The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer shares stories from his book, The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother’s Memoir, which covers his five decades in the music business.
Singer-songwriter Bill MedleyOriginally aired on June 24, 2014
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Bill Medley, one-half of the Righteous Brothers, a duo that produced some of the biggest hits of the last part of the 20th century including, of course, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and “Unchained Melody.”
From their first Phil Spector produced hit in 1964, the Righteous Brothers were front and center as the musical changes swept the nation. Now Bill Medley has written a memoir about those times called “The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brothers Memoir.”
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Bill Medley coming up right now.
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Tavis: From their chart-topping single in 1964, the Righteous Brothers were something of a hit-making factory. After that duo split, Bill Medley continued to top the charts with “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” recorded, of course, with Jennifer Warnes which was featured in “Dirty Dancing” and won a Grammy and a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Now he’s written a memoir about his life titled “The Time of My Life.” What else would you call it? “The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brothers Memoir.” Let’s take a look at a clip from the Righteous Brothers singing one of those iconic hits, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
Tavis: You guys really are a duo. You’re snapping on one and three.
Bill Medley: Well, he was. Bobby was [laugh]. I was the hipper one [laugh].
Tavis: Not the downbeat [laugh].
Tavis: Can I just say that you guys have to be two – you said, hip. I’ll go another way – two of the coolest white guys to ever live.
Medley: Well, thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Soulful white guys…
Medley: Well, yeah. I mean…
Tavis: Out of Orange County.
Medley: Orange County.
Tavis: Soulful white guys out of Orange – that’s oxymoronic.
Tavis: A soulful white guy from Orange County.
Medley: It’s pretty stupid, but, yeah. I mean, it’s odd that, you know, we both hooked up because, I mean, over the years – and Bobby’s been passed away about a little over 10 years. It’s just funny. You know, you’re from Orange County. You’re thrown together in this group and I have never found another guy that can come close to him.
Tavis: Since we’re there, let’s jump right in. How did the two of you connect?
Medley: Well, Bobby was from Anaheim. I was from Santa Ana. And we both had small little rock and roll groups which was kind of weird in the early 60s because there was still swing music kind of then. Rock and roll was kind of a fad.
But a mutual friend of ours came to town, John Wimber, who had been working Vegas a lot, and he wanted to put together a group that he thought could work constantly. So he took Bobby and Bobby’s drummer and myself and my guitar player, threw us together and we were the Paramours.
But the minute Bobby and I started singing together, I don’t know that it was magical, but it was so much fun, you know, to actually sing with somebody that was that legitimate R&B, you know.
Tavis: So the Paramours is cool, the Righteous Brothers may be cooler. But how did the Righteous Brothers end up being the name?
Medley: Well, Orange County was very white.
Tavis: I can’t imagine that [laugh].
Medley: Can you imagine? Have you heard [laugh]? Have you heard things [laughs]? But there was a marine base, El Toro Marine Base, and the Black marines heard that there was these two white guys down at the club singing rhythm and blues, because that’s all Bobby and I knew was rhythm and blues.
So the Black guys would come in and, you know, there was a saying in those days in the early 60s and maybe 50s that that’s a great looking suit. Well, a Black guy might would say, “That’s a righteous looking suit,” which meant good. So us white guys would have said that’s cool or bitchin’ or whatever.
And if they liked you as a friend, they’d call you a brother. So a lot of times when Bobby and I were coming to work, they would say, “Hey, righteous brother, how you doin’?”
And I wrote a song, “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” back in 1962. Guy wanted to record it and we went in and recorded it. I think Bobby said we needed a name. We didn’t want to be the Paramours and Bobby said, “Let’s use the name that the marines have been calling us” and it stuck.
Tavis: So the brothers named these two…
Medley: The Brothers [laugh].
Tavis: I love it. The brothers named the Brothers.
Medley: Yeah. Thank God. Thank God it came from the brothers.
Tavis: Did it mean anything to you? And if so, what, that you guys were so beloved by the brothers back in the 60s?
Medley: Well, it meant everything, you know, because when we recorded “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” we weren’t, you know, a duo. We didn’t sit down and say let’s do this for a living. It just happened.
So it wasn’t a hip thing to do back in 1962 for two white guys – from Orange County – two white guys to sound Black because the Black stations couldn’t play us because we were white, and the white stations couldn’t play us ’cause they thought we were Black. And then television really messed us up [laugh].
