In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s one of those all-time great opening lines: “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.” That line hints at a growing darkness, a sense of encroaching doom. And over the course of the song’s not-quite-four minutes, the whisper becomes a storm. In his endlessly heavy baritone, Bill Medley begs and pleads and groans and howls, and the music fills up the air around him, a symphonic dirge. It’s an astonishing piece of music, a widescreen ballad that treats teenage feelings with all the operatic bombast that, in the moment, those feelings demand.
Medley and his fellow Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield were Southern Californian kids singing blue-eyed soul in different bands before joining forces. They made a few minor hits on a smaller label before Phil Spector caught them opening for the Ronettes at San Francisco’s Cow Palace and signed them to his Philles label. The married-couple songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil tried to write them a ballad like the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving.” And then Spector poured everything he had into recording it, turning it into one of his definitive statements.
Spector, along with the Righteous Brothers and the legendary session musicians in the Wrecking Crew, spent days on the song in the studio, recording it over and over. Spector made the musicians wear headphones — a new thing at the time — so that they could hear how much echo he was putting on them. (A young Cher was one of the backing singers.) And then Spector layered up their performances, again and again, so that they sounded huge, overwhelming. Spector spent tens of thousands on the recording, and he talked later about getting ulcers stressing out about whether people would get the song.
Some people didn’t. A few people, when they first heard “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” wondered if they were hearing it on the wrong speed. The Righteous Brothers themselves weren’t quite comfortable with the song; it was a big departure from the barrelhouse R&B that they’d been recording. Bobby Hatfield, upset that his voice wasn’t even on the song until the chorus, asked Spector what he was supposed to do when Medley was singing. Spector’s answer: “You can go directly to the bank.” And Spector employed every trick he could think of to make sure the song got played — even lying, on the record’s label, that the running time was 3:05. Radio programmers, he reasoned, might be hesitant to play a song as long as 3:45.
But people did get it. George Martin produced a rival version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” for the British singer Cilla Black. But when that song started racing up the UK charts, the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham took out a full-page Melody Maker ad calling the Righteous Brothers’ version the “last word in Tomorrow’s sound Today.” By the time 2000 rolled around, someone figured out that “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was the most-played song of the century on American radio, getting over eight million spins.
And listening to the song now, it’s hard to imagine people not getting it. It sweeps you up like a wave. All that swooshing, crashing reverb is there to serve the feeling of being set adrift, unable to hold off the heartbreak that’s staring right at you. Producers would eventually figure out cleaner ways to get that sense of orchestral sweep. But the bridge — “We had a love! A love! A love you don’t find everyday! So don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t let it slip away!” — is something close to pop-music perfection.
BONUS BEATS: Here, of course, is the magical and endlessly rewatchable moment in 1986’s Top Gun where Tom Cruise sexually harrasses Kelly McGillis by singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” at her: