(Bill Medley and the Bobby Hatfield talk about Phil Spector, their early hits, and their reunion in my 1975 interview, originally published in Gig magazine in August 1975. I met with the duo in St. Louis.)
A year ago, the Righteous Brothers rehired members of their old road band and tried, unsuccessfully, to get in touch with their ex-producer, Phil Spector (who was in isolation following a car accident). Next, they met with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, owners of the Capitol-distributed Haven label and producers of such artists as the Four Tops and Dusty Springfield.
“Lambert and Potter gave us ‘Rock and Roll Heaven,'” Bobby Hatfield said. “We felt it was a commercial tune and a good one for us. And Capitol really did a job with it; we’ve never been treated as well by any record label. We recorded it on a Saturday, mixed it on a Sunday; they pressed it on a Monday, had it on the air by Tuesday.”
“Rock and Roll Heaven” climbed up the charts last summer almost as quickly as it had been created. Two other singles, “Give It to the People” and “Dream On,” plus an album named for the former tune, have racked up good sales since then.
While “Dream On” offers “what you’d expect from us…a lot of valleys and mountains in the vocals,” the other recent 45s surprised longtime fans. Unlike every other Righteous Brothers hit, “Rock and Roll Heaven” and “Give It to the People” do not focus on romantic love; they emphasize vocal harmonies, rather than the counterpointed solos for which the duo are famous.
The Lambert and Potter–produced Sons of Mrs. Righteous, the Brothers’ just-released follow-up LP, also mingles new kinds of material with songs reminiscent of earlier efforts. Which type of tune the duo’s record company will now cull for singles release remains to be seen but, Bobby said, “They want us to be fresh. See, I think Capitol’s trying to almost introduce us as a brand-new act. They don’t want us to rely on the past, because the singles-buying market is mostly very young and many of ’em haven’t ever seen us before.”
Are the Righteous Brothers no longer performing their old hits then? “Oh yes, we do ’em,” Bill Medley said. “But it’s not a nostalgia show. We don’t grease our hair back or dress as the fifties or do ‘Johnny B. Goode.’
“We do our old songs because we enjoy them. You know, we were pretty fortunate before to have done tunes like ‘Lovin’ Feeling,’ ‘Unchained Melody’ and ‘Soul and Inspiration.'”
At shows, Bobby said, “we do get a lot of people who remember those hits. The hard-core Righteous Brothers fans who’ve followed us all the way. But sometimes…well, some of the audiences now are all eight-year-old kids asking for autographs. To them, we’re a new act. And ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ was our first hit.”
If Shindig, their old TV series, was the launching pad, then studio mastermind Phil Spector was the rocket. The Brothers met him in 1963, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, where they shared a bill with several groups he produced.
“When we got home,” Bill said, “he called us up and said he had a song—’You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’—that he thought would be right for us. We didn’t know why he picked it, ’cause we had been doing nothing but fast rock at the time.”
Well aware of Spector’s already brilliant track record, however, Bill and Bobby weren’t about to question his judgment. A millionaire twice over at age 22, Spector had produced more than 20 smash hits for such artists as the Crystals (“He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron”), the Ronettes (“Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You”), and Darlene Love (“Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home”).
With the Righteous Brothers and “Lovin’ Feeling,” Spector began his most ambitious project. For the recording, he assembled the biggest studio orchestra he’d yet used; he taped the vocals again and again (Bill recalls doing 24 takes on one line) to get them just right, and he arranged the instrumental score to provide the voices with a backdrop of ecstatic crescendos and equally dramatic moments of silence.
“I remember he’d have all this stuff going on at the same time we were singing,” Bill said. “He had to overdub everything. Whereas now, they just put it on another track. But ‘Lovin’ Feeling’ was done on a little four-track.”
Showcasing the Brothers’ vocal abilities far better than any of their previous releases, the finished song emerged as a gut-wrenching masterpiece of romantic balladry. Bought by a few million people, it topped record charts worldwide and sparked a two-year association with Spector.
Other hits followed quickly. Among the biggest were “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” “Ebb Tide,” “Just Once in My Life,” and “Unchained Melody.” All of them bore the Spector trademark.
“He was hard to work for,” Bill admitted, “because we never knew when we were going to rehearse or record. And when it was time, he had to have you there…regardless of whether you were in England or something. But I suppose if there’s any genius producer in the business, he’d have to be it.”
Though the sound Spector helped the Brothers achieve was not R&B, the vocals and phrasing were enough like black music to fool some listeners. Soul station DJs, many of whom thought the Brothers were black, played their records until Bill and Bobby stopped by the studios to promote them. Then, in at least a few instances, faces dropped and programmers yanked the duo’s songs from playlists.
But most DJs, soul and otherwise, played the “blue-eyed soul brothers'” records until the grooves wore out. “Soul means yearning,” commented Phil Spector during the singers’ heyday, “the yearning to be free, to be needed, to be loved…The Righteous Brothers have caught this need.” Indeed they had; and in the process, they paved the way for other blue-eyed soulsters ranging from Mitch Ryder to Felix Cavaliere to Spencer Davis.
By 1968, company support had reached a low point, the hits had stopped coming and Bill was growing eager to try out a solo career. Consequently, in July of that year, the pair split up.
While the bass singer recorded two albums for A&M, Bobby tried to keep the Righteous Brothers name alive by making an LP with a new partner, Jimmy Walker. Then, on his own, he did another album and began working in Vegas. There, five years after the breakup, he ran into Bill, who was doing the same thing.
They began showing up to sing along at each other’s gigs and, when audiences reacted enthusiastically, decided to revive the old partnership. “It felt right,” Bill explained, “and we’d really gotten the solo thing out of our systems.”