Bill Medley was waiting backstage Monday at the Academy of Country Music awards ceremony at Knott's Berry Farm when the show's executive producer, Dick Clark, kidded him about his nomination for Top New Male Vocalist of the Year.
"He told me, 'I'm glad to see that after 25 years in the business you're being recognized as a new artist,' " Medley recalled with a chuckle, sitting the following evening in the storeroom at the back of his Fountain Valley nightclub, The Hop.
The award ultimately went to former Pure Prairie League lead singer Vince Gill. But Medley, who opens for Alabama on Sunday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, was still enthusiastic about the nomination a day after he lost in the final balloting.
"The wonderful thing is not so much that this is my first year as a country artist," said the 44-year-old singer who is best known as the deep-voiced half of the Righteous Brothers. With only a hint of gray beginning to show around the temples, Medley explained, "But it's my first year in country, and I'm coming over from pop. I live in L.A. and have been around the rock 'n' roll circuit. So the nomination was like a stamp of approval from the country music people."
For a rock performer moving into country music, Medley couldn't have asked for better exposure than the opening spot he landed on Alabama's 1985 tour. Occasionally, though, he said, he's been unnerved after singing "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" when one of the younger members of Alabama's audience compliments him on his version of "that Hall & Oates song."
Although Hall & Oates had a Top 20 hit with the song in 1980, their version pales in comparison to the Righteous Brothers' original, produced by Phil Spector and still regarded as one of the towering pop records of the mid-'60s.
"That was such a big record for us, it's strange to think that a whole generation out there might associate it with another artist," Medley said.
Even though his vocals have always contained a strong element of "blue-eyed soul," Medley said the move to country, which began with his 1984 "I Still Do" solo album for RCA, was a natural one.
"Musically speaking, I haven't made a shift at all. I'm singing the same as I did in the '60s and '70s," he said. "I think it's more of an attitude--a name change, a different label. I'm not trying to be George Jones or Waylon Jennings, it's just Bill Medley doing country songs--songs that would have been called rock 'n' roll or pop songs if I did them in 1965.
"I started singing the blues, I was raised on rock 'n' roll, I've always loved gospel, and I've been singing country for 20 years. There's a thread that goes through all of that music, and that thread is emotion. It's all music of the street. It's what Ray Charles and George Jones do."
His mention of soul music giant Ray Charles and country kingpin George Jones in the same breath should come as no surprise to those who recall the major role Charles played in opening up country music to wider audiences in the early 1960s with his pioneering "Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music" album. In recent years, Charles, who was one of Medley's biggest influences, has returned to the country charts with records such as his 1983 hit duet with Jones, "We Didn't See a Thing."
"I was saying to a guy recently that I think George Jones and Ray Charles are the best blues singers in the world," Medley said. "He said, 'Wait a minute--George Jones isn't a blues singer.' I asked him if when he heard Jones sing whether it hurt inside, and he said yes. I said, 'That's the blues.' Pain is pain, hurt is hurt and the blues is the blues."
While concentrating on his solo career, Medley and partner Bobby Hatfield, who have been performing periodically for the last three years, are cutting back on their Righteous Brothers shows. "We'll perform at The Hop, because it's our club, and maybe two or three shows out on the road during the year."
With his second album, "Still Hung Up on You," and a single, "Women in Love," released in April, Medley will debut his country act in his own club on May 29, which also is his son's 20th birthday.
Although Medley now talks of moving into the "adult section" of pop music, he doesn't disparage current teen-oriented pop and rock records. "I love a lot of the stuff in pop today," he said. "Cyndi Lauper's music is great, and her attitude is great. Boy George also has some music that is good.
"But I'm 44 years old. I can't do orange hair, and besides, all my old dresses don't fit anymore," Medley joked. "I want to do something that I can be singing for a long time, and that's country."