New Feature: The Replacement Singer
The Toughest Task in Show Business: Replacing an Established Star
Part 1 in a Series
While many fans wish their favorite bands would go on, lineups unchanged, inevitably the rigors of the road, creative differences and health issues contribute to the splintering of even iconic groups. When it is the lead singer who departs, it often means the end of a band’s unique sound. But musicians who have invested years developing a group’s identity often adopt the adage “The show must go on”; they find a new vocalist and continue to record and tour.
For the new singer, it is a daunting experience to replace an established star. To avoid alienating fans, the substitutes can’t stray too far from the sound and set list that fans expect. Egos and personal styles have to take a back seat. While the media always follow the rise or fall of the departing headliner, Rock Cellar Magazine wondered how the replacements in some established acts have fared.
Our new Rock Cellar feature kicks off with an interview with Jimmy Walker, who joined Bobby Hatfield as half of the Righteous Brothers after leaving an established group, the Knickerbockers.
The Knickerbockers helped pioneer the garage band sound with their infectious 1965 hit Lies. Before that success, they had been a popular club band with an uncanny ability to mimic the Top-40 hits of the day, which earned the band a gig at LA’s Red Velvet nightclub.
Among the rock and rollers to frequent the club were Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, the Righteous Brothers, the blue-eyed soul duo who’d scored hits like You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and Unchained Melody. Medley and Hatfield would often join in with the Knickerbockers, who knew the duo’s hits by rote.
The pair split in 1968 when Medley decided to go solo. Hatfield, who wanted the Righteous Brothers to continue, enlisted Knickerbockers’ vocalist Jimmy Walker to replace Medley. With little help from their record company, the Knickerbockers never duplicated the success of Lies, so Walker jumped at Hatfield’s offer.
Hatfield and Medley would reunite in 1974 and performed together until 2003, when Hatfield died before a show. His death was attributed to cocaine leading to heart failure.
Jimmy Walker chatted with Rock Cellar Magazine about being a “replacement singer” and what it’s like replacing a founding member of a seminal vocal band.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Bill Medley was an iconic singer. Was it intimidating to replace him?
Jimmy Walker: I was young and stupid and cocky (laughs). I thought I was a badass.
RCM: What was your connection to Medley and Hatfield?
JW: We knew the Righteous Brothers in L.A. because they used to come into the Red Velvet all the time. The Red Velvet was a ratty old nightclub, it looked like it was built in the late ‘50s. All the celebrities started coming there from the Shindig show.
RCM: So they would see your band – the Knickerbockers – performing?
JW: Right. When we started playing there, the Knickerbockers were pretty astute musicians and we could cover anybody’s bases. And they all started sitting in with us. Since we did the Righteous Brothers material as part of our act, I sang with Bill and at other times I sang with Bobby. That was kind of a trip.
[Jimmy Walker performing It's Not Unusual with the Knickerbockers:]
So when they decided to split up, Bobby called me and asked if I would like to replace Bill. I was pretty taken aback; nobody knew about it, it was a big hush-hush secret.
RCM: Why did he say Bill Medley wanted to leave?
JW: Bill was told by people that it was time for him to strike out on his own. They made a big mistake. That was stupid because Bobby had Unchained Melody. All the other hits they had, none of them were as big as [You've Lost That ] Lovin’ Feelin’ and Unchained Melody. On stage, Bobby was the funny guy and he had a beautiful voice. Bill had the intriguing sound but Bobby to my ears had a better voice. He had a high natural tenor.
But Bill was adamant that he wanted to leave. On top of that, they’d just signed a multi-year contract with MGM Records and had received one million dollars apiece as up-front money. They took that and then they had to give it back (laughs). Can you imagine how that hurt?
RCM: Was there any animosity between Bill and Bobby?
JW: No, there was never any obvious animosity between the two of them. We had a big press conference; Bill and Bobby were there and Bill announced that he was going to take off on his own career. Bill was a very cool guy. I still talk to him to this day. I go see him in Vegas, we hang out backstage. I like Bill. Very down to earth guy. When I ask him, “How you doin’?” he says, “I’m still foolin’ ‘em.”
RCM: What did the record company think about the breakup?
JW: When they decided to go their own ways, everybody tried to talk them out of it. The record company was tearin’ their hair out and everybody was freakin’ out but for some reason nothing anyone said dissuaded Bill from changing his mind. He was determined to go out and establish himself as a solo artist.
Bobby didn’t want to go out on his own – he preferred to get another partner. They tried to talk him out of that but he didn’t want to be on the stage by himself.
Bobby asked if I would take Bill’s place because they had so many bookings in front as the Righteous Brothers, there was so much money involved that they decided to go that way. Bobby had seen me sing with the Knickerbockers many times and he was confident in my singing ability.
Other people didn’t want me because I wasn’t tall enough! That’s Hollywood. They wanted somebody that looked like Bill.
Bobby said, “I don’t care if he looks like Bill, I want somebody that can sing his ass off. That’s what I want.”
RCM: How do you prepare for a gig like that?
JW: To me the hardest part about it was the chemistry. Bobby and Bill were friends since college. They had kind of a comedic, smart-ass rapport together that worked really well. I was not into that with Bobby; I didn’t know him that well. So at first I concentrated on the music and we went from there.
The Righteous Brothers at that time were going in a direction of supper clubs, Vegas. I was not there yet, I was more rock-oriented. So it was a little bit of a head trip. Bobby wasn’t as satisfied with it because the comedic rapport was not there. I had no idea how to be funny with Bobby on stage.
