Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to sit down with music legend Bill Medley in Las Vegas. Last year, Bill brought The Righteous Brothers back to Vegas at the Harrahs Hotel & Casino on the famous strip with singer Bucky Heard, who stepped in for the late Bobby Hatfield, who passed away in 2003.
Back stage at Harrahs, we spoke about the old Vegas, being friends and working with Elvis, bringing the new Righteous Brothers to town, and of course working on the soundtrack for the movie Dirty Dancing, which celebrates its 30th birthday today.
What are the origins of this current show here in Las Vegas and the ‘new’ Righteous Brothers?
Well, Bobby has been gone for thirteen years and I did get a lot of letters saying, ‘come on, keep it going’ and this and that, and I had one of my dear friends pushing me hard and then Harrah’s called me and said we want you to work here. I said, well, I’m thinking about doing The Righteous Brothers thing. I have a home in Branson, Missouri where I used to do some work, and Bucky Heard is from Branson and I’ve known him for thirteen, fourteen years, and I went in to see him because he was doing a, not a tribute, but doing a show that had a lot of Journey songs in it. I though wow – this guy is really good, so that was when it dawned on me [to bring him on board]. We’d been good friends and we get along great and that was probably as important as him being a great singer. We just put everything together and it has just been unbelievably smooth and good. It just works.
Did you take it on the road first or was Vegas the first place you staged the new show?
Actually, there’s a place about an hour from here called Laughlin, Nevada and I figured, well, we can go to Laughlin and break the show in because you can die there and nobody will know it. The showroom seats about 700-800 people and this was going to be the first time we’d walk on stage together. We purposely didn’t plan a lot of stuff. We knew the songs and all that, but the dialogue we wanted to grow organically. I came downstairs and said, well, ‘how are we doing out in the crowd?’ They said, Bill, we’ve sold out. I said, ‘oh God.’ So, we walked right into the propeller and had no time to break it in but [Bucky] is so good and I’ve been doing this a hundred years and it just worked and I had two questions in my mind – is the audience going to care that there’s a new Righteous Brothers, and are they going to accept Bucky? The one question was answered right away because we were there five days and all five days were sold out. After Bucky did Cryin’ by Roy Orbison, and I walked back on stage he was getting standing ovations and so, that was the first night and we were off and running.
How different an experience is it with a Las Vegas audience?
It’s a little scarier because Vegas, you kind of just don’t know what they are going to accept or not accept. I’ve been working here ever since 1965, at the Sands Hotel, Bobby and I, but this has been great. One of my good friends Tom Jenkin, who is like the head of Caesars world, and Caesars owns Harrah’s – he kind of asked me to do this, and I was like, ‘we’ll try it.’ You just don’t know in this business, and whenever you think that [the public] are going to love this – nope. Then, you think they’re not going to like it and [they do]. So, we just show up, and they show up and this has been our second year, so we’re pretty confident that we’re in a good place now.
It felt like a Saturday night during the performance this evening, but it’s a Tuesday at 6pm. The crowd were electric and the atmosphere was amazing.
I thought that maybe we didn’t want to do this because they wanted us to do a 6 o’clock show on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on the third floor. It had everything going against it, but it turns out that Righteous Brothers fans are of a certain age and 6 o’clock is not a bad deal.
And how has Vegas changed over the fifty years since you first performed here?
Well, I say this in interviews all the time – it hasn’t changed at all. It’s not here. The old Vegas has gone. It’s gone. But, Vegas is Vegas, but it’s not the Vegas that I knew and grew up around. Frank Sinatra brought us to the Sands Hotel in ’65 and believe me, that was a whole different deal. I’m sure younger kids feel like I did when I was here because they don’t know the old Vegas. The old Vegas was just magical. Now Vegas is magical in a different way – it’s just so over the top. I live about four hours from here, so I drive in on a Tuesday morning and we drive back Thursday after the show, so I’m home four days and I’m here three days.
What’s your biggest memory of your career here in Las Vegas? What’s the one moment that comes back to you?
Obviously, there are several of them, but The Righteous Brothers broke up in ’68 for about six years, and I was on my own. Elvis Presley was a real good friend and he was a big Righteous Brothers fan from the beginning – ’62, ’63. So, my contract ran out at the Sands and they were closing down the room I was working. Elvis had just started up over at the Hilton, the International Hilton, and I think he heard that my contract was up, so all of a sudden I think Elvis said ‘I want Medley over here in the lounge.’ So, just getting to really know Elvis as Elvis because we got to spend a lot of one-on-one time, and he walked on stage while I was performing a couple of times, so that was kind of magical. But the whole town over fifty-some years has been a magical ride.
We have the thirtieth anniversary of Dirty Dancing this year, and you massively contributed to that iconic soundtrack. What are your memories on working on I’ve Had The Time Of My Life?
My wife was expecting my daughter, McKenna, and I got a phone call saying ‘listen, we’re doing this movie and you have got to sing this song, but they want me to go from California to New York. I said, ‘I can’t do it. I promised my wife that I would be here.’ I said, ‘what’s the name of the movie?’ They said, ‘it’s Dirty Dancing’. I said ‘that sounds like a bad porno!’ I said, ‘well, who’s in it?’ They said Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. I said, ‘well who’s that?’ I had just finished a song for a Sylvester Stallone movie with Gladys Knight, so I’m thinking on the phone… ‘Dirty Dancing? Do you know who I am? Do you know who I think I am?’ [laughs].
I turned it down for three months and my wife Paula had McKenna, and they called – they were really good about staying on me, because they were determined that [my] voice was the one for Patrick Swayze – and they said that Jennifer Warnes wants to sing it with you. I thought that it would be fun to sing with Jennifer. She just did the song with Joe Cocker (Up Where We Belong from An Office and a Gentleman). Me and Joe are both kind of rough singers and she’s so beautiful and has got a beautiful voice and so we did the song, just to work with each other. We didn’t think it was a hit. This little movie certainly wasn’t going to be a hit – and everything just exploded. There again, is no rhyme or reason. First off, it is great movie, a really great movie, kind of like Rocky – just a really soulful movie and so was thins and so, thank God, it hit and I think the album sold 32 million copies and the single was number one all over the world at the same time. That’s pretty amazing.
Bill Medley and The Righteous Brothers return to Harrahs, Las Vegas for performances on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from September 5th.