But one of the first gigs we ever did as the Righteous Brothers was at the California Club down in Los Angeles and it was an all-Black club. And “Little Latin Lupe Lu” was just starting to get played and they booked us.
They didn’t know we were white and we didn’t know it was a Black club. And it was a great club because a lot of the – Sam Cooke and a lot of the great guys would go there.
So we showed up and we said, “Listen, we’re the Righteous Brothers and we’re supposed to perform here tonight.” The guy said, “I hope you’re the band.” I said, “No, me and that little blonde guy, we’re the guys.”
Tavis: We are the Righteous Brothers, yeah.
Medley: And it’s funny, man. He says, “Sit down in the back and start drinking.” So we did and, you know, clubs would close at a quarter to two, so they called us up at about 1:30 and Bobby and I probably had about five or six beers at that point.
We said, “Listen, let’s get up there and let’s do a B.B. King blues and if they hate us, they hate us.” So we went up and did “Sweet Little Angel” by B.B. King and the crowd just went nuts.
So that was like the stamp of approval as far as – we weren’t looking for the – we didn’t know what we were doing then. You know, just two guys out there singing.
Tavis: And what do you recall about what happened in that club after you opened with B.B.’s stuff and segued into your hit and they realized, oh, my God, these are the Righteous Brothers?
Medley: Yeah. It was pretty remarkable because, in those days, that just wasn’t happening, you know. And like I said, it wasn’t a real commercial thing to do for two white – I mean, it was way against the grain. But they just accepted us, they loved us.
And, you know, man, Black audiences, they don’t wait till the song’s over. They let you know right now, right now, if they like you [laugh]. That’s the first time we heard, you know, “Sing it, brother” and all that stuff and, man, it just…
Tavis: It’ll push you, though, won’t it?
Medley: Oh, it just turned…
Tavis: It’ll make you sing.
Medley: It turned us on like you cannot imagine.
Tavis: Yeah. I have a friend of mine. He’s probably watching tonight. He’s the rabbi of the largest temple west of the Mississippi. His name is Rabbi Steven Leder who’s the head rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Medley: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: I have another friend of mine who is a Baptist preacher named Kenneth Flowers and Kenny used to pastor a church here in Los Angeles. He’s now in Detroit. And every year, because they’re friends of mine, I would go support both of them. They would have a church swap.
So one Saturday, all the Baptist members would go to the synagogue and my friend Kenny would preach. And then on a Sunday, all the Jewish members of the synagogue would come to the Baptist church and Rabbi Leder would preach.
And Steve Leder – I’m sure he’s watching. He’ll get a kick – he loved coming to that Baptist church ’cause…
Medley: Oh, I bet he did.
Tavis: Could you imagine the difference between a rabbi preaching at a synagogue where it’s like dead silence and he got in that Black church and them Negroes started pushing him? “Preach, Rabbi! Speak on it, Rabbi!” He said he didn’t know what to do, man [laugh].
Medley: I know [laugh].
Tavis: But every year, he said the greatest day of his life, once a year, was a rabbi preaching in the Baptist church. He loved it.
Medley: It’s the absolute truth. I was raised Presbyterian, very quiet and, you know – I was dating Darlene Love.
Tavis: I was about to get to that, but go ahead, yeah.
Medley: Darlene Love and her father’s a minister.
Tavis: A minister, mm-hmm.
Medley: And she took me to church once and that’s when I learned about “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
Tavis: You got it figured out, didn’t you?
Medley: Oh, man, in a heartbeat [laugh]. I was so psyched and her father said, “Well, let’s get Brother Bill up to sing.” I said, “Oh, God!” But it was the greatest experience in the world because going up and singing at this, you know, Black church and they’re just on fire and it was the first time I’d ever sang, but didn’t sing to an audience.
I was singing to God and they were praising God and it was a very interesting – I’ll never forget it in my whole life, that it was kind of an out-of-body experience.
Tavis: You talk in this book – and I’m so glad you do – about the wonderful relationship you had with Darlene Love. She was on this program sitting in that very spot not too long ago.
I know how I felt about it and feel about it, so I can only imagine how you feel about it, the success of that documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom,” winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Darlene’s on stage, sang a little ditty when she got up.
How did you process this woman – and Oprah now is doing a movie on her network called “The Darlene Love Story.” I mean, it’s like everything has come around for her after all of these years.
