The Number Ones

November 28, 1987

The Number Ones: Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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The summer of 1963 is ending, and Frances “Baby” Houseman is dying inside. She’s spent the summer with her family at the Catskills resort Kellerman’s, and she’s fallen for Johnny Castle, the handsome young man who’s been working there as a dance instructor. But her father has discovered that she’s spent the night with Johnny, and Johnny has been fired. She won’t see him again. Instead, she has to sit there, devastated, watching a numbingly boring final-night talent show.

Suddenly, Johnny marches into the ballroom, a black leather jacket over his open shirt and purpose in his eyes. Johnny walks over to where Baby sits with her family and tells her father that nobody puts Baby in the corner. Then he takes her by the hand, leading her onstage and interrupting that camp song. He tells the audience that he always does the last dance of the season. He’s going to do his kind of dancing with a great partner — someone who’s taught him about the kind of person that he wants to be. Then one of Johnny’s friends drops the needle on a 45 that couldn’t possibly have existed in the summer of 1963.

What happens next is pure romantic delirium. The song starts up, all keyboard tones and ’80s drum sounds, and Johnny and Baby melt into each other, moving as one and transforming into a blur of motion. Johnny leaps offstage in ecstatic slow-motion, and Baby throws her head back in delight. Johnny twirls on his knees and headbangs while jumping. He joins his co-workers in a choreographed strut, moving toward Baby like he’s in a Michael Jackson video. Baby runs toward Johnny, and they do the Lift, the move they’ve been working on all summer. They pull it off, and the audience loses its collective mind.

By the time the extremely long and anachronistic song ends, everyone in the ballroom has a whole new perspective. Old ladies are dancing. The owner of the resort is dancing. Baby’s mom is dancing. The house band joins in. Baby’s father — Jerry Orbach, five years before he began his Law & Order run — admits to Johnny that he was wrong. Johnny lip-syncs along with a song that will not exist for another 24 years. It’s absurd, and it’s beautiful.

Before that ending, Dirty Dancing hadn’t exactly been going for cinematic realism, but it mostly took place in a world that at least had a passing resemblance to our own. In that ending, the film takes off into the realm of magical dream-logic reverie. That ending is where we learn that Dirty Dancing is truly subjective storytelling. It’s Baby rhapsodizing about this one beautiful experience in her life, telling the tale the way it exists in her imagination. It’s memory as fantasy, which might be the purest definition of nostalgia.

Dirty Dancing literally is Baby’s story; screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein wrote the movie as a semi-autobiographical account of her own younger years. (Bergstein had even been nicknamed Baby.) Director Emile Ardolino, who’d mostly only filmed documentaries about dancers, made Dirty Dancing on a low budget, with stars who weren’t yet stars. When Dirty Dancing hit theaters in August of 1987, it resonated. Dirty Dancing was a slow-burner of a hit. It was never the #1 film at the box office, but it still took in $64 million in the US, finishing 1987 as the 10th-biggest hit of the year. (On the year-end box-office chart, Dirty Dancing is right between Lethal Weapon and The Witches Of Eastwick. All three of those movies whip ass.)

The Dirty Dancing soundtrack was even bigger. The album only had a few new-to-1987 songs, none of which came from artists who were especially relevant to the pop music of the moment. Most of the songs were oldies — including a couple, like Maurice Williams And The Zodiacs’ “Stay” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” that have appeared in this column. But that Dirty Dancing soundtrack still rose to #1 on the album charts in November, kicking Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love out of the top spot and staying there for 18 weeks.

The Dirty Dancing soundtrack kept selling in 1988, to the point where Billboard named it the year’s #2 album. That year, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack outsold Hysteria and Kick and Bad and Appetite For Destruction; only George Michael’s Faith moved more copies. That impossible final-scene song rode the tide, too, winning an Oscar and reaching #1 on the Hot 100.

When he started writing “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” Franke Previte didn’t exactly have a whole lot going on. Previte had been the leader of Franke And The Knockouts, a New Jersey soft rock band who’d only ever been in the top 10 once. (1981’s “Sweetheart” peaked at #10. It’s a 4.) The Knockouts had a couple of other minor hits, but their moment was clearly over. Drummer Tico Torres had already left the band to join Bon Jovi, and Previte was trying to get a record deal as a solo artist. But one day, Jimmy Ienner, the head of Previte’s label, called Previte and told him that he needed to write a song for a movie soundtrack. Previte wasn’t interested, but Ienner insisted: “If you get a song in this movie, it’s going to change your life.”

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Previte says that the movie’s producers had a lot of prerequisites for this song. It had to start slow and then get fast. It had to have a mambo beat. And it had to be seven minutes long. Previte had never written a song that long, but his friends John DeNicola and Donald Markowitz helped him put together a backing track, and Previte scrawled the lyrics on the back of an an envelope when he was driving to a studio to work on a different track.

Previte recorded a demo version of “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” with duet partner Rachele Cappelli, and he wanted to sing the song on the movie’s soundtrack, but Jimmy Ienner, the label boss who was producing the soundtrack, had another idea in mind. Ienner wanted to bring in Bill Medley, the baritone-voiced white-soul howler who’d started out with the Righteous Brothers around the same time that Dirty Dancing was set. Previte was bummed about that. When Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze shot that Dirty Dancing finale, they actually danced to Previte’s demo.

When director Emile Ardolino filmed Dirty Dancing, he actually shot the grand-finale scene first. The original plan was to use a Lionel Richie song for the last scene, but choreographer Kenny Ortega, who would later direct Hocus Pocus and the High School Musical movies, picked “Time Of My Life” out of a box of demo submissions. So the song was in, but someone had to convince Bill Medley to sing it. Medley wasn’t interested.

When Dirty Dancing was in production, it had been more than 20 years since Bill Medley had a made a #1 hit. Medley had produced the Righteous Brothers’ second and final chart-topper “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration” in 1966, doing a dead-on impression of his former label boss Phil Spector’s production style. A couple of years later, the duo broke up. Bill Medley wanted to go solo. It didn’t really work out. Before “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” Medley’s highest-charting single as a solo artist was the 1968 soul ballad “Brown Eyed Woman,” which peaked at #43.

For a while, Bill Medley sang in Las Vegas casinos, and the job put a strain on his voice. So Medley reunited with his old partner Bobby Hatfield, and the Righteous Brothers had another go at it. In 1974, the Righteous Brothers’ cover of Climax’s mournfully celebratory “Rock And Roll Heaven” became a massive comeback hit, peaking at #3. (It’s a 5.)

A couple of years later, Bill Medley quit the Righteous Brothers again. This time, it wasn’t because he wanted to go solo. That year, Medley’s ex-wife Karen O’Grady was murdered, a horrific crime that went unsolved for decades. (Police used DNA evidence to identify the killer in 2017; he’d been dead since 1982.) Medley and O’Grady had a 10-year-old son, and Medley put his career on hold to raise the kid. In the ’80s, Medley started recording again, and he also re-reunited with Bobby Hatfield to play Righteous Brothers shows on the nostalgia circuit. Some of Medley’s ’80s solo singles were minor country hits, but he was a long way away from the pop stardom he’d once enjoyed.

In 1986, Medley and former Number Ones artist Gladys Knight recorded “Loving On Borrowed Time,” a song for the soundtrack of the awesomely stupid Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra. Medley thought that song was his ticket back to the big-time, but it missed the Hot 100 entirely. So when Jimmy Ienner came calling to offer Medley another soundtrack song — for a movie with no stars, with a title that sounded like porn — Medley turned him down. Medley had remarried, and his wife was about to have a baby. He didn’t want to go to New York to make another record that was bound to flop.

Ienner kept trying to convince Medley to record the song for two months. Finally, Ienner told Medley that he could record the song in LA and that he could sing it as a duet with Jennifer Warnes. That did it. Five years earlier, Warnes and Joe Cocker had released “Up Where We Belong,” the love-theme duet from An Officer And A Gentleman. The song had topped the Hot 100 and won an Oscar. That’s a pretty good pedigree, and Medley was a fan of Warnes anyway. By that point, Medley’s daughter had been born, and Medley agreed to record the song. These days, when Bill Medley sings “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” in concert, the person who sings Jennifer Warnes’ part is Medley’s daughter McKenna, who was born just before he recorded it.

Jennifer Warnes hadn’t made any hits since “Up Where We Belong.” She’d recorded more songs for more movie soundtracks — Twilight Zone: The Movie, All The Right Moves, Blind Date — but none of those songs had hit. Warnes had already kept working with her friend Leonard Cohen, singing on all of his records. Earlier in 1987, she’d released Famous Blue Raincoat, her own album of Leonard Cohen covers. It wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. But for whatever reason, Warnes’ big, honeyed voice just worked for ’80s-movie ballads. On “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” she and Medley make sense together.

Lyrically, “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” is a fairy generic love song, but that’s not a strike against it. In its big final moment, Dirty Dancing requires a generic love song. It’s easy to hear “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” as something that Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze’s characters might sing to each other. They’ve had this incredible experience together over the summer, and they want to keep that excited buzz going as long as they can: “Now with passion in our eyes, there’s no way we could disguise it secretly/ So we take each other’s hand ’cause we seem to understand the urgency.”

