In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I write about one of the most dramatic and influential hits of the early 1960s—the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'. The song was written in the summer of 1964 by Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann and Phil Spector, and the single remains one of the finest examples of Spector's "Wall of Sound" productions. Thanks to the lead vocal of Righteous Brother Bill Medley (and backup by the late Bobby Hatfield), it's also one of the first grownup, sensitive-male songs of the era—marking the end of the teen-idol years. [Pictured at top: Bill Medley]
The term "wall of sound" was first used by writers in the early '50s to describe the impact of Stan Kenton's band—the shattering blast of brass the orchestra delivered in concert. But in Spector's case, the term was coined by Andrew Loog Oldham [pictured], the stylish British publicist and Rolling Stones manager and producer who was hired to build buzz for the Righteous Brothers' hit in the U.K. prior to its release there.
But Oldham in 1964 faced a problem. According to Mark Ribowsky's book, He's a Rebel: Phil Spector: Rock 'n' Roll's Legendary Producer, Cilla Black had rushed out a cover of You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' in Britain before the Righteous Brothers' single was imported there.
Oldham defiantly took out large print ads to hard-tout the Righteous Brothers' soon-to-arrive hit. Some of his ads called the song and Spector's production approach "Tomorrow's Music Today" while another said the song delivered a "Wall of Sound." From there, the term was picked up by writers in the U.K. and the U.S. to describe Spector's signature studio approach.
In essence, Spector's "Wall of Sound" was a recording technique that featured the overdubbing of multiple tracks of instrumentals and vocals to create an enormous and dramatic backdrop for the featured singer or singers. You can hear this layered sound on early-'60s hits by the Ronettes, the Crystals and other groups.
But the sound's high point, for me, is You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' (Spector's own favorite is said to be Ike and Tina Turner's River Deep, Mountain High).
How big a deal is the sound? Very. The dense, orchestral approach to R&B began with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, when they and orchestrator Stanley Appelbaum layered-in strings to the Drifters' There Goes My Baby in 1959. Phil Spector worked for Leiber and Stoller at the time. When Spector left, he developed his own "big sound" by overdubbing tracks. [Pictured above: Mike Stoller, left, and Jerry Leiber at the mike]
Spector, in turn, had a big influence on Brian Wilson, whose Pet Sounds was the Beach Boys answer to the Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965). Pet Sounds led to Smile, the aborted Beach Boys project in 1966-67 that was only recently issued. In 1967, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's, which is really an adaptation of Spector's layered approach. Spector, of course, was later called in to save Let It Be (1970) when the original didn't hold together. The Long and Winding Road is considered a "Wall of Sound" production.
At any rate, between 1961 and 1966, Spector's "Wall of Sound" would help establish him as one of the most successful pop-rock producers, with more than 20 Top 40 hits. Today, of course, Spector is serving an 18-year-to-life term in California for second degree murder. A sad story all around.
For today's Wall Street Journal article, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Weil (lyrics) and Barry Mann (music)—one of several wife-and-husband teams who toiled at New York's Brill Building during the "Teen Pan Alley" years in the early 1960s. They are as warm and as charming as can be and hugely informative about the early days of pop-rock. They also wrote Just a Little Lovin' (Early in the Morning), Kicks, On Broadway, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, Shape of Things to Come and Somewhere Out There.
I also had an opportunity to speak at length with Bill Medley [pictured], the suriving member of the Righteous Brothers (Bobby Hatfield died in 2003). Bill is as humble as can be and one of the kindest souls. He still loves the song that made him and Hatfield famous and he's still in awe of Spector's production skills.
Here's the story of You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' from Bill's vantage point as told to me during our conversation on Wednesday for my Wall Street Journal article...
"When Barry [Mann, pictured] and Phil [Spector] first auditioned You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ for me and Bobby in 1964, the song was several keys higher than how it appeared on the record. The reason we wound up lowering it was I couldn’t get that high note toward the end. By lowering the key of the entire song, it worked. At first, when Barry and Phil played it, I thought the song sounded perfect for the Everly Brothers, not us. I love the Everly Brothers, but Bobby and I were about soul.