Medley: Well, it’s just wonderful. It was so wonderful to watch and such a long time coming. I know that, you know, Bruce Springsteen’s a huge supporter of Darlene’s and she’s just always been one of the great, great singers in the world.
And I believe she’s singing as well, if not better, today. I just saw her a couple or three weeks ago perform in Palm Springs.
You know, it’s just so great in our business when you finally see something that should happen, happen. And it was so right that she hit it. When she sang on the Academy Awards, I just said, “Go ahead” [laugh]. I didn’t know what to say. “Go ahead.”
Tavis: You just said something now about what happens over the years with one’s career. There’s a passage in your book, “The Time of My Life,” on page 207 that I want to read and I’ve kind of highlighted a few sentences here, but I love this.
“Passion: It’s what separates a singer from an entertainer. I hope I have passion for my music, my family and my friends until they start shoveling dirt on my face. I don’t work as much as I did when I was 25, but I still love it when I do.
Every time I go on stage, it’s like a first date. I put on my best clothes, shave and get as handsome as I can. Then I say the cutest things I know to say and I become the very best Bill Medley I can be because I want to win my date over.
My audience is the date that I want to impress every time. I think that’s part of what keeps me young. I’m always looking ahead to my next first date. How cool is that?”
Medley: How cool is that?
Tavis: That’s a great passage, man.
Medley: Well, it’s a lie, but, you know [laugh] – well, it is. I mean…
Tavis: It’s a great passage.
Medley: Well, it is like a first date, you know. I mean, you know, you get your cute clothes on and, you know, you go out on stage and it becomes that magical thing. People say, “How can you still sing ‘Lovin’ Feelin’ after 50 years?”
So because the minute you go on stage, “You never close your eyes anymore,” well, the audience lights up and they go right back to 25 years old. I go back to 25 years old and it’s my first date.
Tavis: What do you make – let’s talk about the music for a second here. What do you make of the enduring legacy and relevance of that track, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’?”
Medley: Well, you know, it was produced by Phil Spector, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, two of the greatest writers in the world. You know, a real good record. It’s a great production, a great song and I can’t say this, but a great performance from the singers. And I must say, Phil Spector brought that out of us.
I don’t know. I think “Lovin’ Feelin'” was probably one of the most – probably in ’64 and ’65, one of the more dramatic love songs for these kids to grab hold of. I mean, they had been listening to, you know, kind of cute songs and “Lovin’ Feelin'” was just a strong, powerful song.
Tavis: So fast forward just a few years and a whole new generation gets to know you. “The Time of My Life,” that song, man, is just – I don’t have a language to describe how powerful, how relevant to the audience, then and now, the words, the lyrics, for that song.
Medley: Yeah. “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” I mean, what a great song to be associated with. You know, it’s something positive. I mean, “Lovin’ Feelin'” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and all those songs and it was so great to sing, you know, a positive song.
A lot of graduations, they would sing it at graduations and weddings and stuff. And the movie, “Dirty Dancing,” I don’t know if it would have been a hit without it being in “Dirty Dancing.” You can’t tell because the…
Tavis: It could have been the other way around [laugh].
Medley: Well, it could have been the other way. I made “Dirty Dancing” [laugh].
Tavis: There you go [laugh].
Medley: Jennifer Warnes and I made “Dirty Dancing.”
Tavis: With all due respect to Patrick Swayze, yeah [laugh].
Medley: But, you know, I turned it down for about three months. They called me and said Jimmy Ienner from New York was putting the music together for it. And I’m a California guy and they asked me to come out to New York to perform it. I said I can’t leave California.
I said, “What’s the name of the movie?” and they said it was called “Dirty Dancing.” This was like, what, 27, 28 years ago. Well, “Dirty Dancing” sounded like a bad porno movie [laugh] in those days, and I said, “What?”
‘Cause I have done a lot of songs for a lot of movies, Sylvester Stallone, a lot of – I just finished a duet with Gladys Knight, maybe another one of the greatest singers in the world.
Medley: So I said, “Well, who’s in the movie?” They said, “Well, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.” I said, “Well, who’s that?” Because it was before – they got fame afterwards.
So I turned it down, turned it down. My wife was expecting our daughter, McKenna, so they would call literally about every week and say, “Has she had the baby yet? Has she had the baby yet?”
