The ‘Dirty Dancing’ Soundtrack: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
Bill Medley, the surviving half of the Righteous Brothers, still recalls that moment he visited the New York offices of RCA Records in 1988. Medley was escorted into a spacious room with a wall completely lined with platinum album plaques. “My God,” Medley says. “It was Number One all over the world. And they gave me all of those awards. I gave some of them out as Christmas presents.”
The album was the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, released the previous August. Multi-platinum blockbuster albums, a rarity in today’s music business, were regular occurrences in the Eighties: Thriller, Appetite for Destruction, Purple Rain, Faith, Born in the U.S.A. But none was quite like Dirty Dancing. The soundtrack to a low-budget movie starring largely unknown leading actors (Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey), the album should have been the last thing any teenager would have wanted to buy in 1987: It was a hodgepodge of early-Sixties oldies, Latin instrumentals and new material by veteran acts (Medley, Eric Carmen, the Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnson) who hadn’t had Top 40 hits in years.
Yet Dirty Dancing, both the movie and the album, went on to become pop-culture juggernauts. The film would gross more than $200 million. And in stats that are unimaginable these days, the album would sell 11 million copies and cling to the Number One spot on the Billboard album chart for over four months. “It was a freight train,” recalls music supervisor Michael Lloyd, who by then had racked up hits with Belinda Carlisle, the Osmonds, Shaun Cassidy and others. “It was ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was unstoppable.” True to that phrase, the album begat a sequel soundtrack, a tour, another film (2004’s Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights), a 20th-anniversary deluxe-edition soundtrack, and a recent, largely forgettable TV-musical remake.
The hits from the album – Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life,” Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” and the Contours’ 1962 “Do You Love Me,” given a second wind by the soundtrack – will be familiar to anyone who listened to pop radio in the Eighties. But here are 10 things you may not have known about one of the last of the blockbuster albums.
1. There almost wasn’t a soundtrack album.
Although it’s hard to imagine a time when Swayze wasn’t a marquee name, such was the case when Lloyd and album executive producer Jimmy Ienner began the process of rounding up artists for the soundtrack. “The movie was being made by a new company that no one had heard of and the stars weren’t big stars, so I couldn’t get anybody to sing on it,” says Lloyd. Lloyd says he approached Donna Summer and Lionel Richie for “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life”; they passed, as did Daryl Hall and Kim Carnes. “I went through all these people, and they said no,” Lloyd says. “I didn’t blame them – it was hard to imagine that this would have been something special.” To flesh out the album, Ienner turned to the likes of Canadian singer-guitarist Alfie Zappacosta, who wrote and cut “Overload” for $2,000. “Back then you had all the Michael McDonalds and Kenny Logginses doing all those songs on soundtracks,” says Zappacosta. “This one had a minimal budget.”
2. Medley said no – and later changed his mind.
When Ienner reached out to him, Medley says he was initially skeptical. Based on the title, he thought the movie sounded like “a bad porno.” “Then I said, ‘Who’s in it?’ and he said Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey,” says Medley, “and I said, ‘Who’s that?'” With his wife expecting a baby any day, and the recording session set for New York, the Orange County–based Medley opted out. Warnes was almost a no-go as well: After hearing a demo of the song, her boyfriend said, “I hope they’re paying you a lot of money for this.” Warnes had a few doubts thanks to the credits: “It was the first time I’d accepted a song written by three people. That was usually a red flag.”
After more major acts opted out, Ienner and Lloyd kept returning to Medley: “Jimmy would call every couple of days: ‘Has she had the baby?’ He was saying, ‘You’re the voice of the Sixties!’ He was probably blowing smoke up my ass.” But when the session was moved to L.A. – and when Medley learned he was singing with Warnes – he changed his mind. (Medley’s baby – now the adult McKenna Medley – now sings the song with her father as part of current Vegas residency with a new version of the Righteous Brothers with Bucky Heard.)
3. Medley and Warnes were supposed to represent adult versions of Johnny and Baby, Swayze and Grey’s respective characters.
Recalls Medley, “I’m kind of supposed to be Swayze on the record, and Jennifer’s voice kind of fit Jennifer Grey’s character. Jimmy really knew what he was doing.” To connect with those characters as much as possible, Medley and Warnes recorded the song together while footage from the movie was played in the studio. “We sang to each other and to the movie,” Warnes says. “When he raised her up in the air, I knew it had to be joyful, and that’s why there’s a real spirit and joy in the vocals. That’s not fake. We were having a good time.”
