Tonight! Bill Medley brings Righteous Brothers to Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall
It was 20 years ago that Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers walked into a hotel room in Kalamazoo, Michigan and found his singing partner of 40 years Bobby Hatfield dead at the young age of 63.
While the spirited tenor Hatfield has passed, the 82-year-old Medley has kept The Righteous Brothers going with his legendary baritone voice along with the partnership of other singers as he performs as the Righteous Brothers with Bucky Heard. Medley will bring his act to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall Sunday in Fort Myers.
When Medley takes the stage at the Florida Southwestern State College Campus in Cypress Lake Sunday, he will bring living history that has included stints opening for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, getting invited out to perform at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas by Frank Sinatra and sharing dressing rooms with Elvis Presley during residencies at the Independence Hotel in Las Vegas.
“I’m feeling good,” said Medley. He is in the middle of a 50-date tour that will be extended by 10 weeks in Las Vegas.
For decades, the Righteous Brothers and their song “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” owned the title of most-played song on the radio, a record only recently eclipsed. A chart-topper in the 1960s, it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s after being part of a scene in the movie “Top Gun.”
Their other hits have included “Soul and Inspiration” and the heart-stopping “Unchained Melody,” which was refueled by an appearance in the 1990 movie “Ghost.”
While the band is best known for those ballads, they began as a blues-inspired California duo born out of the R&B and doowop scene, along with the growing surf rock scene. “We were two white guys singing black music,” Medley said.
Their first major hit was the up-tempo “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” a take-charge jam with blaring horns and some similarities to the suggestive shouting in the early Beatles hit “Shout.”
“Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “Shout” “could have been like brothers and sisters,” Medley said. “It was kind of a song about what was going on. There was a lot of surf music, a lot of experimenting.”
In short order, The Righteous Brothers would be opening for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but they were not as well known at the time. Medley remembers the tour for the sounds of “screaming, yelling and crying” fans for The Beatles.
Medley wrote “Little Latin Lupe Lu” but would eventually cede songwriting to teams of powerful songwriters like Phil Spector, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. “They were so good,” Medley said.
Spector, who died in prison in 2021, produced “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” with his famous Wall of Sound and group of musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Medley called Spector “brilliant,” using a group of horn players, multiple pianos, drummers, guitars, bassists and other instruments to fuel the music of the song. Spector also produced The Beatles, The Ronettes, The Crystals, Dion and The Ramones among many others.
“He was really good with us,” Medley said. “He was considered a little weird but it didn’t interfere with the music.”
After separating from Spector, Medley produced the album “Soul and Inspiration,” during which he said he followed much of what Spector did including the use of an orchestra.
They would hold a residency at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, invited by Frank Sinatra. “He saved our life,” Medley said. Sinatra gave the group tips on how to protect their vocals in the Las Vegas weather by taking steam baths. Medley recently had throat surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and says he is doing well.
Inspired by Little Richard and Ray Charles, Medley was a self-taught pianist. His mother and father had played in a band before they were married and had children. His mother played the piano and his dad was a saxophone player. There was always a piano in the house, Medley said. It is his piano-playing that can be heard on “Unchained Melody.”
Other influences on Medley were Bobby Bland and B.B. King. “I fell in love with the blues,” he said. Medley released a solo blues album in 2004 titled “Your Heart to Mine Dedicated to the Blues.” In 2005, he recorded a track for the solo album of Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin titled “Lullabye.”
For a period in the 1970s, Medley and Elvis Presley were regular performers at The International Hotel in Las Vegas. Medley said he would do three shows a night. “I would go on at 8 p.m., he would go on at 10 p.m., we both went on at 12 and I would go on again at 2,” Medley said.
Medley and Presley would bond over their love of R&B and motorcycles. “He rode some bikes in the street. I used to race Scramblers in the dirt,” Medley said. Presley also admired the songs of the Righteous Brothers, and would perform a version of “Unchained Melody.” Medley said that Presley admired baritone singers.
Presley would have Medley join him in his dressing room with his hairdresser to talk and relax. They both admired the singer Roy Hamilton, who had a hit with “Unchained Melody” in the 1950s.
Presley would also invite Medley over to his Graceland Mansion where they would sing gospel songs together, he said. Medley had a close look at Presley’s downfall, which he attributed to a combination of sleeping pills and uppers. “He didn’t know he was on drugs. He just had trouble going to sleep. He took heavy sleeping pills and pills to wake him up. He didn’t think he was doing drugs. These were prescription drugs from a doctor,” Medley said. Medley saw Presley gain weight but was unable to save him from his medication troubles. “The last thing he said to me was ‘Bill, I am going to be all right.'”
The popularity of The Righteous Brothers was revived in the 1980s with a key scene in “Top Gun” where their song is sung. “I thought it was done very well,” Medley said. “If one of our songs is a pickup line for Tom Cruise, that’s pretty good for us.”
“It became very popular with the kids,” he said. He wishes the song had been used again in last year’s follow-up “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Before Heard joined him, Medley’s daughter McKenna sang Harfield’s tenor part. “She’s so good,” Medley said. McKenna, who is pregnant, still tours with Medley as a backup singer, and performs the song “Time of My Life” with him. That’s another song made famous by a 1980s movie – “Dirty Dancing.”
After the Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze film “Ghost” became a hit in 1990 using “Unchained Melody” in a major scene, Medley said The Righteous Brothers “were better than ever. The 1990s was a really great time for The Righteous Brothers.” He and Hatfield had families and were taking care of their business the right way, he said.
How should audiences remember Hatfield? “They should know that he is probably one of the greatest singers to come out of the ’60s, a phenomenal singer, a real good friend. We were like brothers. We didn’t agree on everything but we would work it out,” Medley said. Medley said Hatfield was a “great athlete. He almost played for the Dodgers.”
A class president in high school, Medley said Hatfield was well-liked. Hatfield liked to roll off one-liners in the mold of comedian Don Rickles, Medley said. “I told him he should be a comedian,” he said. Unfortunately, Hatfield was a heavy drinker and smoker, which contributed to his death. “He didn’t take care of himself. I told him to see a doctor. He said he didn’t have a doctor.” Medley said Hatfield never drank before a show and never let it affect his performances.
Hatfield had sung “Unchained Melody” in his previous group The Variations. Before the Righteous Brothers, Medley was in the Paramours which Hatfield would join in 1962. They eventually changed the name to The Righteous Brothers.
Hatfield sings the entirety of “Unchained Melody” on the lead vocals, hitting a number of memorable notes in the climax. “We still don’t know how high he can sing,” Medley said.
Medley said Heard is “just perfect” for Hatfield’s part. “He really cares deeply about the music. I really lucked out. You can’t replace Bobby.”
The Barbara M. Mann Performing Arts Hall is at the Florida Southwestern State College campus at 13550 FSW Parkway, Fort Myers. Sunday’s show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at bbmannpah.com.