Times Staff Writer

Since his days as a rock 'n' roll star in the '60s with the Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley has just been a mildly popular solo singer. And, he admitted over a few beers in a cocktail lounge the other day, he misses being a big star:

"You get away from it for a while and soon being a big-time star is sort of a distant memory. You learn to live without it. It's not that big a deal anymore.

"But then you get a hit. All of a sudden you're getting the hot-star treatment again. You think to yourself, 'I can be on top again.' Then you can feel it, you smell it, you want it--bad. It's like a hungry animal seeing a rabbit walking right in front of him. You can almost taste it."

A tall, affable man with an incredibly deep voice, Medley is savoring fame again these days because of a hit duet single, "(I've Had) the Time of My Life," with Jennifer Warnes, from the sound track of the popular movie "Dirty Dancing." The single is No. 12 on the Billboard magazine pop chart and the sound-track album is No. 4.

What's strange about Medley's situation is that though he's about to have a Top 10 single, he doesn't have a record contract. But he's fielding offers. RCA Records, he confided, has the inside track because the sound-track album is on that label and because his most recent contract was with RCA's country division in 1985.

Hungry for a hit, he tried country music for a while. Though his soulful bass voice and hard-core R&B; style seemed out of place in country, he was mildly successful at it until he was squeezed out by the trend toward traditionalism.

Medley hasn't been a force on the pop scene since 1974, when the Righteous Brothers--Medley and Bobby Hatfield--had their last hit, "Rock and Roll Heaven." In the '60s they helped define blue-eyed soul with singles such as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Unchained Melody" and "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration." They also helped popularize producer Phil Spector's grandiose "wall of sound" style.

Hatfield and Medley first split up in 1968 because their career had gone sour in the acid-rock era. They've been off-again, on-again ever since. For the last few years they have been working together. Not only are they partners in two Orange County '50s-style rock clubs called the Hop, but they've been touring this year to commemorate the Righteous Brothers' 25th anniversary.

Medley and Hatfield, soul-music fanatics from the Santa Ana area, first teamed up in 1962. As a teen-ager in the '50s, Medley had started listening to R&B; on black radio stations.

"When I first heard Little Richard singing, I went crazy," he recalled. "How could you get better than that? I was listening to Fats Domino and B. B. King and Chuck Berry. That music set me on fire. I bought those records and listened to them for hours and I'd sing along with them. That's how I learned to sing. That's why I'm a white man who sings like a black man."

When Jimmy Ienner, executive producer of the "Dirty Dancing" sound track, first offered him a chance to sing "The Time of My Life," Medley turned him down.

"I was doing the Righteous Brothers' anniversary tour and my wife was getting ready to have a baby," Medley recalled. "Also, the memory of that 'Cobra' thing was still fresh in my mind."

That "Cobra" thing was the single he recorded with Gladys Knight last year, "Lovin' on Borrowed Time"--the title song from the Sylvester Stallone film "Cobra." The picture went down the drain, followed closely by the single.

"I thought a Stallone movie couldn't miss," Medley said. "With a hit movie, the title song has a real good shot to make it. When the movie flopped and the single flopped, that took the heart out of me. I wasn't that eager to do another sound-track song, especially for a small movie with an unknown cast. Odds were against this movie becoming a hit."

But Ienner badgered Medley until he finally agreed to record the single with Warnes. "He told me I was the only one he could hear singing that song," Medley said. "We went back and forth over this for two months. He wouldn't take no for an answer. But after a while I wasn't as nervous about my wife's pregnancy and I liked the fact that he'd hired Jennifer Warnes to sing with me. So I finally agreed.

"I really owe Jimmy. He talked me into doing something that turned out to be a turning point in my career. If somebody else had recorded the song with Jennifer and it had been a big hit like it is now, I would probably have gone to the nearest bridge and jumped off."

Medley isn't just thankful to have a hit single. He's happy to even have a singing voice. In 1974, it mysteriously vanished and didn't return to normal until more than 10 years later.

"I couldn't sing for two years," he recalled with a shudder. "I was told I would never sing again. I'd try to sing and hardly anything would come out. At first my voice was about 10% of what it should be. But after a long time, it got to 60%--which was good enough to get me by. But I knew I wasn't as good as I could be.

"Man, it broke my heart not to be able to sing right. All I am is a singer. Without that, I don't have an identity. The problem was as much psychological as physical. I went to a shrink for help. And I was taking vocal lessons for two hours a day for a long time. What happened to me was due to a lot of things--nervous tension, depression, frustration about career, family and money."

Part of the problem was the stress of being a single parent to his son, now 22, by his ex-wife, who died in 1976. "When he was a teen-ager, he was driving me crazy," Medley recalled. "I thought I was going to wind up on the funny farm."

Part of the cure has been the emotional security provided by his second wife and their 8-month-old daughter, and the financial security resulting from the success of his nightclubs.

In the last two years his voice has gone back to normal. "I'm 100% again," he said proudly. "I can sing as well as I could years ago. Can you imagine losing an arm and having it mysteriously grow back? That's what it feels like to have my voice back."

LIVE ACTION: Tickets for Def Leppard's Nov. 22 show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena are now on sale. . . . Barry Manilow will star in seven shows--Dec. 25-27, 29-30 and Jan. 2-3--at the Pantages Theatre; tickets available Monday. . . . Tickets also go on sale today for Depeche Mode's Forum show Dec. 4. . . . Manhattan Transfer has five shows at Universal Amphitheater, Dec. 26-27 and 29-31; tickets on sale Sunday.

Also coming to Universal Amphitheatre: Public Image Ltd. (Dec. 3), X (Dec. 11) and Atlantic Starr with LeVert (Dec. 12). . . . Tickets go on sale Monday for two Wiltern Theatre shows: Joe Cocker on Nov. 23 and Dwight Yoakam on Nov. 28. . . . Stacey Q stars in a Halloween concert at Pico Rivera Sports Arena.

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