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Righteous Brother Bill Medley, at 80, has seen it all — just this year

Updated September 18, 2020 - 6:17 pm

On the song “This Will Be The Last Time,” Bill Medley sings of the last time he’ll face the blues.

“This’ll be the last time, that I’ll ever, ever have the blues. I’ve got nothin’, nothin’ left to lose.”

The tune is not a wondrous Righteous Brothers hit. It’s not a song that won an Oscar. It’s a somewhat obscure solo effort, powered by Medley’s growling baritone. He performed the song memorably three years ago, to a rapt audience at Myron’s Cabaret Jazz. The tune still in the Righteous Brothers stage show with Bucky Heard at Harrah’s Showroom.

The last time for the blues. When will that be, for Bill Medley? He has wondered himself throughout the pandemic shutdown, and as he turns 80 on Saturday.

Those who hit such milestones usually say age is just a number. Medley doesn’t always agree.

“It’s not just a number,” he says, chuckling during a “PodKats!” interview at his suite at his buddy Michael Gaughan’s South Point hotel-casino.” It’s 80.”

What does it feel like, now that he’s there? Medley pauses.

“Ah, you know what? They’re actually right,” he says. “If this year didn’t happen, if this corona thing didn’t happen, I would swear I was 33.”

Seventeen years after losing his original Righteous Brother, Bobby Hatfield, Medley’s passion for life and zeal for performing remain intact. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer maintains his upbeat and positive demeanor, despite the lingering shutdown and some daunting challenges in a year filled with such.

In late May, Medley underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his throat, a scalpel invading a couple of inches from the instrument that has made him a rock ‘n’ roll legend.

On June 8, Medley lost his wife, Paula, after a five-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. The two had been married 35 years.

Usually, Medley’s therapy in recovering from such real-life episodes is to simply sing through it, at Harrah’s and on the road. His method has been to sing the blues, as to recover from them.

But Medley has been out of work for the longest period since he’s been a full-time performer, covering 60 years, discounting a semi-retirement from the music business in the mid-1970s.

“I’m like every other performer, probably going a little nuts, not working,” Medley says. “I’ve had a couple of setbacks. But other than my wife passing a way, it would all be OK if I could go to work.”

Medley’s vocal concerns likely would have pulled him from the stage anyway, at least for a few weeks. In the spring he felt “something was weird” with his voice.” His physicians detected a growth that looked like a tonsil growing back. It turned out to be a cancerous tumor.

“So they went in, through my throat, and took that out and they cut literally a 3- to 4-inch gap in my throat to get some lymph nodes to find out if it spread,” Medley says. “But it wasn’t on my chords or anything, and I am cancer free now.”

Medley is actually able to sing higher than he has in years. His vocal coach has coaxed him up to a high C. “Who needs to go up there?” the classic baritone says. “I pay Bucky to go up there.”

Less than three weeks later, Medley’s wife, Paula, lost her battle with Parkinson’s at the family’s home in Nashville. Medley felt he had prepared emotionally for Paula’s passing, but it hit him hard, and fast.

“It was an ass-kicking for me,” he says. “I obviously had thought about it, and thought … this will sound really crappy, but I thought, well in some ways she’ll get what she wanted, and I’ll be free to go anywhere, do anything. But boy, the minute she passed away that just left my mind.

“I mean, she was such a huge partner in my life, and you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Paula had made it clear to her husband she was ready to leave this life.

“Oh, absolutely. She said, ‘I want to go home. I want to go have dinner with my dad,’” Medley says, shaking his head. “I knew what that meant, you know, because she would keep asking me, ‘Why is this happening to me? What did I do?’ and that’s a really interesting question to watch this happen to somebody who was a wonderful lady, a wonderful lady. It just seemed cruel to me. I’m a spiritual guy. I’m not blaming God or anybody, but it just felt cruel to me.”

Medley and Heard, today’s Righteous Brothers, have been working this month, virtually, in a four-week series of streaming shows out of The Space. The next is 6 p.m. Tuesday. Such celeb friends as Paul Shaffer, John Stamos, Brad Garrett and Tony Orlando have joined the duo in a Zoom format. Mike Love of the Beach Boys is set to join the show at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Heard has been in the act since 2015, when Medley discovered him in “Legends in Concert” in Branson, Mo. Heard was half of another “brothers” act, the Blues Brothers, and also sang in a Journey tribute band. When Medley heard that, he took in Heard’s rock show, feeling he’d fail because he never heard him really sing.

Heard instead blew him away, and the Righteous Brothers have been resurrected.

“When Bill came backstage, I just reacted by getting up from my chair, like if you were in the military and a colonel walks in, you stand at attention,” Heard says. “I look over and see him onstage and I still can’t believe I am singing with him. But he is a real dude, a really great man. Once you’ve been around Bill, you kind of fall in love with him, because he is Bill.”

In the Space series, the two have pre-recorded the such highlighted in the Harrah’s show as, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Soul and Inspiration”, “Rock and Roll Heaven” and “Unchained Melody.” Medley also duets with his daughter, McKenna, on “(I’ve Had” The Time of My Life”), the monster hit and Academy Award-winning song from “Dirty Dancing.

Medley has stories for days, of course. He and Hatfield opened for The Beatles on their first U.S. Tour in 1964. Medley, who has a reliably sharp sense of humor, often says, “It was amazing to walk out on stage to 15,000 people screaming at you, ‘We want the Beatles!’ ”

He also recalls, “We found out later that a lot of our albums were being played all these groups like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles were listening to our albums, they were kind of garage bands. I think we got paid $750 a week, and we split that.”

Medley became friends with Elvis in his days at the International and Las Vegas Hilton. The two shared a love for motorcycles, which Medley had raced as a kid in Orange County. Presley also covered “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Unchained Melody” in his Vegas days.

“Elvis was great once you got to him,” Medley says. “It’s like so many of us in entertainment, we’re good people once you are one-on-one. Elvis was like that.”

The Righteous Brothers were the first rock ‘n’ roll act to headline the Sands, in 1965. The duo held residency in the lounge.

“We had to be approved by Frank Sinatra, because he had to host people at the hotel,” Medley says. “He liked the Righteous Brothers, so we got to know all the Rat Pack guys in those days.”

Medley lost Hatfield in 2003, during the first night of a tour in Kalamazoo, Mich. His was a peaceful, if random, passing.

“They went in and they found Bobby on his bed, obviously he didn’t go through any pain, he was laying there with the clicker still in his hand and the TV was on,” Medley says. “We obviously had to cancel the show, and I brought the band back to the hotel.”

There, Medley held court in a banquet room. “I bought everybody dinner and we just sat there and told war stories about Bobby, and it was really good to do because we got to laugh a lot. Bobby was an incredibly funny guy and had an incredible sense of humor.”

Medley grins at the retelling. He offers the very beginnings of the Righteous Brothers, near the duo’s hometown of Santa Ana, Calif.

“Bobby and I knew a lot of the Marines at El Toro Marine Base, a lot of the Black Marines heard there were these two white guys down at the nightclub signing rhythm and blues and so they started coming down and they really loved it,” he says. “They couldn’t believe that we were white. But, if you had a really nice car they might just say, ‘Boy that is a righteous looking car. If they liked you as a friend, it was ‘brother.’

“Somehow, it caught on, and Bobby said, ‘Let’s just call ourselves what the Marines have been calling us.’ ”

And at age 80, ready to sing again, the founding member is forever righteous.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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