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Classic Tracks: The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”

Recorded in late 1964 and reaching Number One in both the U.S. and UK charts in February 1965, You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' gave the Righteous Brothers

Recorded in late 1964 and reaching Number One in both the U.S. and UK charts in February 1965, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” gave the Righteous Brothers an international hit that has endured to this day. Produced by Phil Spector at Gold Star Recording Studios in Hollywood, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was also one of the most perfectly realized examples of the “Wall of Sound” technique that Spector had refined over the unprecedented string of hits he produced for his Philles label.

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Though Spector had started his career in L.A. (and, in fact, had recorded at Gold Star in 1958 as a member of the Teddy Bears), he had developed his reputation as a writer and producer in New York. While apprenticing with Lieber and Stoller, whose influence can be clearly heard in the Baion-style rhythms that Spector adopted for his own songs, he also co-wrote a number of hits, including The Drifters’ classic “Spanish Harlem.” Equally important, he met the soon-to-be-legendary Brill Building songwriting teams of Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil and Gerry Goffin/Carole King, and briefly landed an A&R gig with Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic label. By mid-1961, he had started the Philles label and began producing the extraordinary run of hits that included such gems as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals, and “Be My Baby” and “Walkin’ in the Rain” by The Ronettes.

In mid-1964, Spector met the Righteous Brothers, a minor-league act who had a respectable run of hits on the Moonglow label, including “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” which had reached Number 49. Though they sounded black, the Righteous Brothers were white. And the two 24-year-olds — Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield — weren’t brothers. Spector signed them to Philles and picked Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil to write a song specifically for the duo.

“I know Phil was very high on them, and he was very excited when the deal came through that got the group from Moonglow to his label,” recalls Gold Star engineer Larry Levine, who had been engineering for Spector since The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” in 1963. “I remember how Mann and Weil reacted when they saw the studio for the first time, which was the same way everyone reacted. Everyone associated Phil and Gold Star [Studio A] with the ‘Wall of Sound,’ so they were expecting this huge studio. In reality, the studio dimensions were only about 19 by 24 feet, with a 13-foot ceiling. Only Studio B at Western was smaller than that in town. The huge sound of the records would lead everyone to imagine that the studio must be huge, too.”

However, as Levine notes, Studio A’s modest size contributed significantly to the Spector sound. “It meant that the musicians were all grouped closely together and that resulted in a lot of leakage, which was a big part of the ‘Wall of Sound’ effect, because you didn’t really want to pick out any particular instrument from the others. They were all supposed to be part of ‘the wall.’ You had to really work hard to achieve separation in there, and you rarely did. But that’s not what Phil wanted anyway.”

One downside to Spector’s studio method was that, once he had the musicians in place and the microphones set up, he kept them there, whether or not someone had to go the bathroom; Spector firmly believed that, once the sound had been achieved, any change in the room would upset the balance. “That was why Phil was so adamant about mono, and why he wanted to finish a session the same day,” says Levine. “He believed that the only way to assure that the sound he wanted would remain intact was to fix all the pieces so they couldn’t be moved. That included stereo — you could change the relationship between the channels; with mono, it was fixed for all time.”

Typical for a Spector session, Gene Page’s arrangement for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” called for a huge cast of musicians. Levine, who had been at Gold Star since 1952, two years after the studio had been opened by owners Dave Gold and Stan Ross, started the session seated at the studio’s 12-input console. Built by Dave Gold, the console featured rotary Bakelite faders and minimal broadband equalization. Top-end EQ settings were 3 kHz, 5 kHz and 10 kHz, and low-end settings were at 100 Hz and 60 Hz; each band could be varied in 3dB increments, from +12 to -9 dB. Because of the limited number of inputs, Levine had taken to ganging up to three microphones onto a single input for groups of instruments, such as multiple acoustic guitars (which were critical to the foundation of Spector’s wall, though they are not easily heard on the records themselves). Levine also used a homemade sidecar mixer, which Gold had also constructed, and, by 1964, the studio had a Scully 8-track deck running 3M tape.

“We did it the same way we did most of the recordings,” recalls Levine. “There were four acoustic guitars and Phil always started with them, getting them out in the studio and playing the figures. Then, after he had gotten them to the point where he wanted it to sound, we added the pianos. On this song, there were three of them. I could mike the acoustic guitars on three microphones all going into a single input; the pianos had to have separate inputs. Then we would add the basses — there were three of them: a Fender bass, an upright bass and a Dano bass [played by Carol Kaye]. Then came the horns, for which I used an RCA 44 on the two trumpets and the two trombones, and an E-V 15 on the three saxophones. The drums were always the last to go on. The drums got two tracks, though: I used an RCA 77 for the kick drum and a Neumann 67 on the overhead.

“All the while, as Phil was building the sound, I kept having to get sounds for each new layer of instruments, but at the same time try to keep a balance with each of the previous layers. Every time you raised the fader on another microphone, it changed the balance of the other microphones because it was such a small room. It was always quite a job doing a Phil Spector session, trying to keep everything in balance and have it match what Phil had inside his head.”

