By Sarah Bennett
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Illustration by Kathryn HyattIn the final days of his life, one of the things Bobby Hatfield was thinking about, at least in passing, was the OC Weekly. Back in the June 20 issue, the cover story was "The 129 Greatest OC Bands Ever," in which Hatfield and Bill Medley's Righteous Brothers were listed dead last, and some uncharitable things were said about them.
This had apparently not been forgotten by Hatfield when his longtime friend Greg Topper mailed him a piece we'd done on Topper recently. On Nov. 6, the day after Hatfield died, Topper's mailbox had this response from him:
"Tops, very cool. Somewhat cooler than the print those lowlife cocksuckers gave us in their 'list.'"
"That was the last thing I ever heard from him," Topper said. "I think that list thing was a real slap in the face to them and was unwarranted. I don't think the Weekly should just do roses-and-lollipops articles on people, but when you treat people like that it only comes off as mean-spirited and reflects poorly on the paper."
I agree. I don't know who wrote the piece, and it doesn't matter to me, since I know I've been at least as guilty of meanness at times while writing. (I should point out that the Weekly has also written largely laudatory pieces on the Bros, including one right before Hatfield's death, in which Buddy Seigal wrote, "At their best, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield roared like a two-man Watts riot.")
I once slagged off Steve Goodman in a review, mocking his "perennial opening act" status. What I didn't know was that he'd risen from his sickbed to do that show as a favor to the promoter when another act cancelled at the last minute. Goodman was in pain, dying of leukemia, was soon dead, and my review was the last one he ever got.
People can drop dead at any time, and that's no reason to gild their talents. But it should make us more cognizant of what we write, and whether we do it to be truthful or because being snide might make you look cool. Again speaking from personal experience, being a rock critic is a pretty unhip job, and there's a tendency to want to seem hipper by dumping on other people, or at least distancing yourself from things that may be even less hip than you.
K-Earth-style oldies radio is a hellishly unhip format that would have you believe that our musical history consists of the same 100 songs repeated endlessly. It's not the Righteous Brothers' fault their songs made that playlist, but maybe it makes it harder for some to learn or recall how exciting the duo sounded coming out of a transistor radio in 1963.
Whether they were thrilling or saccharine is a matter of personal taste, but the dominant theme of the "129 Bands" piece on them was simply untrue. It said Medley and Hatfield "should thank Jim Crow every day for being the benefactors of the reverse affirmative action that governs American popular song . . . the only reason the duo ever achieved national exposure was that they were two white boys that made throaty Negro crooning palatable to Johnsonian America."
Jim Crow wasn't much of a factor by the early 1960s. In 1959, half of the Top 10 singles in America were by black artists. The only thing keeping Motown from ruling the charts in the '60s were the British Invasion acts, nearly all of whom were at least as blatantly influenced by black R&B as the Righteous Brothers were. When the duo started in 1962, Ray Charles was so much cooler than anything else around that you'd pretty much have to be a racist notto want to sing like him. There are few popular music artists of the last half-century who weren't profoundly influenced by black music—and most of the exceptions sucked—so why dump on the Righteous Brothers?
Black Marines stationed in OC were some of their earliest fans. They were the only white act allowed onto the otherwise all-black roster of Philles Records. Their records sold to black audiences: "Unchained Melody" went higher on the R&B chart than it did on the pop chart. How Jim Crow was that? Their success might rather have had something to do with the fact that the Righteous Brothers sang their asses off. They always gave credit to the artists who influenced them, and Ray Charles thought they were so hip that he'd steal their musicians.
If there was anyone in the world who might have had a reason to feel whited-out by the Righteous Brothers, it was the pioneering LA R&B duo Don and Dewey, upon whom Hatfield and Medley modeled much of their early sound and whose records they covered. Don and Dewey made great records, but they never made it into K-Earth's tiny world, and like most musicians, white and black, they never received the recognition that was their due. But whenever I spoke with Dewey Terry, and that was on many occasions, he never had anything but praise and affection for Hatfield and Medley.
Terry also passed away this year. If we all go somewhere when we die, I hope he and Hatfield are up there laughing about the lowlife cocksuckers they crossed paths with when they were down here.