Bobby Hatfield had soul, inspiration

Righteous Brothers loses its tenor half

Appreciation

November 07, 2003|By Ben Wener | Ben Wener,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Ohhhh, my love, my darling ... "

No doubt you now will fill in the rest. It's one of the most recognizable openings from one of the most recognizable and romantic songs in pop history - the kind that helps conceive generations.

Bobby Hatfield, the tenor half of the Righteous Brothers, sang that song, "Unchained Melody." Right - lots of people have sung that one. Elvis sang it. But not like Bobby Hatfield.

It's billed as a Righteous Brothers song, and it was written by two guys named North and Zaret in 1955.

But it's Bobby Hatfield's song.

Hatfield - who died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday in Kalamazoo, Mich., at the age of 63 - sang lots of others with Bill Medley as the Righteous Brothers. "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration." "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," the most-played single ever on American radio, is probably more recognizable and remarkable than "Unchained Melody," and with a more intense Hatfield climax.

There weren't as many monumental singles like those in the Righteous Brothers' history as you might think. There were lots more good-to-great ones like 'em, however, not to mention the original version of a ditty called "Little Latin Lupe Lu" that went on to become a garage-rock staple.

But more important than their lasting quality is what their music forms as a whole - the fundamentals of blue-eyed soul.

That's an often misunderstood concept, which most of the time is misapplied to white artists with half the talent or variety of those who deserve the distinction. A few post-Hatfield examples: Hall & Oates - blue-eyed soul. "Sara Smile" and "She's Gone" alone rank with the best of the Temps and the Tops.

George Michael - blue-eyed soul, for his era. Rick Astley, British singer of "Never Gonna Give You Up" - tries to be blue-eyed soul. But he just doesn't have enough dynamic abilities to truly earn the badge.

Not when you compare his brand of pop-soul to the Righteous Brothers' benchmark and, specifically, Hatfield's unreal vocal work.

Take your mind back to those classic singles that still outclass today's attempts at the same. Take away all of the Wall of Sound production work so you just hear Hatfield's heart-wrenching, soul-lifting voice.

It's amazing on two levels. One, it simply is - the Righteous Brothers may not have been the first blue-eyed soul singers, but they are by far the best.

Two, it was proof: At a time (a racially tense time, mind

you) when the greatest male singers of the day could form a parade of charismatic black men with incredible voices belting and cooing pure, pure soul, Bobby Hatfield was just about the only white man on the planet with enough talent to be ranked alongside them.

He's half of the key to why the Righteous Brothers were aptly named.

Rightly so, they are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted last March. But they are counted among legends for what they symbolize more than for career longevity, as their most vital years were few, roughly from their start in 1962 to just before the Summer of Love changed rock and soul forever.

After splitting up for an unsuccessful time, they reunited in '74 for a smash single, "Rock and Roll Heaven," paying tribute - beautifully or in an overly maudlin way, depending on your taste - to many of rock's heroes and heroines who had died since the sound's inception.

It went to No. 3. The Righteous Brothers wouldn't have another hit for 16 years, when the Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze movie Ghost would resurrect Hatfield's immortal rendition of "Unchained Melody."

In the meantime, the duo slipped into the nostalgia circuit. They remained a popular attraction, though clearly age had taken some toll on Hatfield's voice.

Hatfield died in a hotel room shortly before he and Medley were scheduled to perform at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo. The concert was canceled.

Hatfield will be missed. To say goodbye, I'll refrain from closing with a "Rock and Roll Heaven" reference. I prefer this:

"Baby baby baby BABY I'm begging you please please ... "

I'll let you fill in the rest.

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