A Righteous Blues Brother:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
The history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and Pop music would not have been the same without Bill Medley. Along with his singing partner Bobby Hatfield, Medley was one one-half of The Righteous Brothers. Their unique brand of Blue-Eyed Soul was on the rise before The Beatles brought the British Invasion with them. Bill and Bobby continued to have hits when many of their Pop and Soul contemporaries were displaced and replaced when the Fab Four and their ilk took over the charts in the early and mid-‘60s. The Righteous Brothers worked with some of the finest musicians and producers including the legendary Phil Spector. They had hits with timeless classics such as “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in 1963, “Unchained Melody” (1965), “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration” (1966) and “Rock And Roll Heaven” (1974) as well as the resurgence of “Unchained Melody” in 1990 when it was used on the soundtrack of the hit movie Ghost. Medley scored one of his biggest hits in 1987 with “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” a duet with Jennifer Warnes taken from the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing. So, in a nutshell (if you weren’t paying close attention), Bill Medley has had hits in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and he remains one of the very few artists to achieve such a feet. As for the icing on the cake, The Righteous Brothers were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in March of 2003, just eight months before the untimely death of Hatfield. Fast forward more than a decade later and Bill Medley is just as busy in 2014 as he has ever been. With his old hits in constant rotation all around the world, Medley has continued to connect with his fans through constant touring. Now in his ‘70s, his voice is remarkably strong and more passionate than ever.
Your Heart To Mine: Dedicated To The Blues is Medley’s musical tribute to the Blues artists that inspired him. More than just a stroll down memory lane, Your Heart To Mine is an album that showcases just how strong his voice is today. Thankfully, the arrangements of the songs are not over-produced and glossy. For this album, the songs are often times stripped to their basic elements with Medley’s voice front and center. From acoustic Blues to Gospel Blues to Electric Blues, Your Heart To Mine is an honest album that takes Medley from where he first began his journey to where his heart is at today. It reminds the listener that Bill Medley was never just another Pop vocalist from the ‘60s – he was and remains one of the greatest Blue Eyed Soul vocalists of his generation… with an emphasis on the Blues!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Bill Medley about Your Heart To Mine and even managed to hit on some of the high points in his long and illustrious career…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your Heart To Mine is about to be released. How are you feeling about this album and the reaction you’ve received so far?
BILL MEDLEY: Well, everybody that’s heard it loves it. It’s an easy album to love because it’s dedicated to all the great black artists that I was influenced by in the ‘50s, in the ‘60s, and I just took what I felt was my favorite song from each one of those guys so it’s almost a proven thing. You know, you do a great Ray Charles song or a great B.B. King song or Sam Cooke – you would have to really get in your own way to screw that up I think. (Laughs) I’ve done it in the past!
SPAZ: Well, what inspired you to reconnect with the Blues? Did it have anything to do with writing your autobiography – going back down
BILL: Well, a little bit… In ’55, I was 15 and I got very, very turned on to Rock ‘n’ Roll and Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry – all those guys. Then when I was about 17 or 18, I discovered Blues and Rhythm & Blues. I used to listen to the little Black radio station KGFJ out of LA, and it just went directly from the radio right into my soul. It never even hit my brain. It just went right to my soul and the first song I ever basically sang on stage was a B.B. King song in a kind of a Blues band, and I was a young kid and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just loved B.B. King and of course, Ray Charles, was … I just idolized Ray Charles and Bobby Blue Bland….. I mean, that’s where I started….that’s how I was taught. After I bought their albums it was like they were coming to my house every day and teaching me how to do that.
SPAZ: If you break down music’s basic elements, Blues seems to be the common denominator in Country, Rock, Soul, and Gospel. Now do you feel that you’re personal love and sort of understanding and passion for the Blues has allowed you to be a more versatile vocalist?
