Jerry Perenchio, soon as “Lovin’ Feeling” hit and became No. 1 he said, “The smartest thing that you can do is go into Las Vegas.” And Vegas certainly couldn’t pay us the money we could make on one-nighters, but he said, “If you go into Las Vegas now, it’ll pay off for the rest of your life, for the rets of your career.” And man, he was just 150 percent correct. Las Vegas saved my life. When things got thin out there on the road, Vegas was always there and certainly kept me alive. Now here I am back at the age of 75, Vegas savin’ my life. (laughs)
Did you see a resurgence around the corner in the mid-’80s before “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was featured in Top Gun?
No, it just happened. By the time we looked up we were getting these amazing offers. William Morris (Agency) was calling us every day trying to sign us up because they were getting there offers, so finally I said, “Okay, we’ll really put it back together.” So from 1990 to 2003 we were smoking, and no we didn’t have any idea even while it was happening.
And now here you are right back where that security started and you’re singing onstage with your daughter McKenna. How long have you been singing “Time of My Life” with her now?
Oh boy, from infancy. She was born when I recorded “Time of My Life.” I think she’s been doing it with me since … 15 years, kind of. Ten anyway, yeah.
Did she sing it with you when she was a little girl?
She’s been singing and doing stuff with me since … she was 7 or 8 years old when I put her on stage. She worked here on her own when I think she was 15 years old, at the Suncoast, and sold it out for three days. She’s been at it a long time.
I saw video with you and her, and a musician named Michael Grimm who plays in Vegas on and off. Did he play with her, or was he part of your band?
His manager called me years ago and asked me to come and see him, and for some reason I did. I fell in love with him and when I was putting together a new band, and I asked him to be in the band, and then he tried out for America’s Got Talent and he won. McKenna started singing with Michael Grimm, jeez I don’t know, about six years ago. They did a lot of stuff together and they still love to do stuff together. … They were great together.
How long do you see yourself at your engagement at Harrah’s? Has anything changed since the initial agreement?
Well, the first contract was from March 22 to June 11, and they just signed me up for 20 more weeks this year. I suspect I’ll be here hopefully two, three, four more years.
Harrah’s, 6 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 7:30 p.m. Sat., $39-$125 plus tax and fee. 702.777.2782