RCM: How different would you say Bill Medley’s singing style is from your own?
JW: Bill was a sound singer, what you call a character singer. And I was sort of in between both of them. I have a natural singing voice and I have a little bit of what Medley has as far as character goes. But I don’t sing as deep as Medley. I can hit the same keys but I don’t have the big, deep sound. But it worked OK.
Bill’s influences were similar to mine: Ray Charles and Bobby Bland and like that. He had been singing that kind of music his whole career. With the Knickerbockers, I was the guy in the band that did most of the Marvin Gaye and the Four Tops and Sam and Dave. I was always the guy in the band that did the soul music. So Bill and I weren’t too far apart and that’s why Bobby picked me, because he could tell that I had that influence.
[Jimmy Walker and Bobby Hatfield from the album Re-Birth.
RCM: So how did your first shows go?
JW: They went OK, I think we got a lot better a couple of years down the road. Bobby used to bug me because he’d get so nervous before shows that he would throw up. I’d say “What the hell are you doing? Don’t you like what you do?” And he’d go, “I get too nervous.” And he did that all the way through the whole time I was with him. He was just one of those kind of guys.
RCM: Did you run into fans who would be unhappy with whomever replaced Bill Medley?
JW: No. I never got any real negative reaction at all. I never heard anybody saying, “You suck! We want Bill! Get rid of this midget, we want Medley!” I was fortunate that I sang well so they couldn’t really trash me that bad because I was up there singin’ my butt off.
If I went up there and did a bad imitation of Bill Medley, that would have been shit. I think that would have been a disaster. Like a bad tribute band.
JW (cont.) And I did have some notoriety from being with the Knickerbockers. There were a lot of people who asked, “Do you miss being with the Knickerbockers?” A lot of people even thought that the Knickerbockers were as good as the Righteous Brothers ever thought about being. We had hard core fans of the Knickerbockers that didn’t necessarily like the Righteous Brothers all that much.
RCM: How long did you perform with Bobby?
JW: A little over 4 years, 1968 to 1971.
RCM: Why did it come to an end?
JW: You know, I really don’t know why. Vegas wanted us to take more dates during the year - I thought, yeah, let’s do it. I loved Vegas. I thought Vegas was the coolest because the control of the sound was great, the crowds were amazing, the band sounded really good. I just had it dialed in. I was getting better and better as a performer. The confidence had built up and I was really looking forward to another couple of years. But for some reason, I’ll never know to this day, Bobby just decided he didn’t want to play Vegas all the time. And I thought, $25,000 a week isn’t enough?
It’s a mystery to me why he decided to break it up. I’m sure he had his reasons, but he didn’t tell us.
RCM: What did you do after Bobby quit?
JW: Not much. I tried to get our management to put together a solo act for me but they wouldn’t. I could have put a show together and they didn’t want to do that. Talk about being thrown under the bus, I was out in the cold and I didn’t know why. By that time I was in my prime, I was really good on stage, I was singing really well. All of a sudden I was a pariah. I didn’t exist anymore. I was bitter about that, I’m kind of angry to this day. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, nobody ever called me. I called them and got nothing in return. The record companies didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
RCM: Did Bobby replace you?
JW: Nope. I guess Bobby was set financially. He really didn’t care about the money at that point. He had made a lot of money. Vegas was a hard gig too, we did well and I loved it but I don’t know if Bobby was strong enough for it. It was an ass kicker. By the end of three weeks in Vegas, you’re tired. Three shows a night, six nights a week, you need a break.
RCM: Were his health problems in evidence?
JW: Not that I knew. The more we worked, the better his voice got. He was a cigarette smoker and when we took too much time off, his voice would kind of go in the dumper. The last year of the act, Bobby was singin’ really well.
Bill and Bobby eventually got back together in 1974; they did very well. And then Bobby died. That was a mystery. Nobody’s really sure why. They say it was a cocaine overdose but I don’t know about that. Bobby drank pretty good near the end. He smoked and he drank and he was gettin’ up in age and I think it just took its toll and he had a heart attack. I know he did cocaine too but back in those days; a lot of people did.
RCM: You would think someone with a voice like that would protect it.
JW: Bobby never took anything too seriously: “Oh big deal, so I can sing, what’s that?” He joked and clowned about everything.
I took it seriously because I quit smoking and drinking 11 years ago. Right now my singing voice, it scares me how good I am (laughs).
I’m up on stage singing now and I go, “This is great!”
You would think that Bobby would be like that. The last time I saw them sing, it was in Northern California. My wife and I went to see them and they sounded really good. Bobby was singing well and they had a great act and it was fun to see them again. But I noticed when I saw them backstage that Bobby didn’t look very well. He didn’t have a good look to his eyes and his skin color – it wasn’t that he aged, we’d all aged, but he didn’t look healthy. And that was a few years before he died.
At the end of the night we went to the Holiday Inn where they were staying and we hung out with them. At that time I didn’t drink at all and I noticed that Bobby was just sockin’ the booze down pretty heavy. And my wife and I both thought, “that’s not good.”
That’s what I think took its toll. I imagine he did cocaine. But I think cigarettes and booze are worse. Who knows?
Stay tuned. Our “replacement singer” series continues with…
* David Clayton-Thomas, who replaced Al Kooper in the pioneering horn band Blood Sweat & Tears,
* Michael Sweet of Christian heavy metal band Stryper, who took Brad Delp’s spot in Boston, and
* Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company talks about blues and rock singer Kathi McDonald, who died late last year. McDonald in 1969 had the impossible task of replacing Janis Joplin, who left to pursue a solo career.