Bill Medley & Mitch Ryder: Blue-Eyed Soul Brothers

Bill Medley & Mitch Ryder: Blue-Eyed Soul Brothers

Bill Medley

Born September 19, 1940 in Los Angeles, music has always been a part of William Thomas Medley’s life: his mother played piano and his father, a saxophone player, led a big band. Medley began singing early, joining glee clubs and choirs, then, as a teenager, he met Bobby Hatfield. Medley recalled: “In the late ’50s and early ’60s, if you liked something you’d say, ‘Boy, that’s righteous!’ and if you liked someone you’d call them ‘brother.’ The black marines who would come in to see said we were ‘righteous,’ and sometimes they’d call us ‘righteous brothers.’” Medley’s soulful baritone meshed with Hatfield’s soaring tenor, and the two recorded some of the most beloved and popular songs of all time as the Righteous Brothers.

Following minor hits with Medley’s “Little Latin Lupe Lu” (successfully covered by Mitch Ryder) and “My Babe,” things picked up dramatically when Phil Spector signed them. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” at Spector’s request. The song—considered by many to be the peak of Spector’s Wall of Sound production—showcased their voices, as did “Ebb Tide” and “Unchained Melody.” After a successful but rocky ride with Spector, the Brothers proved they could succeed without him, scoring another Mann/Weil hit, “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” produced by Medley. The Brothers remained together on-and-off for four decades, releasing such classics as Medley’s “Rock and Roll Heaven.”

In 1968, Medley set out on his own, recording songs like “Brown Eyed Woman” before reuniting with Hatfield in 1974. Medley’s solo career resumed in the ’80s when a new generation was introduced to him by “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” a 1987 hit duet with Jennifer Warnes from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. In 1990, the Brothers reunited after “Unchained Melody” again became a hit when used in the film Ghost. The two toured the oldies circuit until Hatfield’s death in 2003, months after the Righteous Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they sang “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Thereafter, Medley released Damn Near Righteous, a collection of duets with artists like Phil Everly and Brian Wilson. He is currently producing his daughter’s upcoming album.

Mitch Ryder

Mitch Ryder was born William Levise, Jr. on February 26, 1945 near Detroit, Michigan. One of the early heroes of Detroit’s music scene, Ryder combines the city’s strong R&B tradition with a gritty rock edge that influenced the MC5 and the Stooges. Best known for his work with the Detroit Wheels, Ryder’s influence on blues and rock musicians extends further than the band’s relatively short lifespan.

While fronting his post-high school band, Billy Lee and the Rivieras, Ryder attracted the attention of famed Four Season and producer/songwriter Bob Crewe. Crewe gave young Levise his stage name after a quick look in a phone book, and the band became Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. With a new name and a new producer, Ryder’s career took off, scoring hits with “Jenny Take a Ride,” “Sock It To Me Baby,” and their biggest, “Devil With The Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Ryder broke his contract with Crewe after Crewe’s decision to relocate Ryder to Las Vegas as a solo artist and revamp his signature white-soul sound into a more Tom Jones-esque nightclub act. Ryder’s next album, The Detroit-Memphis Experiment, paired him with Stax legends Booker T. & the MG’s and the Memphis Horns. When Crewe released recordings of Ryder and the Wheels as Mitch Ryder Sings the Hits, the two became entangled in a legal battle that put Ryder’s recording career on hold for years. “I took a five-year hiatus because I had to, I wasn’t trained for anything else,” Ryder said.

Ryder’s later releases didn’t hit as they had in the ’60s, but his musical output and restlessness never declined. He collaborated with John Mellencamp on 1983’s Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. He self-released two albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and recorded a string of small hits, including a tongue-in-cheek Little Richard rewrite called “Good Golly, Ask Ollie,” in response to the Iran-Contra scandal. More recently, in 2009, he released Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise). His autobiography, Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend, was released in late 2011, and his first US release in 30 years, The Promise, produced by fellow Detroiter Don Was, came out in early 2012.


What are you listening to right now?

Bill Medley: My daughter, McKenna, is a singer and has been recording a CD and I’m executive producer, so I’ve been listening to that. I’m also involved with a good friend of mine, Michael Grimm, a great blue-eyed soul singer who won America’s Got Talent.

Mitch Ryder: Nothing. Right now I’m on a new project, and when I get on a new project, it inspires me to write new music and I cut out all outside influences.

What was the first record you ever bought?

BM: I thought you were going to say “you ever stole.” It was a little rough back then. I think a Little Richard or Fats Domino song. If it was Little Richard, probably a 45 of “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

MR: You have to make a distinction, because I stole a lot of them when I was young. The first one I bought, probably the second acoustic Bob Dylan put out. Prior to that, I was stealing 45s, because it was so much easier to put them into your coat. We had to have the Top Ten every week, so every time a new record would come into the Top Ten, one of the gang would go in and steal the record. I finally got popped for it. I was 13 or so, and I regret the way I handled the inquisition with the police. I broke down and gave them a sob story about how it was going to hurt my grandmother and she had a bad heart, blah blah blah. Everything but what they wanted to hear, which was “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t sorry at all.

Where do you buy your music?

BM: I can’t remember the last thing I bought. A lot of people send me things they think I’d like, which is very cool. I don’t think I’ve bought a CD in years. I perform so much, and write quite a bit, so I don’t buy a lot.

MR: I go into mom and pop stores when I can find them, but if I want something instantly, I go to the web.

What was the first instrument you played?