When “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” reached #1, Bill Medley was 47 years old. His deep, resonant baritone is still unmistakably the voice of the guy from the Righteous Brothers, but it’s rougher and craggier. It’s got personality. Warnes doesn’t have the same sort of presence, but she sweetens the song’s sound. The production, with its noodley guitar and its glossed-out synth, is pure sleepy adult-contemporary radio-bait. (Producer Michael Lloyd had made one previous #1 hit: Shaun Cassidy’s extremely unnecessary 1977 version of “Da Doo Ron Ron.”) But “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” has to be a dance song; that’s the function it serves in the movie. It can’t disappear into dentist’s-office nothingness, and it never does.

“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” has some crucial things going for it. It has that chorus, with its big build-up, which will never ever leave your head. It has a few slick little dance-pop touches, like the whistling keyboard and the bubbling drum-machine beat and the busy bass-popping. And it has the association with the movie. “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” simply would not exist without Dirty Dancing, and the image of Patrick Swayze holding Jennifer Grey up in the air is deeply embedded in the experience of listening to the song. If you have any sentimental attachment to that movie whatsoever, then you can’t hate the song. They’re too intertwined.

Dirty Dancing is a movie about nostalgia, and it’s an object of nostalgia itself. “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” is a song from an aging pop star, and so it made perfect sense in 1987, a year when nostalgia (and, to a lesser extent, movie-soundtrack hits) dominated the pop charts. Covers of oldies-radio standards had done big business in 1987, and ’60s-vintage singers like Grace Slick and Aretha Franklin had scored #1 hits. If Bill Medley was ever going to stage a comeback, this was going to be his moment.

At the 1988 Oscars, “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” won Best Original Song. It beat two previous #1 hits, Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” Previte accepted the award from Dudley Moore and Liza Minelli. From the podium, he thanked his parents for “the best duet of all,” which is a weird thing to say.

That year, Previte and John DeNicola actually could’ve competed against themselves. Previte and DeNicola also co-wrote “Hungry Eyes,” another hit from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Previte was hoping to sing that one, too, but it went instead to the former Raspberries leader Eric Carman. “Hungry Eyes” peaked at #4 and became Carman’s first top-10 hit in 12 years. (It’s an 8.)

The Dirty Dancing soundtrack also had one other hit. Patrick Swayze sang “She’s Like The Wind,” a fairly ridiculous ballad that he’d co-written. (Swayze had originally intended it for the soundtrack of the 1984 comedy Grandview, USA.) That single reached #3 and marked Swayze’s sole dalliance with pop stardom. (It’s a 3.)

“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” was the last real hit for either Bill Medley or Jennifer Warnes. Medley recorded more songs for movies: Major League, Rambo III, the “Friday Night’s A Great Night For Football” song from the insane opening scene of The Last Boy Scout. He kept doing Righteous Brothers shows until Bobby Hatfield died in 2003. Warnes kept singing on Leonard Cohen albums. Medley and Warnes reunited in 1998 to sing “Show Me The Light,” the end-credits song from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie. But Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie was not a cultural phenomenon on the same level as Dirty Dancing.

Funny thing, though. The world figured out that Patrick Swayze and the Righteous Brothers somehow went together. A few years after Dirty Dancing, Swayze starred in Ghost, the biggest non-Home Alone movie of 1990. In that film’s most memorable scene, Swayze makes out with Demi Moore while doing pottery as the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 version of “Unchained Melody” plays on a jukebox.

Bill Medley didn’t actually sing on “Unchained Melody”; it’s all Bobby Hatfield. But Medley did produce that one, and it peaked at #4 when it first came out. (It’s a 10.) When Ghost became a hit, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” went right back into the charts, and it rose all the way up to #13. In the UK and Australia, it became a #1 hit.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: On the 2006 finale of the sixth season of American Idol, finalists Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee sang “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” together. Here’s that slightly awkward performance:

(Katharine McPhee’s highest-charting single, her 2006 version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow, peaked at #12. Taylor Hicks will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Black Eyed Peas’ 2010 single “The Time (Dirty Bit)” interpolates “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” so heavily that it’s basically a cover. Here’s their video:

(“The Time (Dirty Bit)” peaked at #4. It’s a 3. The Black Eyed Peas will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Anytime anyone makes any kind of joke about the Lift bit from Dirty Dancing, they have to use “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.” It’s practically a law. Here, for instance, is the song soundtracking the bit in the 2011 movie Crazy Stupid Love where Ryan Gosling does the Lift with Emma Stone:

Here’s pro wrestlers Finn B├ílor and Bayley doing the Lift in an extremely cute moment at a 2016 NXT show:

And here’s the 2018 Super Bowl commercial where New York Giants teammates Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. do the Lift:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fifth Harmony interpolating “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” on their 2015 track “Body Rock”:

(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collab “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: There’s an extremely funny “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” needledrop in the great 2017 movie Get Out. Warning: You should absolutely not watch this scene if you haven’t seen Get Out. (Also, you should really watch Get Out.) Here’s that scene:

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