The entire tracking process took all three hours of a regular session, a period that A.F. of M. Local 47 rules stipulated as sufficient for recording no more than four songs; because Spector used the entire three hours for one song, he never ran afoul of union rules. More to the point, Levine remembers, “Phil used the time to get the musicians tired. When they had run the song down a lot of times, they tended to become subservient to the overall sound and meld together better, instead of any one or two instruments sticking out when the musicians were fresh. By the time the sound was where he wanted it, the track would go down in two or three passes. There were all these psychological operations going on at every session. But Phil was always fair to the musicians, and they always got paid. And so did the studio, which was rare in those days. But Phil’s attitude was that the studio is where you lived, so you made sure you paid the rent on time.”

The lead vocals were done relatively quickly, with Medley and Hatfield singing into separate RCA 77 microphones. The background singers — mainly the vocal group The Blossoms, though Levine remembers that a few passersbys were also pressed into duty — sang into an RCA 44.

The lead vocals, however, had their own little back story. According to Levine, Bill Medley had felt from the beginning that the recording was too focused on his voice, at the expense of his partner, Bobby Hatfield, who sang mostly on the choruses. Medley was ready to scratch the song altogether, a position he maintained even after the song was done. “I remember sitting in the control room during a playback and telling Bill how this was going to be a big hit record,” says Levine. “And even then he felt that Bobby’s part wasn’t big enough.”

Spector’s opinion obviously prevailed. But the producer was having one of his own rare moments of self-doubt. Up to this point, Spector’s hits had all featured a huge and unwavering back beat. “He was very concerned that this was going to kill the record,” says Levine. “It was literally the first time he had ever done a record like this. But on this song, there was just no place to put a big back beat. He was concerned that he was going someplace that the public wouldn’t follow him. He knew the song was good and the sound was there, but he wasn’t sure about the lack of a big drum part. So he would bring in people whose opinions he respected and asked them what they thought.”

Whatever doubts Spector had, he overcame. With the vocals done on the second day of recording, Levine set up to mix — to mono, of course — to an Ampex 350 deck running at 15 ips. This was his favorite part of the process, because Spector would leave him to do each mix on his own, stopping by in between to listen and give directions. “It was a good way to work,” says Levine. “I didn’t have to mix with someone constantly looking over my shoulder, and Phil would get to hear it fresh each time he came in.”

There was only rudimentary signal processing, but what there was was unique. Gold Star had two 2×3-foot cement-lined echo chambers located behind the control room wall in a dark void, which Levine says he found “creepy.” The reverb setup was simple — an 8-inch speaker and a cheap ribbon microphone. “But when you heard yourself talk while your head was in there, you knew just how good those chambers were,” Levine recalls. The reverb on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was applied with a broad brush, even on the tracking session, and more was added on the lead vocals during the mix. Some fast tape-slap was also added to several percussion instruments during tracking. There was no compression at all until the track was mastered, at Gold Star, when a Dave Gold-designed soft knee-type compressor was used.

With mixing complete, there remained one unresolved issue. And in this instance, Levine proved how helpful a savvy engineer can be. At nearly four minutes long, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was a lengthy single by radio standards of the era. “It was running 3:50, and Phil was really worried that no DJs would play it,” Levine recalls. “So I suggested that we mark the record 3:05, and if anyone asked we could say it was a typo. Phil went along with that. We knew the programmers would figure it out after they listened to it. But at least it made sure that it got played once. It’s a good thing, too.”

Despite its extreme length, the record was an immediate hit in the U.S., though it faced early competition in Britain from a cover version by Cilla Black, the former Cavern Club coat check girl who’d been groomed for stardom by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. However, Spector’s many fans in the UK included Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who placed his own ads in the British music papers to promote the original version. “Already in the American Top 10, this is Spector’s greatest production, the last word in Tomorrow’s sound Today, exposing the overall mediocrity of the Music Industry,” wrote Oldham. And the Righteous Brothers record duly leapfrogged Black’s release to the top of the charts.

The Righteous Brothers had a few more hits with Spector, including “Unchained Melody,” “Ebb Tide” and “Just Once in My Life,” and they were regulars on the hip mid-’60s TV show Shindig. But by 1968, they had broken up; Medley went solo, while Hatfield kept the Righteous Brothers name and recruited a singer named Jimmy Walker. Medley and Hatfield have reunited a number of times since, but Medley has enjoyed more success as a solo artist, even hitting Number One in 1987 with “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” a duet with Jennifer Warnes from the film Dirty Dancing.

Though the Righteous Brothers’ version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” is definitive, it has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick, Pat Boone, Brian Wilson and Neil Diamond. Hall & Oates also had a hit with the song in 1980, and the original version appeared in a key scene in the Tom Cruise-starring 1985 film Top Gun.

Many would argue that “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” is one of the greatest 45s of all time, yet it signaled the end of Spector’s astonishing run as the undisputed King of Pop. His next major production, Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” was a commercial flop in the U.S. and Spector abruptly quit the business — at the age of 25. Though he later returned from his self-imposed exile to remix The Beatles’ Let It Be album (much to the annoyance of critics) and produced singles and albums for John Lennon, George Harrison, Dion, Leonard Cohen and The Ramones, Spector never again dominated the charts as he had from 1961 to 1965 with his “little symphonies for the kids.”