4. The desperation for new material resulted in the inclusion of Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind.”
As the album was nearing completion, says Lloyd, “We were looking for songs and Patrick said, ‘I have a song we could do,’ and we said, ‘Bring it on,'” says Lloyd. “It worked out perfectly, as if it were written for the movie.” Was he skeptical of an actor wanting to sing one of his own tunes? “If I could give people a tip,” says Lloyd, “it would be: Don’t be a superficial judge of something.”
5. Some of the musicians on the album knew nothing about the movie.
Zappacosta, who hadn’t seen the movie or read a script when he cut “Overload,” wasn’t the only one in the dark. Johnston, who was still a year away from hooking back up with the reunited Doobie Brothers, was asked by a friend to record a soundtrack song at a remote studio in Louisiana. “It was a paper-mill town that just reeked,” he laughs. “But I said, ‘Why not?'” Like Medley and others, Johnston was shocked when the soundtrack became a sensation. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,'” he recalls. “But chicks loved that movie. I got a new BMW out of it. Pretty sweet deal.”
6. The songs in the movie don’t always sound the same as on the album.
Thank the movie’s setting, 1963, for that. “We needed different mixes for the film and record,” Ienner recalled in the book Risky Business: Rock in Film. “For example, the guitars were dropped way down for the film because guitars weren’t a dominant instrument back then – saxophones were. We took out the synthesized stuff and replaced it with organ in the film versions.”
7. Motown singer Mary Wells was intended to sing “Yes.”
Best known for “My Guy,” Wells was hired to record the song, but when she arrived at the studio to cut it, she was plagued with a terrible cold and, to Lloyd’s shock, immediately left: “Now I’ve got this with no one to sing it,” he recalls. One of the backup singers on the soundtrack was the legendary Merry Clayton (featured in the 2013 doc 20 Feet from Stardom), who agreed to fill in. The similarity in their names came in handy, says Lloyd: “The producers were looking for anyone with a ‘name,’ and I thought they wouldn’t notice – one’s Mary and one’s Merry!” The track stayed.
8. “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” almost bombed.
The single was scheduled for release shortly before the movie – but when the movie was delayed an extra month, the song was left out to dry and wilted on the charts. “It fell off the charts,” says Lloyd. “We were at a party after a screening of the movie and Jimmy and I were standing there and they were saying, ‘So what are you going to put out as the next single?’ It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.'”
But once the movie was released, the song, featured in the crowd-pleasing dance scene with Swayze and Grey, quickly took off. “I had just done a duet with Gladys Knight for Cobra,” says Medley, “and I was on the road with the Righteous Brothers and the DJ introducing us one day said, ‘They’re playing hell out of your song!’ I said, ‘What song?’ He said, ‘That song with the girl.’ And I said ‘Gladys Knight?’ By the time we got off the road about two weeks later the song was Number One all over the world.” To this day, Lloyd says he has not heard from any of the pop acts who passed on it: “I’ve bumped into a couple of them over the years, and there’s never a mention of it. I’ve never brought it up.”
9. Warnes felt bad for Medley’s former partner Bobby Hatfield.
When “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” broke out, it had been over a dozen years since Medley and Bobby Hatfield, his original partner in the Righteous Brothers, had had a hit together. “I worried a lot about Bobby’s feelings,” Warnes says. “The song featured a guy and a girl, so it couldn’t have been him anyway, but when it took off, I thought a lot about Bobby. He was unhappy during that period and it made him unhappier.” Warnes says Hatfield was “very generous” with praise when she saw him, but the story was an unhappy one to the end: In 2003, shortly before a Righteous Brothers show in Michigan, Hatfield was found dead in his hotel room.
10. During the Dirty Dancing tour in 1988, Medley had to be careful when singing his Righteous hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
To capitalize on the movie, a Dirty Dancing road show, featuring Medley, Carmen, the Contours and Ronnie Spector, hit the road. At the shows, Medley saw for himself the movie’s wide-ranging fan base, from teenagers to their parents. “Here’s the odd thing about that,” he recalls. “I’m up there singing ‘Lovin’ Feelin” in my portion of the show and I’m looking out there and there are all these 13- or 14-year-old girls singing along because of Top Gun. [That oldie was featured on its soundtrack.] I called my manager and said, ‘What the hell do I do? You can’t play to kids if you’re singing a love song.’ He said, ‘Play to the moms and take the money and run.’ I had never faced anything like that before. Kind of cool but kind of unusual.”