Wiggers With Attitude
Editor's Note--The following story was published shortly before the death of Bobby Hatfield was announced late Wednesday. According to the All Music Guide, "Blue-eyed soul refers to soul and R&B music performed and sung by white musicians." Today we call that wiggery. For along with the music they made, most blue-eyed soul acts tended to adopt a preposterous stance of over-the-top blackness—jiving in cartoonish ebonics to shame Al Jolson; hopping and flailing about like one of Jerry's Kids barefoot on a bed of hot coals; dressing in garish, skintight clothing that looked acutely ridiculous draping skimpy, young, white-boy buttocks.
The horror and absurdity of this wigged-out behavior was mitigated, however, by the often-great music produced in the pretense. The Rascals were certainly among the supreme American bands of the '60s; Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels forever merged soul with Motor City proto-punk; the Box Tops' Alex Chilton performed with the expressive style and assurance of a chitlin-circuit veteran; Wayne Cochran's outlandishly greasy vocals and stage show were designed to make James Brown beg for mercy. The other things most blue-eyed soul acts shared—the phenomenon that somehow made it work against all likelihood —was the fact they were reared in integrated environs, either in the rural South or inner-city North. They understood black music and culture because they grew up hearing it. They didn't approach the music as sociology; they had R&B and its culture brain-ingrained from early childhood.
So what to make of the Righteous Brothers, the team most frequently held up as the paragons of blue-eyed soul, the entity for which—it's speculated—the very term was coined? At their best, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield roared like a two-man Watts riot. Medley's expansive baritone complemented Hatfield's frenetic falsetto like red beans and rice. Significantly, they didn't deign to wig-posturing on the path to creating records that, at their best, approached the grandeur of Ray Charles. Maybe that's because this peckerwood pairing emerged in the unlikeliest district imaginable: right here in OC, a region already famous for its high concentrations of right-thinking, loafer-wearing Goldwater backers (Medley was from Santa Ana, while Hatfield hailed from Anaheim). While other contemporaneous local acts such as Dick Dale, the Surfaris and the Chantays busied themselves creating surf rock and spawning dewd culture, the Bros. were covering Charles, Jerry Butler and Etta James to grand effect—when Medley wasn't composing soul rave-ups such as "Little Latin Lupe Lu" and "My Babe" that have gone on to achieve status as rock & roll standards.
In the early '60s, the Bros. recorded a trio of shrieking soul albums for the small Moonglow label that, while largely forgotten today, features their most exhilarating work. Listening to this stuff, it's nigh inconceivable that the horn-driven aural chaos assaulting your ears emanated from a pair of pallid, suburban dorks who resembled Abraham Lincoln and Tab Hunter. Then came the fateful encounter with fame in the form of berproducer Phil Spector, and with it, the 1964 smash hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." The syrupy ballad features some of Spector's preeminent work and ranks among the Top 10 Most Overplayed Singles of All Time on oldies radio. But this is not prime Bros., despite the fact it's the song they'll always be most associated with. There were lesser Spector-produced hits (notably, "Unchained Melody" and "Ebb Tide"), but the Bros. soon grew weary of the famous Spectorian insanity; artists and producer parted ways.
Medley, who'd produced their early records and was no slouch behind the board himself, helmed a "Lovin' Feeling" sound-alike single in 1965 with "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration." Its success was probably the catalyst for extra-brutal Spector beatings of long-suffering wife Ronnie, but the Bros. laughed all the way to the bank as it reached No. 1 on the charts. It would be another nine long years before they reached similar heights with 1974's "Rock & Roll Heaven," a deeply embarrassing ode to dead rock stars that climbed to No. 3. This was the nadir of an otherwise Righteous career; once inhaled, the stench from this hellish wedge of cheese is exceedingly difficult to clear from the nostrils. I must torment you with a stanza:
Jimi gave us rainbows, And Janis took a piece of our hearts, And Otis brought us all to the dock of the bay. Sing a song to light my fire, Remember Jim that way. They've all found another place, Another place to play.
This marked the end of our heroes' run as a viable act—for which they should be thankful, as they'd surely only have continued to humiliate themselves with further commercial triumph. The Bros. were immediately consigned to the oldies circuit, where they've lingered ever since, although Medley has pursued a modestly successful solo career as an adult-contemporary crooner from whom Michael Bolton seems to have drawn much of his own soul and inspiration (Medley and Bolton sport two of the most hideously gargantuan Adam's apples in show biz, perhaps accounting for their vocal similarities; however, Medley remains slightly less repulsive to behold than his disciple, despite spotting him 13 years in age).
Blue-eyed soul didn't die out as the Bros. faded into the sunset; it had a brief resurgence during the '80s in the hands of such talented-but-wussified singers as Mick Hucknall, Michael McDonald, Paul Carrack, and Hall & Oates. Somewhere out there, Wayne Cochran is cringing in horror. One could even argue the studied wiggerdom of blue-eyed soul endures to this day in the hands of rappers (wappers?) such as Eminem and Kid Rock, whose desperate run from their Caucasian origins accounts for a large measure of their celebrity. Thankfully, this malady never afflicted our own Righteous Brothers, who as far as I know uttered nary a "yo, wassup" in their entire 40 years on the scene.
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