BILL: Yeah… you know, you’re exactly right. I mean, if Blues was where you started, and all depending on your voice, if you can turn around and do a song like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” – as long as you have that Blues foundation and you’re recording earthy music… I mean Country music is some of the best Blues. A slow, sad Country song is some of the best Blues you can do because it’s a little more chord-wise and melodically and word-wise. It’s just a lot of fun to do and that’s kind of why I did songs like “Drowned In My Own Tears” by Ray Charles – because it’s just more of a song. There’s a little more to it than 12 bar Blues progression. It’s very limited… it’s absolutely wonderful to do and it’s great to do, but, you know, like “Change Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke – there’s just more song and it allows a singer…. like Ray Charles and Bobby Bland – Bobby Blue Bland had the chops to do that. B.B. King probably is a little more handcuffed vocally to the Blues, you know, the 12 bar Blues.
SPAZ: I was really fascinated because you’ve got the slow Gospel Blues and you’ve got acoustic Blues and you’ve got the horn-laced, electric Blues. Was there a particular session … or one of the styles you felt more comfortable with?
BILL: No, I love ‘em all. Like I said, with 12 bar Blues – I’ve been asked to do that several times, you know like do a show of just Blues Blues, 12 bar Blues…B.B. King Blues, and I couldn’t take doing an hour of just that. I can do an hour of full music of Blues music, but I would have to do “Change Gonna Come” or a Bobby Bland song - I did “You’re The One” on that album and it’s just a little more melodic and lyrically it just is a little more interesting. So, I love all of it. I just absolutely love all of it and truth is, is I’m real Gospel-driven, you know? I went from loving the Blues and starting to hear Black Gospel music so with those two, that’s really where I’m at, and I guess a lot of Country music is based around .. You know, just feels kind of Gospelly to me.
SPAZ: How long was the original list of songs that you wanted to record and what was your criteria when it came time to choosing these 12?
BILL: Well, I first wrote down the artists that I wanted to do…that I had to do… and the only odd one in there is “This Magic Moment” by The Drifters, but I just so loved the Drifters. I just said, I have to do that. “This Magic Moment” was one of my favorite songs and that’s a song that certainly isn’t necessarily a Blues song. It can be done soulfully, but I wrote down the people that I wanted to do – Etta James, “I Want To Make Love To You” was an Etta James song that I learned when I was a bartender and during the day when nothing was happening, I would play it. It might’ve been the B side of “At Last.” I don’t know, but I fell in love with it and I loved Etta James. So, I just put a bunch of names on there and then I tried to come up with 10 or 12 of the ones, without question, that I had to do. Jimmy Reed, “Baby What You Want Me To Do” and B.B. King “Rock Me Baby,” and those were just songs and artists that inspired me.
SPAZ: Whose idea was it to put the album together? Was it yours?
BILL: Yeah, it was mine. I was asked to do the book. I didn’t go after doing the book, but once I started doing the book, you know, it just felt great to do and doing this album was great to do because I’m 73 and I wrote a song called “I’m Gonna Die Me” and what all this was about is I really want people to know musically who I am and what I am and even who the Righteous Brothers were. You know, we were R & B singers. We were Rhythm & Blues singers. And that’s how we started and then we were very fortunate to do “Lovin’ Feelin’,” but it just kind of took us off into this big dramatic ballad period of our life and we broke up in ’68, but we had decided if we were gonna stay together, we were gonna go back, you know, try and get back to the more Rhythm & Blues part of our life.
SPAZ: People are always thinking of the Righteous Brothers as a Pop duo.
SPAZ: But if you go back and listen again, you’ll hear the strong Rhythm & Blues vibe…
BILL: Yeah, yeah, it’s apples and oranges. It’s absolutely two different careers and we were like the first white act to have big success being white guys sounding black and the Black radio stations called us the Blue-eyed Soul Brothers because they were trying to tell their audience that these guys are white. And we certainly didn’t think we were cool by doing any of this or commercial. We knew that we were dead ass wrong. Everything that we were doing was going against the grain, but that’s what we loved and that’s what we did, and we didn’t want to do white Pop music. We wanted to do R&B.
SPAZ: The album is so stripped down that only the basics are there and it really puts your voice up front. Was that the initial idea when you went into the studio?
