Bill Medley leaves Balboa Peninsula but hasn’t lost that Newport feelin’
Picture it: The fabled Rendezvous ballroom, summer of 1962, a few years before it burned to the ground. Two young guys in shiny suits from the south side of Santa Ana walk onstage.
A couple of “hodads,” or “greasers,” as the surfers called them back then. Toxic to beach girls — if you weren’t a “grimmie” (a surfer with blond hair and a balsawood board) you were so not bitchin.’ And if you were playing the Rendezvous and weren’t Dick Dale or one of his Deltones, or the Chantays or the Surfaris, you were nowhere in that room.
So here are these aliens with their greased-back hair, standing in front of 2,000 teenagers in Balboa. The band starts a pounding rhythm and Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield begin belting out the lyrics: “Talkin’ about my baby, little Latin Lupe Lu.”
The kids go nuts. They’ve never heard anything like it. Or seen anything like it. Bill and Bobby are doing their full-on rhythm and blues thing, shouting and screaming, getting down on their knees, sweating and grimacing and throwing the mics around.
The next weekend, at a little record store in Santa Ana called Gracie’s Music, 1,500 singles supplied by Moonglow Records sell out in one week. A DJ at KRLA, the biggest station in Southern California, finds out and asks for the song to be sent to the station. He uses it as background music on a local promo. The phone lines go crazy as kids start calling in, asking “What is that song playing in the background?”
And the Righteous Brothers take flight. And this is before “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Unchained Melody” and "(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.”
I was one of those kids who went to the Rendezvous every chance I got in the ‘60s. I wasn’t there, though, on that magic night when the Righteous Brothers brought down the house and launched toward the stratosphere.
But I was at the Coconut Grove five years later to hear them just months before they broke up. It was one of those moments when time stands still and everything is about being or wishing you were in love. And the music becomes part of your emotional life forever.
I sat down with Medley on a rainy afternoon in April to reminisce and get caught up in his bayfront home at Balboa Peninsula Point in Newport Beach as he prepared to move to a house closer to John Wayne Airport. That would, in effect, put him closer to Branson, Mo., where he’s a fixture as a performer and where he spends about six months out of the year.
Q: This must be a poignant moment in your life, leaving the Point after nearly 40 years. What does it feel like?
Medley: It’s a drag. I mean, once you come out here on the Point, it just gets quieter and quieter and more relaxed. It’s paradise. And it was always my dream to live here. So it’s a real drag to leave. But I’m almost 75, and we have a big home in Branson on 20 acres. And that town just kinda feels like old Orange County to me because there’re only 6,000 to 7,000 permanent residents there, even though thousands visit.
Q: What is it about the ocean here that’s so special to you?
Medley: I’m a pretty spiritual guy, and when you go out on this beach and stare out at that ocean, all you see is God. The bay is great too, don’t get me wrong. But the ocean here helped me though some rough times, like when I lost my voice in 1972 and when my first wife was murdered in 1976. [Police have not found Karen Grody’s killer, and the wound is still fresh for Medley.] I’ve lived on the bay for the last 19 years, but my walks on the beach, especially at the Wedge, that’s where I connect with God.
Q: In your memoir, “The Time of My Life,” you recount the story about losing your voice. Can you tell us about that?
Medley: Bobby and I played Vegas for years, and that’s tough on a singer’s throat. Especially for a guy like me who likes to belt it out from deep in my soul. In 1972, I could tell that I just wasn’t hittin’ it, really struggling through performances. My throat doc in Beverly Hills told me my voice was “hamburger meat” and I needed to quit singing.
I went into a deep depression. One day I had a few beers and went out to the end of the Balboa Pier and just cried and sobbed and yelled at God. I felt pretty sorry for myself. I bumped into Jack Coleman a couple of weeks later, my old high school choir teacher and a very Christian man. I was a very troubled kid back then, and Jack took me under his wing.
I told him, “I can’t sing anymore, Jack. I’m done.” And he said, “I can fix that for you.” For weeks I could hardly even whisper the voice exercises. I was convinced that I couldn’t do this — I was too lazy, too undisciplined, too stupid.
After a few months of lessons, twice a day, five days a week, my voice came back. But Jack wouldn’t take any money. He said, " God told me to heal you.” It blew my mind. God showed me how bad I wanted my voice back. Then he took away my insecurities and showed me I could do it. And no one can tell me otherwise.
Q: You’re still on the road a lot, doing concerts all over the country and around the world. How long do you plan on performing?
Medley: The reason I still love performing is that people my age, a little younger and a little older, show up to relive that thing that made them so happy all those years ago. And as long as they show up, I’ll keep on keepin’ on till I keel over.
Q: If we can resurrect the Balboa Theater, will you come back and do a benefit concert for old time’s sake?
Medley: You bet.