Books for Everyone!

November 2022

The Righteous Brothers

They were righteous, brothers!

The title of this vocal duo of white men was handed to them by a black Marine who told them of their singing: “That’s righteous, brothers,” and then he dubbed them “righteous brothers.”

With so little in America that sounds truly righteous today, and too much self-righteous, just two songs from this phenomenal male duo can work out the kinks in the corkscrewing of American music, culture, life — of whatever was revered in their day, but has been trampled on with tacky disrespect for too many days in our day:

“Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide.”

Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley were two voices paired somewhere in heaven, and sent to earth, with Bobby returning, young, too young, to that celestial sphere through a drug-induced fatal heart attack. It seems that the intensity of his singing mirrored the intensity with which he lived life. Mr. Medley, likewise, suffered emotionally for his art.

Together, those two young men sang compositions that are melodic masterpieces.

Phil Spector was the mad genius behind creating that Wall of Sound that he utilized for these two voices that were oppositional in texture, tone, sentiment, range. Tenor Bobby and Baritone/Bass Bill created symbiotic sounds that did not mesh as much as they played off of one another, eliciting beauty and literally blowing away the competition. Along with orchestration that was divine, their songs from the early to late 1960s are uniquely unparalleled in the history of American music.

And there is a distinctly American quality about their music. It’s hard to define what that quality is, but I’ll try:

Certainly, the vocal and orchestral arrangement and the stylish packaging of The Sound, by Phil Spector, formed a huge part of the magic of this music. It’s a horrible shame the guy went off the deep end as he got older, but Spector was always hovering near that edge during his profitable years of acoustical obsession.

Then there’s the fact that those two singers sang their hearts out — because basically that’s all they were getting — the chance to sing their hearts out — from the record company, or companies: Moonglow; Phillies Records, the one co-founded by Spector; Verve, Haven, and then others to re-issue the hits.

Back in those days, the #1 key to producing, selling, and scoring a soaring, scintillating hit song that touched the heart and opened the wallet was a vocalist, or vocalists, who sang from the heart with mastery and professional panache, but who was, basically, a natural and penniless talent.

The last ingredient was actually a void: The absence of pre-marketing strategy by paid consultants to media-generate a financial success that would not otherwise occur under normal market, or capitalistic, forces. The Righteous Brothers were not MilliVanilli or the Kardashians of Akoustic Kulture.

The ability for a song to meet up, or match up, with The Vocal Tone to suit the notes with astounding resonance, that skill was part of the work of producing a musical recording. That vital talent was probably the first to go at the Recording Studio when the era of manufactured muzak got foisted upon the U.S.A. sometime in late 1980s, or post-Cold War.

We now have in my nation, if not worldwide, an entire generation, or two, of listeners who have heard only auto-tuned melodists who can’t carry a melody on their own. The way Bobby Hatfield sounded on “Ebb Tide” is the way he sounded standing right next to a person, in real life.

His voice was a young tenor during its hey-day.  Later in his life, his range expanded upward, after the resurgence of his career, due mainly to the use of “Unchained Melody” in the 1990 film Ghost.  That element of using youth was another quintessential factor in the expansively varied excellence of American music of the early-mid 1960s. 

It’s not that America, at that time, was such a young or even youth-obsessed (pre-Baby Boomer advertising schtick) country. It was the unbelievable willingness of very young talents, unripened vocal artists, to be exploited by the record label that led to such extra-ordinary hit singles on the radio.

The Brothers were L.A.-bred boys who met in college, at CSU-Long Beach, and paired up as a singing duo. They likely would not have hit it big, enormously big, without the handling, symphonic packaging, and promotion of Phil Spector whose sense of timing, at least back then, was impeccable.

My favorites among their recorded songs are those two aforementioned mood-changers, with Hatfield singing lead tenor: “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide”, a Hatfield solo. In my opinion, Medley, with his dark, almost too deep timbre, did not possess a lead voice. Hatfield, given an earlier and much different epoch, could have become a pop singer on his own. His voice was that rare and wonderful. Its dynamics ranged from a tender heart-rending whisper to a belted ending that surpassed mere sound. His styling and phrasing were effortlessly individual and emotionally moving.

Whenever a performer transcends the art itself, a classic is created. That classic stands alone, on its own, and, hopefully, other artists can learn from it, not merely emulate it. The wannabe’s and sound-alikes do not count, when it comes to an American Original like The Righteous Brothers.

To try to copy or imitate them is pure sacrilege!