I’m telling my wife, “Have the baby. I need a hit record.” So she had our child and they said, “Listen, Jennifer Warnes wants to sing the song with you if she can do it with you.”
So Jennifer and I basically did the song just to perform together, just to sing together and make this record because, obviously, the movie wasn’t gonna do anything.
Medley: And I was out on the road with the Righteous Brothers and we were doing a concert. And one of the disc jockeys came up to me and said, “You know, we’re playing the heck out of your record.” I said, “What record?”
He said, “The one for the movie.” I said, “What movie?” He says, “You’re singing with the girl.” I said, “Oh, the Gladys Knight record?” He says, “No, it’s not Gladys. Jennifer Warnes.” I said, “Dirty Dancing?”
He said, “Yeah.” And by the time I got off the tour which was only about two weeks later, I got home and the song was number one all over the world.
Tavis: And you didn’t see it coming.
Medley: Oh, come on. I turned down three or four careers. I turned down “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley and, you know, it was bound to happen, you know.
Tavis: How do you process that? When you look back on something that either you turned down or, in this case, you did do it so it’s not like you turned it down. But you got – after all these years, I should spank your hand. I’m disappointed in you after all these years, man. You’re iconic at this. You should know a hit when you hear one.
Medley: Well, wouldn’t you think?
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Medley: I mean, wouldn’t you think? But if I did, I probably would have a lot more hit records, you know. ‘Cause I’ve answered this question. I say, you know, when you’re hot, you get the greatest writers, Carole King, you got the greatest writers in the world writing for you.
So you’re bound to turn down – you can only do, you know, what you can do. I mean, I knew “In the Ghetto” was a great song and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” I mean, these are obviously great songs, but I just didn’t have time to do them.
Tavis: I want to go back to this quote that I read…
Medley: But you can spank my hand if you want to [laugh].
Tavis: You ain’t done bad. You got a few hits on your shelf.
Medley: I’ve done all right.
Tavis: Yeah, you’ve done all right, yeah. I ain’t feeling sorry for you [laugh]. I want to go back to this quote that I read about that P word, passion. Why have you been all these years so passionate about the music? Put another way, what else might you have done had it not been music?
Medley: Well, I don’t know what I would do if it wasn’t music ’cause I’m really a one trick pony. I’m one of those jerks that dropped out of school when I was 16, headed right into a mountain and God obviously – and I always sang in church choirs and school choirs.
But, obviously, God said I got to help this kid and gave me music and gave me Bobby Hatfield. It’s just been a blessing. So I don’t know what prison I would be in right now [laugh] if it wasn’t for music.
Tavis: Is that p-r-i-s-o-n or p-r-i-s-m? I think you said prison.
Medley: O-n, prison [laugh].
Tavis: Not a prism.
Medley: But passion, you know, for music, man. You know, that’s what I do. That’s what I love. I fell in love with rhythm and blues and all these great Black singers from the 60s. They just stole my heart, stole my soul. I was obsessed with it. There was a little radio station up here in L.A., KFWB, Hunter Hancock. In Orange County, you could barely tune it in.
It’s like I had Ray Charles and B.B. King and Bobby Bland and these guys come into my house every day and every night, you know, not teaching me how to sing, but singing along with them. I was just – they taught me how to sing.
Tavis: I just got a couple of minutes to go. It’s not fair to ask this question at this point, but how did you process the breakup with Bobby?
Medley: Well, you know, Bobby and I had broken up a couple of times in our career. But we, since 1990, we were really back together and having a ball.
And when Bobby passed away in ’03, you know, I didn’t so much realize it then, but I’m a Righteous Brother and, when Bobby passed away, the Righteous Brothers passed away. So it took me about two years to finally figure that out, that, you know, a big part of you went when Bobby passed away.
Tavis: What’s great about this book – and I haven’t even scratched the surface of it because there’s so much in this rich life and legacy still ongoing, thankfully. What’s great about this book, though, different than most, is that you hear the voices of his family and friends in the text as well.
So it’s not just Bill writing, but you hear the voices of those who have been closest to him and have loved him and supported him through the years coming through in this book as well.
But it is his book with a foreword by some guy named Billy Joel. The book is called “The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brothers Memoir” written, of course, by the one and only Bill Medley, coolest white guy ever to come out of Orange County [laugh]. Bill Medley, good to have you on this program, man, and thanks for the text.
Medley: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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