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Righteous Brothers at City National Civic

In Music
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The end of the road for the Righteous Brothers came suddenly and unexpectedly in 2003, when Bobby Hatfield—the tenor in the duo, and the voice in the immortal love song “Unchained Melody”—died of a heart attack shortly before a performance with his longtime partner, Bill Medley.

For years after, friends and fans would ask Medley—the baritone most famous for his vocal performance in the duo’s other monster hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”—about reconstituting the Righteous Brothers. But Medley was in no mood for it.

“Between you and me, I wasn’t very excited about the idea,” he says. For more than a decade, Medley halfheartedly went about finding a new partner. “I had tried out a couple of guys, but it just didn’t gel. You know, it’s like going out on a date. It’s either going to turn you on or it’s not. And it just didn’t turn me on.”

That changed just a couple of years ago when Harrah’s in Las Vegas offered Medley, 77, a residency if he were to consider reviving the group. In the same week, he was in Branson, Missouri, where he went to check out a performance by a friend, the singer Bucky Heard.

“I had known Bucky for years, and he was doing some Journey songs. And I really had no idea that he could do that, and get way up there (vocally). And I thought, well, if he can do Steve Perry, he can do Bobby Hatfield. Plus, I knew him as a friend first, which is very important to me. I mean, c’mon, man, it’s like getting married.”

Thus was born the Righteous Brothers once removed, the newly reconceived duo touring regularly since 2016. Their latest tour brings them to San Jose’s City National Civic on April 14.

Even then though, Medley was not completely sold. He wasn’t sure that audiences still wanted to hear from the Righteous Brothers, and he suspected that asking Heard to fill the shoes of Hatfield was too much to expect. He booked a couple of gigs in nearby Laughlin as a test run.

“Well, I come down opening night and learn we sold out all five nights. So that answered the first question. So, then it all came down to whether they were going to like Bucky. In the show, I asked him to do the Roy Orbison song ‘Crying,’ because it takes a real singer to do that song. And then he does that one, near the open of the show. He sang it and I just walk off stage. They ended up giving him a standing ovation. So there you go.”

Medley and Hatfield first emerged from Orange County in the early 1960s when they were discovered by iconic super-producer Phil Spector, who produced the group’s first hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’” The tune reached No. 1 on the charts in early 1965. Other hits followed, such as “Unchained Melody” and “You’re My Soul and Inspiration.” Then, inevitably, as in so many stories from those days, came conflict. First, the Righteous Brothers broke from Spector, then a couple of years later, they split from each other.

It wasn’t until the mid 1970s when Medley and Hatfield realized that they were unable to do apart what they did as a duo, and the Righteous Brothers reformed, leading to the hit single “Rock and Roll Heaven,” a kind of roll-call, in-memoriam tribute to fallen rock stars. (Several years later, the song was re-recorded to include many names that were not part of the original records, such as Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Medley said that he and Heard still do “Rock and Roll Heaven,” but instead of including Hatfield in the lyrics, they just dedicate the song to his memory.)

The Righteous Brothers might have fallen into oldies-act oblivion if it were not for a trio of blockbuster movies in the late 1980s—“Top Gun,” “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost”—that each included one of their hits. “Ghost,” in particular, turbo-charged the popularity of Hatfield’s stirring vocal performance of “Unchained Melody” in the famous potting-wheel scene with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze.

The song dates back to 1955, a full decade before the Righteous Brothers recorded it. It was originally included in a low-budget prison movie called “Unchained,” and its mysterious title is due more to the prosaic shorthand used to identify it rather than any grandiose notion of romantic love.

“Unchained Melody” has been recorded by countless acts, including Elvis, U2 and Zamphir, the self-anointed “master of the pan flute,” as well more than six hundred others (not to mention the thousands of performances at weddings and anniversary parties). But the Righteous Brothers’ version remains the song’s definitive version.

Medley says that he and Hatfield first became aware of the song through 1950s singer Roy Hamilton. In club performances, both men would sing the song. But when it came time to commit it to vinyl, Hatfield took the lead vocal duty. And it’s become his signature.

With Hatfield’s death, the song has attained yet a new level of poignancy, particularly at Righteous Brothers shows. Bucky Heard, the duo’s newcomer and Hatfield stand-in, does not sing the song, though. In concert, it becomes Medley’s ode to his lost partner.

“I didn’t want to put Bucky up against that, to make him do ‘Unchained Melody.’ It’s not fair to him. So I do the song. I don’t try to do Bobby’s version. I do my own Bill Medley version as a tribute to Bobby. That’s really the best thing to do, for now.”

The Righteous Brothers
Apr 14, 8pm, $45+
City National Civic, San Jose

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