BILL: Yeah, absolutely. No question about it and I wanted it to be amazingly simple, with a four piece rhythm section, five pieces with the organ, and we put some strings on some of the stuff because I just wanted to pay tribute to these guys. I didn’t want it to feel like, well they just went in there and threw songs together and popped it out because it was very important for me to do it very stripped down, but very honest and real and let the song and the singer do their job.
SPAZ: Did you take any liberties with some of the arrangements? Were any of the things worked out live?
BILL: Yeah. All the songs I sang live. I went back and redid the vocals…but everybody played live and I sang in the booth and I just used the best musicians that I could. They were handpicked and they were brilliant. And they’re just guys that didn’t overplay. They just underplayed and they knew the songs, which was a big plus, you know? When you know the song, you know that you don’t have to get in the way. So, they just so underplayed, and they were very confident in what I was doing as a vocalist, and it was just the perfect combination. I told them, less is best, you know? If the song needs something weird going on with the guitar or something then we got the wrong song. You know, kind of to put my nuts on the line - if it doesn’t work, it’s gonna be because I couldn’t cut it.
SPAZ: Now, what about the recording? Do you find that sort of today’s technology is more or less fulfilling than back when you and Bobby first stepped into the studio for the first time?
BILL: Well, it’s certainly not as artistic as in the old days. In the older days, you had to come in very prepared, very prepared, and you really needed to know what you were doing. And today, you can go in kind of unprepared and sing the song about a hundred times and they take the best of each line and this and that, and you know, in the old days you sang it all the way through and a lot of these songs that I did on this album I sang all the way through because the kind of singer that I am – the more I sing it, the more emotional you get as a song progresses
SPAZ: I guess it’s kind of like a pair of shoes where it may be uncomfortable, but then you just grow into them…
BILL: Yeah, absolutely and if you sing it from top to bottom, you just get more emotional and it just feels better and it feels honest and as long as the tracks are done correctly. I think it’s a great tribute album. I can’t call it a Blues album or anything like that. I don’t know what it is. It’s just thanking those people for giving me a life and doing my favorite song that they did. I tried to do it with as much respect and thought thought out that I could so… and I think that’s why people like it. It just… it’s very honest.
SPAZ: It’s also introducing an audience to these songs that they may have never heard before.
BILL: Yeah, I mean, “Drowned In My Own Tears” by Ray Charles was before Ray did any of the Country stuff. I just thought was the epitome of Soul music and Soul music to me is not that different from Blues. Soul music is just kind of this cross between Blues and Gospel, you know? That’s just my opinion, but that’s what I feel.
SPAZ: Do you have fond memories of recording with Phil Spector.
BILL: Recording with Phil was great. I mean, we were a little apprehensive because he had recorded mainly girl groups. I know everybody thinks they’re going to hear some weird horror story, but our time with Phil was pretty sane, you know. I think he wanted people to think that he was eccentric… I think that’s the reputation that he was going for and he wanted and apparently he worked himself into it, you know?
SPAZ: He convinced himself…
BILL: Yeah, I think he convinced himself and a lot of other people…but working with Phil was really great fun. He worked us a lot harder because I produced the stuff before that. I even produced the albums that we did with Phil. He just produced the singles. So, Phil obviously pushed us a lot harder than I did with the Righteous Brothers, but every time we did it, it got better and better and better. And like I say, I’m a Blues R & B guy and stepping into doing “Lovin’ Feelin’” was a whole different animal for me.
SPAZ: You said that you produced a lot of the stuff. Did you learn the tricks of the trade by working with other people or?
BILL: No, I learned by fire. (laughs) I wrote the song “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and we went in and recorded it and because I wrote it and I heard it in my mind completely done. When we got into the studio, I just told everybody exactly what to do and I worked with my arranger, the arranger, who was just a guy that knew how to write music… but for the horns, and I said this is what I want…exact… so I was just kind of thrown into the position because I wrote the song and then Moonglow asked me to produce the album and then it just never stopped.
SPAZ: After the ‘60s and ‘70s, you defied the odds and you had your biggest hit with “Time Of My Life?” Did you even have a feeling when you were standing there recording this song that this is gonna be massive?