BM: My mom was a piano player and my father was a sax player. I taught myself to play piano at about 18. I loved music and I loved to sing but when I heard rock ‘n’ roll, it just sort of took me over. When I heard rhythm and blues, it took my heart and soul.

MR: Drums, I broke those. The next instrument to come into my hands was guitar. I have a clarinet, a banjo, two electric and one acoustic guitar, and on my computer, I have several different instruments.

What brought you to the instrument you now play?

BM: I just use the piano as a writing tool, and I play it once in a while at a show, just to calm things down. I’m not a good piano player, just enough to embarrass myself. I started out as a singer/songwriter and I’d go to record companies and sing my songs, and they were excited about my voice, so I just went directly right into recording.

MR: The guitar was given to me by my sister, who was a beatnik, and she wanted me to become a beatnik, too. She played, but not as well as me. She wanted to get a duo going, but I didn’t really fancy the beatnik thing. But I did love the guitar.

Now, I buy the software for whatever instrument I need, and I use the computer more and more, because I’m writing a musical. I’ve put together over 30 CDs and I want to do something that’s worthy of all my years of experience, and not just go down as, “Yeah, he had that one big hit record, maybe 60 years ago…what was it?” I thought the musical was going to be a boat ride, but it’s really, really kicking my ass. I came to realize that a musical is not a one-man show. I don’t have the time on earth to learn lighting and stage setting, orchestration, so I have to bring in people. I’m desperate. I’m 67. I don’t have time to fuck around.

Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?

BM: I have collaborated, but not a lot. The people who wrote “Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Soul and Inspiration” [Mann/Weil] are good, good friends, and I’d love to write with them. I just saw Carole King, and I’d love to write with her, and with Jimmy Webb, one of my favorites. But I haven’t, yet. They won’t return my calls…

MR: I haven’t written with anybody. You’ll go back and see two names, Mitch Ryder and Kimberly Levise, my second wife, but she didn’t write a note, a word or a syllable. I would love to sit down and write with John Lennon, or Bob Dylan. If you look at their styles, they probably wouldn’t appreciate the company. Number one, they are loners, they don’t need the help. Don Was produced my last CD, and he said I should write with Delbert McClinton. Delbert’s won a Grammy, but then so has Adele.

So Bob Dylan, for lyrics, I think he’s the best that our country has ever offered, and for their ability on their instrument, that’s tough, because I don’t want to name a non-American. I don’t like the Brits, who got a real free pass when they first came to this country. All you had to do was wear your hair a certain way and talk stupid, and the girls went crazy. That lasted for two years.

What musician influenced you most?

BM: B.B. King on guitar and Ray Charles on piano. Vocally, I’d say it was about the same, except you’d have to add Bobby “Blue” Bland, who had a big influence on me.

MR: I’ve gotten something from everybody. Nobody plays a chromatic harmonica as well as Stevie Wonder. And nobody takes the lyrics of somebody else’s songs like Elton John. That’s probably the toughest question you’ll ask me.

What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

BM: It never entered my mind, ever, that I could do it. I guess because I loved it so much, it never dawned on me that I could make a living either as a singer or a songwriter. The Righteous Brothers just happened, and by the time we looked up, we were successful.

MR: There’s a big difference between I want to do this and I can do this. You have to break it up. At 15, I knew I wanted to do it, at 22, I knew I could do it, and at 50, I learned I had to do it. At 15, in high school, I sang a solo in the varsity choir, got the applause, and after that I was hooked. It was the applause, the fi nest drug known to man. At 22, I had success. I couldn’t get a date to the prom in high school, but once I had a hit record, I had the most beautiful women in the world trying to break into my hotel room. Once you’re a star, your whole camp revolves around you, and you’re constantly reinforced that this can go on forever, when in reality it can’t—especially if you have a legal battle with your manager/producer/lawyer like I did. My autobiography talks about my struggle to remove myself from the image of being a created star, as opposed to coming by it honestly, as a singer/songwriter/artist, which most of my peers were. I had to spend the rest of my career trying to prove it, at least to myself. I continued to record as often as I could so I could chart my abilities, just to track my ability as an artist.

Who would you like in your rock ‘n’ roll heaven band?

BM: Ray Charles on piano, Sting on bass, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. Drums is a tough call: Earl Palmer, a great drummer who played on “Lovin’ Feelin’.” I love horn sections, so either Ray Charles’ horn section or Tower of Power. I’d like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sam Cooke, Bonnie Raitt and Jackie Wilson to sing or do background vocals.

MR: Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica. If his hands weren’t as crippled as they are now, Keith Richards on rhythm guitar—let’s say of 30 or 40 years ago. I’m pretty sure that’s all we’d need. With those two people together, with his rhythmic feeling for guitar and Williamson’s abilities on harmonica and me singing… phuff! I’d pay a fortune to hear that. I’d sing and play my little tambourine, for rhythm. Nice, uncomplicated.

What’s your desert island CD?

BM: Anybody but Bill Medley. I’d have to go back to all the stuff I loved when I was a kid. There are a million, but I’d have to go with Ray Charles.

MR: I wouldn’t have one. The whole idea is outrageous. I wouldn’t listen to anything. Instead, I would have an object that floated. I wouldn’t want to spend my time on a desert island and just listen to waves and fall in love with a soccer ball. That would drive me crazy. Where’s the debris? Where are the other survivors? What am I doing on the fucking ocean all by myself? Did I just fall out of a plane on my way to Hawaii?

Got something to say?