"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s one thing to see one of your albums achieve platinum certification, but it’s a whole different stratosphere to own the most-played song in radio history. Backed by the legendary Wrecking Crew studio band and showcasing producer Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” recording technique, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” stands alone among the classic offerings of the twentieth century. Of course, a song like this could never work without the absolutely perfect voice.
Enter Bill Medley.
One half of the legendary Righteous Brothers (along with Bobby Hatfield), the duo were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and Bill’s voice remains the gold standard for what would eventually be known as “blue-eyed soul.”
Released in 1964, BMI would ultimately rank “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as themost played song of all time. It has also received more TV exposure than any other song in the 20th century and it sits at #34 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Also boasting the Demi Moore-bothering ballad, “Unchained Melody,” Bill has won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, an American Music Award, an Oscar and Video of the Year honors. He has enjoyed a successful solo career, he has appeared in movies and television and he continues to tour to this day, most recently playing a series of dates in Australia.
We caught up with Bill shortly before his trip to wax sentimental about the golden era of rock and roll and talk about his new memoir, The Time of My Life out April 15th on Da Capo Press.
Before we start, do you remember a blue-eyed soul band called the Boogie Kings?
Are you kidding me? Those guys were awesome. Of course I remember.
My uncle played for them. He used to talk about your voice, those blues licks and the tone. You were the guy.
Well, that’s a compliment coming from the Boogie Kings. Those guys were just incredible. Yeah man, we loved the Boogie Kings as musicians and they became good friends of the Righteous Brother later on. Hell of a band.
A quote from your book: “There’s nothing about the Righteous Brothers that should have worked.” What does that mean?
We should have been the Boogie Kings! Man, we were so opposite. One guy sang high, the other low. One guy tall, one short. We were like a quartet without the two guys in the middle. If you were putting two guys together to make hit records, you wouldn’t have picked Bobby and me. But the great thing about success – and even about “Lovin’ Feeling” – is everything that made the group wrong and that song wrong, also made it commercially interesting.
You’ve played everywhere, with everybody, having top hits on the Pop, R&B and Country charts. Who were your influences?
The Righteous Brothers were purely rhythm and blues, black music. Little Richard was it for me, man. Later, it was Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King. Bobby (Hatfield) was also into do-wop music coming off street corners in the fifties. Stuff like “Earth Angel” and all of that and Bobby was just the best at it. That’s what we knew and truth is, we weren’t crazy about a lot of white music in that day. It sounds cool now but back in ‘62 it wasn’t such a great idea for two white guys that sounded black to get together. But we were just doing what we loved to do.
You and Bobby had a difficult relationship. Seems like you were trying to make peace with him through the book.
Bobby and I started out doing songs like “Little Latin Lupe Lou” and “Koko Joe”, just rock and roll rhythm and blues so the first three years was just having a good time. Going out, singing and getting paid more than we could spend and having girls hit on us that we wouldn’t have thought about before. When “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” hit we were doing a show called Shindig! and the Righteous Brothers suddenly became big business. Managers, agents, all these people we had to answer to and that really wasn’t what Bobby signed up to do. He just wanted the fun and the music. Our comfort levels were way different – I wanted to push it high as it could go but he wanted to keep it down and just have fun. He was a great singer but never comfortable on stage. Bobby became a big star by accident. There was nothing about Bobby I didn’t like… I guess I never understood why he took a left-hand turn when real success came. We got along better from 1990 until his death in 2003. I had accepted him for who he was.
What was working with Phil Spector like?
Everybody expects to hear a horror story but he was very good with Bobby and me. He worked us hard but we enjoyed our time with Phil. He brought us great songs and produced the heck out of them. Just a genius in the studio, truly a brilliant guy. I think Phil wanted the industry to think he was eccentric and weird and I guess somewhere down the line he convinced himself.
Are you talking about the murder charge?
If he would have just told the police it was a terrible accident…. Which I think it was. I’m not sticking up for Phil – I wasn’t there. I don’t have any skin in that game. But I don’t think there’s anyway Phil Spector pulled that trigger on purpose.
What year did you tour with the Beatles?
Let’s see… 64? Yeah, early 1964. We left the tour halfway through and everybody said we were stupid to leave the biggest tour in the world but we had gotten an offer to doShindig!, a national TV show and had to leave the tour in order to do that. But you know man, once we got out of California, those thirteen year old girls didn’t know or care who we were. They were screaming WE WANT THE BEATLES. While we were on! So it was a great tour and the Beatle guys all were just wonderful and fun to work with but I often referred to it as boot camp for rock and roll.
You went from tours with the Stones and Beatles to Vegas, straight in with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. What was that like?