BILL: Absolutely not. First of all, it probably wouldn’t have been a hit unless the movie was a hit, and the odds of that movie becoming a hit were, you know, astronomical. And they called me to do it because I’ve done a lot of movie work, and this guy called me and I turned it down because my wife was pregnant and I promised her I’d be there for the birth and they stayed after me. Jimmy Ienner just called me every week saying we still want you… we need you…. and my wife finally had our child. So, they said Jennifer Warnes will do it if she can do it with you, and I love Jennifer, and I thought it would be a great combination. So Jennifer and I just basically sang it just to work together. We went into the studio. We laid down a whole bunch of tracks and they put it together and it came out…and that movie just became giant and the song was in a perfect place for the movie and it just became a monster.
SPAZ: Jennifer is one of those people who just hasn’t received the credit that she deserves.
BILL: There’s no question about it. She’s one of the go-to people if you want to get something done great and get it done right. She’s just the epitome of an artist, which maybe has stalled her career once in a while because she just is a true artist, and I have such props for her. She’s just a dear friend of mine and a great artist.
SPAZ: What were you feelings when you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
BILL: Well, I thought it was great. I mean, we thought we were probably passed over, but apparently there was some political stuff involved there and the minute that cleared up, we were nominated to go in and then we got inducted. It was great. You know at our age – I think we were 63 - it was a real great cap on our career. It was kind of like the stamp of approval – yeah, you were here…you meant something… and you taught…you taught a lot of kids some stuff…
SPAZ: Now, looking back on your career, is there a recording that you’re particularly proud of … something that if somebody said – okay, show me the one thing that you think really defines you as an artist? What would that be?
BILL: Well, the song that followed “Lovin’ Feelin’” was called “Just Once In My Life” and it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. It’s just a great song, a great production, and I think we did one of our better vocals on that so I would say that after having this kind of “whiter” career from “Lovin’ Feelin’” on. But there was a song that Bobby and I wrote and did in the early days, and it was produced by Ahmet Ertegun and it was called “Try To Find Another Man.” I think that’s the best early Righteous Brothers that there was. But “My Babe” and “Lupe Lu” – all that stuff was real Righteous Brothers.
SPAZ: What is next for Bill Medley?
BILL: God, you mean there is a next? (laughs)
SPAZ: Starting today going forward…
BILL: You know what? I have this book coming out in April and I have this album coming out in April and I’m hoping that something jumps out of there. I have no illusions of grandeur here, you know? I just hope something happens to keep me working. I just want to keep working. I love to sing. I love to perform. Somebody said, yeah man, but if you did this and this, you could make 50 million dollars, and I said what the hell would I do with 50 million dollars? Give me 3 million and the middle lane. I’ve been experimenting, by accident actually, but somebody asked me to do a speaking engagement and I did it, but I did it with the guy who wrote the book with me and it was amazingly successful. And so, I’m going to experiment with going out there and doing... I can’t really say it’s a one man show, but it’s all the stories, you know? And certainly I’ll sing. I’ll sit at the piano and sing and tell people how we got started and you know, Elvis Presley was a good friend. Frank Sinatra took us to Vegas in ’65. We were on the first American Beatle tour and first Rolling Stones tour… So I have a lot of knowledge, and it seems like I’m at the point in my career and it seems like my fans are at the age that they’re very, very interested in the stories. I think we’re at that age. I think people want to know how you recorded “Lovin’ Feelin’,” why you recorded “Lovin’..” how was it to work with Phil, you know – a lot of the questions that you’ve asked me.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning in your CD, DVD, or record player?
BILL: Absolutely nothing. I write a little bit still, but you know, I mean it’s like I do have a lot of CDs and stuff. I love the Eagles. I love Elton John. My favorite right now is Bruno Mars. I think Bruno Mars is exceptional. I think he has a lot of old school in him and there are some country acts that I think are very good like Band Perry and Martina McBride I think is just frighteningly good. I have a daughter, 27, that is the same way. She never really fell in love with the artist. She fell in love with music. And that’s so good for her because I fell in love with Ray Charles and I was Ray Charles for the first 10 years of my career! Everybody was… anybody that had any brains was Ray Charles at first...
YOUR HEART TO MINE:
DEDICATED TO THE BLUES