"Up until this point, most of our songs had been pushy, fast rock and R&B. That’s how we came to be called the Righteous Brothers and so-called founders of blue-eyed soul. Black disc jockeys loved us and hipped audiences to who was singing by saying, “Here’s a hit by my blue-eyed soul brothers.” I never really liked the term, frankly. If you have soul, you have soul, no matter the color of your eyes. But it was a tribute just the same.
"A few weeks after Barry, Phil and Cynthia [Weil] played it for us, I went to Gold Star Studios [in Los Angeles] where I watched Phil record the instrumental tracks. I wish Bobby and I could have recorded live with the Wrecking Crew [studio musicians] live. But Gold Star was too small. That day, the studio was jammed to the walls with musicians. I also got to watch Phil at work.
"Phil spent hours recording tracks using different instrumental combinations. First he recorded just the rhythm track. Then he added the horns and other instruments. Then he put the strings on. The Blossoms, the backup singers, went in last, but not that day. They were added after Bobby and I recorded the vocals about a week later. [Pictured above: Larry Levine, left, Phil Spector, middle; photo by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]
"Phil had a two- or three-track recorder. On the You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ session, he had three pianists playing at once—one on an electric piano, one on an acoustic piano and one on a tack piano. What was amazing is that he’d mix them live. In other words, as they played, Phil adjusted the levels differently on each piano, and the resulting live-to-tape sound came across like a synthesizer.
"Once he had that, he recorded three or four guitars—all playing the same figure. There was a chime in there—what we commonly call bells—and perhaps a big triangle. There were two basses, drums and a percussionist who played four different instruments at once—bongos, vibes, tambourine and a shaker. He was brilliant. He did of that all live, no overdubbing.
"Throughout the instrumental recording, Phil stayed in the engineer’s booth with [engineer] Larry Levine. He rarely went into the studio where the Wrecking Crew musicians were. He’d tell them over the monitor speaker what he wanted. But the Wrecking Crew knew exactly what to do based on his direction.
"Phil might have come out to show what he wanted on the piano or guitar, but then he went right back into the booth. He knew exactly what he wanted to hear, and those musicians were the best in the world. They were so inventive and intuitive. They’d just sit and wait patiently until Phil told them what he wanted and they’d hit it perfectly. [Photo above by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]
"I remember that Barney Kessel was one of the guitarists, and during the chorus played the melody to El Paso [recorded by Marty Robbins in 1959]. It was so cool. You can’t really hear him do it on the record because the melody line is drowned out. It’s funny, when I said to Phil, “Hey, Barney’s playing El Paso,” he said, “Nah, that’s not El Paso, that’s a phrase from a symphonic piece.” [Pictured, from left, Vince Terri, Barney Kessel and Bobby Gibbons, with Vito Mumolo playing the Gibson Barney Kessel model in February 1961; photo by Jay Timbrell]
"Glen Campbell was on guitar, too, and Leon Russell was on one of the pianos. Sonny Bono played tambourine, and the drummer was Earl Palmer [pictured]. Gene Page did the arrangement. Larry [Levine], Phil’s engineer, would just sit there and do what Phil asked. He’d have input as far as telling Phil what he could do and couldn't do technically, but it was all Phil’s show. When the instrumental tracks were in the can, Phil let the musicians go and mixed the result with reverb. Today, all of that music would have to be on 50 tracks.
"No celebrities were in the booth when Phil was recording the instrumental tracks. He wouldn’t let anyone in when he did them, to keep what he was doing a secret. That changed when Bobby and I came in to do our vocal tracks. That day, there were no musicians in the studio. All the music Phil had recorded was coming through the headphones we were wearing. But the engineer’s booth was jammed. Phil would invite everyone in town when vocals were being put down, since all the instrumental magic—the overdubbing—was already on tape. I remember two of the Rolling Stones were in the booth that day. Bobby and I were opening for them on their first American tour.