The Vegas that we knew in the sixties literally isn’t there anymore. The buildings aren’t there, the vibe isn’t there. Still a good town but totally different. The guy who books the Sands came to see us and wanted to bring us to Vegas but said he had to get permission from Frank Sinatra. Because Frank was playing the main room while we were in the lounge and after his shows he would take his friends from Hollywood into the Sands lounge so we had to get his okay.
No pressure there….
Yeah, tell me about it. Now why he okay’d us, we don’t have a clue. We were so far from what the Rat Pack was doing – but for some reason he agreed. So Frank was in the main room with Count Basie and Quincy Jones conducting and it was one hell of an experience. We did a ten year contract with the Sands, in the lounge — but boy, it was a great lounge. Seated about five hundred. But Dean Martin and Sammy and Frank were in the main room. They would all come to the health club at five to sort of mentally prepare so we got to know all those guys.
I love Sammy Davis Jr. Tell me a Sammy story.
Sammy came into my show several times. All of his dancers would run over to see my last show after his was over. One day Sammy sat me down in the health club and – well, this is sort of a weird story….
James Brown and Ray Charles were getting really popular and Sammy had been doing the Sinatra thing but now it was becoming hip to do Ray and James. So he sat me down and said, “How do you sing that black? Because I know you’re not thinkin’ about it. It’s natural and I want to know how to do it.” Which seemed a little odd.
I guess it would be. What’d you tell him?
I said, “Geez, Sammy, I don’t know. You were raised on Sinatra, I was raised on Ray Charles. You don’t think about it, you just do it. The only thing I can tell you is, if you sing a soulful song, make it come from your heart and not your mind.”
By “health club” you mean the steam room, right? Like in the Blues Brothers scene?
Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly right. Frank Sinatra ordered us to be there. “Listen, kid, I wanna see you in the health club tomorrow at five.” And he would always ask, “How’s the reed, kid?” That’s what he called your singing voice. The reed. Like a saxophone. I had never taken a steam bath in my life. That dry desert air was hard on the voice so Frank helped us take care.
Man, you got really close to Frank.
One night I saw him put his hairpiece on.
Yeah. I kept walking, not wanting to embarrass him and he said, “Hey kid, come here.” It was a great rug, just top notch. I know there are a lot of tough stories out there about Sinatra but he was so sweet to Bobby and me. He even had us replace him one night in the main room. He didn’t get Sammy or Dean, he said, “I want the kids to do it.” Man, what an honor.
You became good friends with Elvis too.
George Klein says that Elvis had five real friends outside of his circle and I was blessed to be one of them. I spent a lot of time with Elvis in Vegas and at Graceland. I was working at the Hilton where Elvis was – and I think he got me the job once the Sands closed their lounge – but a lot of times before Elvis’ second show at midnight and between mine, he would call and ask me to come down to hang out in the dressing room. It was great because it was just me and Elvis and his hairdresser, almost every night. At first we talked about music but eventually we just connected as guys, you know, talking about the things we struggle with.
I opened up to him about how insecure I was as a kid, how I would act tough so no one would make fun of me and Elvis knew that I was a regular guy from the streets too. And so was Elvis, he was just a Southern boy. But he was surrounded by guys who worked for him. So he never experienced much of being a man out in the world. I was still out there, racing motorcycles and living life. I think Elvis envied that. It was wonderful to get to know him on that level. Elvis trusted me, I believe.
You scored a huge comeback with the theme from Dirty Dancing. But at first you didn’t care for the song and tried to pass it up.
I thought Dirty Dancing sounded like the name of a bad porno! The song was okay but nobody thought it was a hit. Jennifer (Warnes) and I did it just to work together. We didn’t think it would do anything – the song or the movie. But the movie took off and the song was in the perfect place. I love “Time of my Life” now. I get to perform it with my daughter, McKenna, who was born right about the time the song came out.
You guys are performing in Branson now, right?
Nah, we were but Branson took a hard shot when the economy dived. I think Branson is coming back though. Right now I’m just out doing one-nighters. I still love to sing, still love to perform.
Is Will Ferrell’s dad still on keys with you?
Not right now. He had a little health setback recently but I still talk to him almost every day. We hope to get him back real soon.
Before we go, give us your thoughts on the current music scene.
I like your Nashville fellow there, Vince Gill. He’s just top-notch talent. And those other boys, the Kings of Leon? I did a show with them in England. They’ve got a good sound going. There’s this Bruno Mars guy. I met him in Hawaii when was doing Elvis imitations at the age of about five or six years old. There’s a lot of old school in him. He’s got a depth that I just love. I’ve grown closer to country lately because to me, it’s closer to sixties and seventies rock and roll. Music has changed dramatically. Electronically, just so many advances. I think electronics can make a great singer better – but unfortunately it can take an average singer and make them sound good. And I kinda don’t like that. You can’t fake the emotion, brother.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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