That simple, six-note opening line from You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ resonates among the most familiar kick-offs in pop music history. It helped create an unexpected legacy. When Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield (The Righteous Brothers) closed their eyes at their beginning in 1962, they clutched a rather naïve dream: They simply wanted to put a group together that was good enough to play Las Vegas lounges.
Open your own eyes four decades later, and it’s difficult to imagine a time when The Righteous Brothers had not impacted American pop culture.
Their signature, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, stands as the most-played song in the history of American radio. Bobby’s Unchained Melody, which was produced by Bill, re-surfaced 25 years after they first recorded it to become an essential, million-selling part of the movie “Ghost.” It has since been recognized in an AOL poll as the best love song of all-time. The Righteous Brothers galvanized the link between rock and rhythm & blues so convincingly that they spurred the creation of a new term, “blue-eyed soul.” And their legacy is permanently recognized with their 2003 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The significance of the honor is not lost on the duo. Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield had no idea when they first met in Orange County, California, that their partnership would give them a lifetime of relevance. At the time, to expect their work would somehow be enshrined in a Hall of Fame would have been ludicrous.
“It’s a blessing to still be around after 40 years,” Medley suggests. “When we started out, rock ‘n’ roll was thought to be only a fad. Some DJs were even smashing their records of this so-called ‘devil music,’ so we were always talking about what we’d do next. We still are!”
But even from the beginning, The Righteous Brothers were doing something special. Elvis Presley had shocked the culture as a Caucasian in the ’50s, by threading his music with the intensity of R&B. The Righteous Brothers gave the concept a new sophistication. With Medley’s rich, seductive bass and Hatfield’s urgent, gospel-inflected tenor creating a unique harmonic blend, they sang with such depth of soul that listeners assumed they were African-American. Combined with the density of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production, the duo defied traditional music labels, gaining play on both pop and R&B stations. When a Philadelphia air personality tabbed their music “blue-eyed soul,” The Righteous Brothers built a tradition that still exists in pop music today. And no less than Elvis himself demonstrated respect for the duo by frequently singing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and Unchained Melody during his 1970s performances.
The Righteous Brothers actually began existence as members of a 5-piece group called The Paramours. Performing in a local bar, a Black marine in the audience shouted out after one of their duets, “That was righteous, brothers.” They remembered the occasion and eventually renamed their group The Righteous Brothers for their first album.
Within two years, they had made inroads at radio, landed a semi-regular spot on ABC-TV’s “Shindig,” and proven flexible enough to share concert bills with the legendary Jack Benny, and open for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But their full power would not be recognized until the 1964 session that yielded You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. They built a pleading, four-minute cry of romantic desperation that Vanity Fair would recognize as “the most erotic duet between men on record.”
“We had no idea if it would be a hit,” Medley recalls. “It was too slow, too long, and right in the middle of The Beatles and the British Invasion.” And clearly on target with public taste. The performing rights organization BMI has recorded some 8 million plays of the song, making it the most-programmed title in the history of American radio.
But it’s merely one of numerous pinnacle moments The Righteous Brothers would achieve. They crashed the Billboard Top 10 five times in 15 months, adding such classics as (You’re My) Soul And Inspiration, Ebb Tide and Just Once In My Life. And their undeniable chemistry has demonstrated an amazing resiliency. After parting in 1968, they reunited in 1974, hitting the Top 10 once again with the reverential Rock And Roll Heaven. The movies Top Gun, Ghost, Naked Gun and Dirty Dancing repeatedly re-established the Righteous brand. Medley’s Grammy-winning duet with Jennifer Warnes I’ve Had The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing was a platinum seller and walked away with the “Song of the Year” honors. Hatfield’s performance of Unchained Melody in Ghost, originally recorded in a single studio take, was so overwhelmingly received that the duo recorded a new version, which also went platinum and brought them a Grammy nomination.
“Movies,” Hatfield maintains, “introduced our music to a whole new generation of fans, for whom we are truly grateful.”
Fans of multiple generations still keep The Righteous Brothers active. The duo routinely performs 60-80 shows on the road during a year, in addition to singing for about 12 weeks in Las Vegas, the city they had originally hoped would merely provide a weekly salary. Their spontaneity and interplay guarantee that no two shows are ever quite the same.
Forty years after their debut, The Righteous Brothers have opened the eyes of both critics and music buyers, and, frankly, surprised even themselves. With a trend-setting sound, the most-played song in history and a place in rock’s Hall of Fame, their once-naïve dream of merely playing Vegas has been superseded by an awesome legacy.