"The day Bobby and I recorded was amazing. Hearing enormous track coming through the headset even before the backup singers were on there was great and weird at the same time. I had never done anything like that, and I was down in my lower voice, which was odd for me. When I put on the headphones, the music sounded as big as Montana, with a touch of New York. It was just odd to sing against that enormous backdrop. It was like driving in England on the other side of the street.
"We did the vocal tracks over two days—four hours each day. Phil had a fascinating way of working. For example, he’d have me sing the first verse over and over again until he was happy. Then we’d move on to the next part and repeat the process. Meanwhile, he was wiping the tracks by recording over them. He didn’t keep anything. Bobby and I were young—we were 24 years old. It was a lot easier to sing than the stuff we had been singing. We still had some frustration with Phil’s process a couple of times, but what he wanted always sounded better.
"On the record, what you hear are about 20 different parts from the entire session. Phil didn’t splice. He’d overdub. When we sang something he liked, he’d keep it and we'd move on. By the bridge, he just let us be the Righteous Brothers, letting us cut loose.
"What do I think of the song? I think it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. Barry is such a great melody writer and Cynthia can say the simplest things with her lyrics and make them sound so wonderful and heartfelt and so...begging. I don’t know how she does it. The song is brilliant and stands on its own.
The production value of the record also is amazing. Too often people just listen to the melody. But listen to all the stuff that's going on in there! How Phil slowed down the tempo, added enormous track and had my voice down low with Bobby doing the chorus. It’s pure genius when you think about it. It’s a perfect record. [Pictured above: John Lennon and Phil Spector]
"Every time I’m on stage I have to sing the song. The challenge for me isn't avoiding growing tired of singing it. I don't. The challenge is how do I keep making it believable. For me, when I walk on stage, I leave the 71-year-old Bill Medley behind and the 24-year-old is up there. Truly. That’s the way I feel the minute I start that song. Then the crowd reacts and I’m back in my 20s.
"I think Phil might have been a bit miffed back then that it became a Righteous Brothers record rather than a Phil Spector record. But he told us we did a great job and said it was going to be a huge hit. He was right.
"What did Elvis Presley think of my voice on there? Elvis told me it was one of the greatest songs in the world. He was a big fan of the way I sang, which blew me away. He loved bass singers. We became friends, especially when I began working in Las Vegas. I was able to spend time with him at Graceland, too.
"The Righteous Brothers sort of replaced Frankie Avalon and Fabian and all the teen heartthrobs. We never considered ourselves good looking or handsome like those guys. We were just regular, normal guys. But unlike all those other guys, we were adults, and I think that gave our vulnerability in You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' an extra edge.
"Not many people know that when I recorded the lead vocal on the song in the summer of '64, I was singing from experience. During my childhood, I had a lot of nervous tics and twitches and was insecure about that. I wasn’t particularly a strong, tough, standup guy. I also had a reference point to channel my feelings. Two years earlier, my wife at the time of the recording—Karen—was my girlfriend and had broken up with me for about six months. I really ate it. That's the ache you hear on that song."
JazzWax note: Who was Gene Page [pictured above], the song's arranger? One of the most prolific soul and R&B orchestrators of the '60s and '70s. If you owned a radio or a record player back then, you know his work well. To learn more, go here.
JazzWax tracks: There are several excellent Phil Spector sets from Sony Legacy here, here and here. Superb Righteous Brothers collections are here and here. There's a collection of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann's music here.
JazzWax clips: What's particularly fascinating about You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' is that despite being covered dozens of times (including four that also made the Billboard Hot 100 chart), the Righteous Brothers version remains definitive and most credible.
Here's Cilla Black's version that was rushed out in the U.K. to grab market share before the Righteous Brothers version was released there...
Here are the Righteous Brothers. This is the best-sounding version I could find so you can hear all the stuff going on in the overdubbing. Ideally, you'll want to grab a remastered version, turn it up and try to figure out all of the instruments...
And here's Bill Medley (left) and Bobby Hatfield lip synching their recording on what appears to be British television...