Every time Bill Medley steps out on stage, his brother is somewhere in the wings, smiling.
Bobby Hatfield died in 2003, and while the two weren’t related by blood, they were bound by music, and despite Medley’s desire to pay tribute to his late friend shortly after Hatfield’s passing, doing so under The Righteous Brothers banner felt too soon, he told The Daily Times recently.
“We went on a tribute kind of show for Bobby after he passed, and I realized, ‘Wow, this is a drag. This is too soon,’” Medley said. “I didn’t like it, and the audience didn’t like it, necessarily. It was too early, so I wanted another 13 years. And even then, I wasn’t even thinking about reforming The Righteous Brothers until I ran into Bucky (Heard, his current partner) in Branson (Missouri).
“I miss Bobby terribly, and the first year Bucky and I did it, it felt odd. But he was a real good friend of mine, and I had a lot of people pressing me to do it, and Bucky is an incredible partner who does an incredible job.”
These days, whatever awkwardness Medley felt in the beginning is gone, and what remains is the sense that carrying a torch for the vocal duo’s legacy and Hatfield’s memory feels … well, righteous. The pair met as members of separate vocal groups in the Los Angeles area back in 1962, and after joining forces under The Righteous Brothers banner, they charted a couple of modest hits early in their career. They did, however, open for a two upstart British bands in 1964, one of which was touring America for the first time.
“We did the first American Beatles tour,” Medley said. “We didn’t think much of it; we were just busy working and doing our gig, but about three years after that, they just became monsters. Looking back, we realized we had a front row seat to history!”
That same year, the guys opened for the Rolling Stones, and to be considered contemporaries of one of the most formative decades of popular music was, Medley said, “a wonderful experience.” Also in 1964, Medley and Hatfield were “discovered” by legendary producer Phil Spector, who was so impressed by their blue-eyed soul that he immediately put them through the paces of his “Wall of Sound” style. Almost immediately, the duo’s fortunes changed overnight, with the Spector-produced “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” rocketing to the top of the charts in 1965.
“Phil was wonderful with us. He had produced almost all girl groups up until The Righteous Brothers, and Bobby and I were kind of two street guys,” Medley said. “We didn’t take a lot of guff or this or that, but at the time, we didn’t know we were recording the biggest record in the history of American radio. If we had, maybe we wouldn’t have been so hot-headed! But Phil was great. He worked us real hard, and every time he had us sing it again, it got better and better and better.”
According to BMI, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” was the most-played song of the 20th century, and anyone who’s seen the Tom Cruise film “Top Gun” knows that in addition to its radio popularity, it’s become something of an iconic soundtrack moment. According to Medley, he had no idea it was included in the movie until its release.
“Somebody mentioned it to us, so my wife and I went to see it, and it just knocked me out,” he said. “The way they handled it was just brilliant, with Tom Cruise in the bar, picking up the girl. I always said, if one of our songs can be a Tom Cruise pickup line, that’s pretty good!”
That wasn’t the only massive Righteous Brothers hits, however: “Unchained Melody,” “Just Once in My Life” and “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” all were successful, and after a six-year break in which the guys pursued solo endeavors, they returned in 1974 with “Rock and Roll Heaven.” Another extended break followed until 1981, during which time Medley focused on raising his son after the death of his first wife, but the duo struck a balance between their solo efforts and The Righteous Brothers up until 2003, when Hatfield died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
In 2016, Medley and Bucky Heard announced their intentions to tour under The Righteous Brothers name, and on Friday, they’ll perform at The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. And while the singer at his side may not be his old friend, the songs get the justice they deserve, he said, and he can’t help but imagine that Hatfield is blessing their efforts even in death.
“Bobby will never be out of my mind,” he said. “We do a tribute to him on stage, and we show a video of us as young boys, all those years ago. I lost my wife in June 2020, and it’s the same thing with her as it is with Bobby: She’ll never leave me, and Bobby will never leave me.
“But even though it’s a real emotional show, it’s also a real fun show. I’ve been around long enough to know why people are showing up. We’ll do a couple of little special things, but mainly all the hits. Bucky has a great sense of humor, and that was always Bobby’s and my thing, was to keep it light — because the songs we had hits with were so heavy!”