When the Righteous Brothers Hit #1

By Steve Propes
HATFIELD at 1959 prom.

If you are able to recall when the lush sounds of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by The Righteous Brothers dominated the airwaves, then prepare yourself: it was the #1 song on the charts almost exactly 60 years ago.

That’s right. It hit the KRLA Top 40 in early December 1964 and almost immediately was #1 on the Billboard charts.

It all started with Bill Medley at Santa Ana High School, Bobby Hatfield at Anaheim High School class of 1958 and Long Beach State College and the Rhythm Rockers, the mainly Filipino band that backed L.A. R&B singer Richard Berry at Harmony Park Ballroom in the orange groves of Anaheim. A Cuban melody they were playing inspired Berry to pen the garage rock classic, “Louie Louie” in 1957 and who backed Dick Dale in his “Miserlou” days.

Rhythm Rockers guitar player and leader Barry Rillera was a member of Sigma Pi at Long Beach State College in 1961 while Bobby was a pledge of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the largest Long Beach State College fraternity.

Rillera recalled, “I met Bill Medley in junior high school, he wanted to sing. My brother had this band going Bill had heard of us. Bobby Hatfield had a group called the Variations and Bill was working weekends in Santa Ana. Bobby was playing in Fullerton one night a week. I was working weekends with Bill and Bobby on Mondays. I was saying you oughta hear this guy.” Rillera backed the brothers on guitar in their 1964 tour that began with opening for the Beatles and for 30 years thereafter.

Born in Wisconsin in 1940, Bobby Hatfield played varsity baseball and football and was president of his Anaheim High School class. Viki Brown, who Hatfield dated at the 1959 Anaheim High prom recalled that at a school assembly, Hatfield sang “Unchained Melody,” a hit written for the prison movie “Unchained” in 1955; the very song that later made Hatfield’s recorded voice larger than life in “Ghost” and on rock and pop music radio decades later.

Their debut disc as the Righteous Brothers was the catchy “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” top five in L.A. and a national hit in March 1963. Many R&B DJs thought they were black, and when they showed up to promote the record, stations that programmed all-black music had to apologize to the brothers when they pulled the record from rotation. Despite that, they were mentioned in the KGFJ Soul Magazine, which created the innovative “blue-eyed soul” category.

The redo of Don & Dewey’s / Sonny Bono-composed “Ko Ko Joe” caught the attention of the R&B duet who had been promoted to replace the screaming sound of Little Richard, who had abandoned rock’n’roll in late 1957.

Said Dewey Terry, “When the Righteous Bros. came to my live shows, we saw two little white boys standing in front of the stage. They copied my act, all the rhythms, the stage presence we were taught how to love the audience, have the audience love you.” In 1965, the Righteous Brothers redid Don & Dewey’s manic rocker “Justine.”

In 1963, the Righteous Brothers made Cinnamon Cinder appearances with the surf band the Sentinels. On August 23, 1964, they were among the opening acts at the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl debut, leaving the tour early to appear on TV’s “Shindig!”.

A 1964 label switch changed everything. Their Moonglow label made a deal with the volatile Phil Spector and his Philles label to release every other Righteous Brothers 45: one on Philles, then the next 45 on Moonglow.

The supposed most-played song in the history of radio, the Righteous Bros. on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’” was the result, a song that underwent about a dozen overdubs meaning it lost that many generations from the original source recording. To maximize top 40 radio play, Spector changed the song’s actual playing time shown on the label from 3:50 to a more DJ-friendly 3:05. It went to #1 in December 1964 on KRLA and L.A.’s #1 soul radio station.

Though the Righteous Brothers. were credited on the remake of Al Hibbler’s “Unchained Melody,” Medley recalled Phil Spector left the “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’” session early, telling them they could use the remaining time any way they chose. Medley produced Hatfield on “Unchained Melody,” Phil hung it on the reverse of “Hung On You” as a throwaway B-side, not bothering with producer credits.

KGB, San Diego picked “Unchained Melody” as an album cut on May 8, 1965. In 1990, their “Unchained Melody” got renewed life in the movie, “Ghost,” making it the key song in two hit movies 35 years apart.

Touring eight months of the year, they opened their club, Medley’s in mid-1982 in Fountain Valley, relaunching it as The Hop in 1984 opening the Lakewood Hop in April 1986.

Bobby Hatfield died while on tour at age 63 in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Nov. 5, 2003. Medley continued the touring act with a new duet partner, Bucky Heard. Bill Medley was selected for the first class of the Orange County Hall of Fame in 2023, but without his singing partner Bobby Hatfield, a strange placement.

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