That Lovin' Feeling Never Really Left

Times Staff Writer

The music joints back then had odd names: the Retail Clerks Union Hall, Gold Street, John's Black Derby. And the music inside was just as different-sounding, with Dick Dale's scorching surf guitar and the Beach Boys' lush harmonies testifying to the joys of California youth -- beaches and parties and summers that never end.

Then came Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley, two white Orange County singers with voices as exquisite as teardrops, fronting a band that brought black R&B; into the heart of white suburbia. Teen-age music fans like Dave Garland knew they were witnessing something transcendent.

"They loved black soul music and they could [perform] it," said Garland, a Las Vegas musician, who first heard Hatfield and Medley's Righteous Brothers around 1963, when he was about 15. "It created a feeling and an emotion -- you could tell something was going to happen with these guys. It was obvious to everybody around."

The death Wednesday of Hatfield, who grew up in Anaheim and rode a golden tenor to the Rock 'and Roll Hall of Fame, didn't signal the end of an era so much as it summoned its beginning. The Righteous Brothers might be just another nostalgia act to today's youth -- if they know the band at all -- but for those who came of age in Orange County in the early 1960s, the passing of Hatfield reverses the hands of time.

"I don't feel like crying so much; I just feel empty," said Richard Phipps, a drummer who played with Dale's and other bands of that era in local clubs.

In Orange County, the patina of the new often obscures the past. When the Righteous Brothers began playing the local club circuit, even the landscape was different. Cities like San Juan Capistrano were villages surrounded by farms and orchards that were quickly giving way to subdivisions and strip malls. The county's population doubled from 700,000 in 1960 to 1.4 million a decade later.

The Righteous Brothers were one of the county's first musical exports, and remain the best-known despite recent successes of rock acts such as No Doubt and Social Distortion. The 1964 classic "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" is one of radio's most-played pop songs, and Medley's baritone intoning, "You never close your eyes ... " is as recognizable a song-opening as Elvis Presley's bellowing "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog."

That's what nearly 40 years of radio play will do. Before the hits, though, the Righteous Brothers were part of a local music scene that can seem quaint in retrospect but invigorating and memorable for those involved.

"It was thriving, but nobody made any money in those days," said Gary Folgner, 62, owner of the Coach House and the Galaxy concert venues, who began producing shows during the surf era. "Everything was conservative in those days ... [but] the crowds were wild because of the excitement of the music. Everybody was having fun."

Russ Patterson, a contractor and former mayor of Villa Park, was a 17-year-old high school student from Orange when he first saw Hatfield and Medley sing at the Rendezvous on Balboa Peninsula in 1962.

"It cost a dollar admission and they were there for four hours," Patterson said. "These were not concerts; they were dances, every Friday and Saturday night. The room held 1,500. We loved them."

The club had a dress code -- ties for the boys -- but that didn't deter Patterson and his surfer buddies. It was the place to be. And they didn't sense that they were witnessing music history, or were part of a transition that led to the crumbling of racial walls in pop music.

"It was just rock 'n' roll music," Patterson said. "We liked Elvis before we liked the Righteous Brothers, and we liked Little Richard. In a way, the Righteous Brothers were just white guys doing rhythm and blues. I didn't know that then."

Jim Washburn, who curated a display on local rock history at this year's Orange County Fair, said the local scene was aided by parents who, despite the county's infamous conservatism, didn't follow their peers elsewhere in recoiling at the nuances of rock 'n' roll. They caught the clean-cut sounds of groups like the Lettermen, but apparently missed the playful suggestiveness of Little Richard.

"The parents saw it as wholesome fun, but at the same time in the South there were these virulent movements to get rid of rock 'n' roll, this vicious jungle music that was threatening the morals of youth," said Washburn, 48, a columnist for OC Weekly. "Later, when they felt more threatened, they started clamping down."

Michael Mills, a graphic designer in Northern California, was a drummer in those days for Eddie & the Showmen's surf combo. For a while, they were the house band at the Retail Clerks Union Hall. The Buena Park auditorium now is reserved for union meetings and, in what could be read as cruel twist of fate, the occasional antiques show.

But on a Friday night in 1963, the hall would be packed with teens who had paid $3 to dance to live bands.

"There would be hundreds of kids at those dances," said Mills. "The place -- maybe you build up things over time -- seemed like a huge hall and it was just absolutely jammed with kids dancing. It was really something. The first time I played there with Eddie was kind of intimidating. I'd never played before that big of an audience in my life."

When the house bands were playing, Mills said, the dancing was nonstop. But when the name acts started up, the audience turned into spectators.

"It seemed like the audiences were up for whatever came along. People just listened," Mills said. "There were a lot of girls hanging around the front of the stage, and some wannabe musicians."

Mills recalled Hatfield and Medley as low-key and accessible even as they were gaining wider audiences. "They were so unpretentious," he said. "They just didn't seem to have any airs about them."

Orange County's rock scene began with the Rillera brothers -- Rick, Barry and Butch -- who formed in 1955 what is considered Orange County's first rock band. "In the beginning, the guys would struggle to even find a venue to work in," said Rick Rillera.

Within a few years the scene exploded and the Rilleras went on to play for the Righteous Brothers, Dale and other surf acts, and a wide range of national acts from Ray Charles to Engelbert Humperdinck.

The local bands were amorphous things, with different musicians sitting in as needed. On show nights, musicians in the opening local act -- bands sometimes cobbled together just for the night -- would be drafted to back up the out-of-town headliners.

"Most of the acts would just come in and play with whatever group was on stage," Folgner said. "Sort of like Chuck Berry does. He walks in with his guitar and if there's a trio on stage, he plays with them."

By 1962, the surf guitar sound was king, though the folk scene was active too, with local and national acts playing venues like the Prison of Socrates in Newport Beach. And R&B; was slowly crossing a cultural divide from the juke joints of the South and inner cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Little of it made it to radio. The music was passed along like contraband.

"A lot of records that were being played at sock hops and parties were by black entertainers," said Phipps, the former drummer who left music and is now retired from the Orange County Probation Department. "People in those days, in the underground, were listening to the black scene, the R&B;, Wolfman Jack on the one channel in Los Angeles that played black music. It was pretty political."

The Righteous Brothers helped the music cross the racial divide.

"Here came these [white] guys, who were local, playing black music," said Phipps, 58, of Costa Mesa. "And it was a pretty unique sound. Bobby sang so high -- I don't think anyone of us ever heard anyone sing that high."

Rillera, who played bass for the Righteous Brothers in the early days, recalled that the first time he heard Hatfield and Medley he was unimpressed.

"I believe it was at Balboa Island and I think we were playing with Dick [Dale] and we used to go see who the other acts were," Rillera said. "I didn't think much of them -- two white guys trying to imitate black music."

A few months later, after Hatfield and Medley began adding more of a blues feel to their sound, Rillera was part of the band that laid down the music for the single "My Babe."

It became a moment of epiphany. "I thought right then these guys were going to be huge," Rillera said. "They started their own sound, and it was really great."

Ron Eglit of Huntington Beach, who grew up in Lakewood and played bass and guitar for a range of bands, including Dale's, remembers the radical sound the Righteous Brothers brought to a music scene dominated by high-energy guitar.

"That twin harmony thing -- I was always amazed at their voices," Eglit said, adding that their sweet harmony would shift into raw intensity as Medley and Hatfield borrowed from gospel's call-and-response and built a crescendo of emotion. "The yelling back and forth -- that made them unique."

Hatfield's death at 63 stills the classic duet. But not the memories.

"It's so sad," said Mills. "The guy was young."

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