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UNCHAINED MELODY

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Above:  The best-known version of “Unchained Melody” was recorded by the duo The Righteous Brothers for Philles Records in 1965.

Unchained Melody – 1955

“Unchained Melody” is a 1955 song with music by Alex North and lyrics by Hy Zaret. North used the music as a theme for the little-known prison film Unchained, hence the name. Todd Duncan sang the vocals for the film soundtrack. It has since become one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, most notably by the Righteous Brothers. According to the song’s publishing administrator, over 1,500 recordings of “Unchained Melody” have been made by more than 670 artists in multiple languages.

In 1955, three versions of the song (Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, Roy Hamilton) charted in the Billboard Top 10 in the United States and four versions (Al Hibbler, Les Baxter, Jimmy Young and Liberace) appeared in the Top 20 in the United Kingdom simultaneously, an unbeaten record for any song. The song and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” are the only songs to reach number one by four different artists in the UK. Of the hundreds of recordings made, it was the July 1965 version by the Righteous Brothers, performed as a solo by Bobby Hatfield, that became a jukebox standard for the late 20th century. This version achieved a second round of great popularity when it was featured in the 1990 blockbuster film Ghost. In 2004, it finished at number 27 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.

In 1954, North was contracted to compose the score for the prison film Unchained. North composed and recorded the score, and then was asked to write a song based upon the movie’s theme. North asked lyricist Hy Zaret to write the lyric, but Zaret initially declined, saying he was too busy painting his house. North was able to convince him to take the job, and together they wrote “Unchained Melody.” Zaret refused the producer’s request to include the word “unchained” in his lyrics. The song eventually became known as the “Unchained Melody” even though the song does not actually include the word “unchained”. Instead, Zaret chose to focus on someone who pines for a lover he has not seen in a “long, lonely time”. The 1955 film centered around a man who contemplates either escaping from prison to live life on the run or completing his sentence and returning to his wife and family. The song has an unusual harmonic device as the bridge ends on the tonic chord rather than the more usual dominant chord. With Todd Duncan singing the vocals, the song was nominated for an Oscar in 1955, but the Best Song award went to the hit song “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”.

Todd Duncan sang the vocals for the film soundtrack. He performs an abbreviated version in the film, playing one of the prisoners. Lying on a bed, he sings it accompanied by another prisoner on guitar while others listen sadly. Bandleader Les Baxter released a version (Capitol Records catalog number 3055) which reached number 1 on the US charts and number 10 in the UK. The words “unchain me” are sung repeatedly at the beginning and the lyrics are sung by a choir. Billboard ranked this version as the No. 5 song of 1955.

Al Hibbler followed close behind with a vocal version (Decca Records catalog number 29441), and it reached number 3 on the Billboard charts and number 2 in the UK chart listings. He was quickly followed by Jimmy Young, whose version hit number 1 on the British charts. Jimmy Young also later re-recorded another version of his 1955 charttopper in early 1964 and that version charted at number 43 in the UK. Two weeks after Young’s version entered the top 10 of the British charts in June 1955 Liberace would score a number 20 hit (Philips PB 430). Roy Hamilton’s version (Epic Records catalog number 9102) reached number one on the R&B Best Sellers list and number 6 on the pop chart. June Valli recorded the song on March 15, 1955 and it was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 20-6078, with the flip side “Tomorrow”, and took it to number 29. Harry Belafonte sang it at the 1956 Academy Awards, where it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1955. Belafonte had also made a recording of the song for RCA Victor Records, which was released as catalog number 20-6784 in 1955, with the flip side “A-Roving”. Perry Como recorded the song in 1955 as did his RCA Victor labelmate top country crooner Eddy Arnold, and English jazz musician Cliff Townshend of The Squadronaires also released a popular version in 1956 as did American rock n roll star Gene Vincent in the same year. In 1963, an uptempo, doo-wop version by Vito & the Salutations reached Billboard Hot 100 at No. 66, and this version was used in the soundtrack for Goodfellas in 1990.

The Righteous Brothers version

The best-known version of “Unchained Melody” was recorded by the duo The Righteous Brothers for Philles Records in 1965. The lead vocal was performed solo by Bobby Hatfield, who later recorded other versions of the song credited solely to him. According to his singing partner Bill Medley, they had agreed to do one solo piece each per album. Both wanted to do “Unchained Melody” for their fourth album, but Hatfield won the coin-toss.

“Unchained Melody” was originally released as the ‘B’ side of the single “Hung On You” as the follow-up single to “Just Once in My Life”. However, “Hung On You” failed to interest radio DJs who instead chose to play the ‘B’ side “Unchained Melody”. According to Medley, producer Phil Spector, who would deliberately place a throwaway song that wasn’t meant to be played on the ‘B’ side, was incensed that the DJs chose to play the ‘B’ side and started calling radio stations to stop them playing “Unchained Melody”. However, this failed to stop the success of the song, and the song reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 14 in the UK in 1965.

There is some uncertainty over who produced the song as Spector took the credit as the producer on many tracks and ‘B’ sides that were produced by Medley. However, Medley, who had produced the duo before they signed with Spector and Philles, consistently stated that he produced this recording. Spector was primarily interested in producing singles and “Unchained Melody” was originally intended to be an album cut. Medley said: “Phil came to me and asked me to produce the Righteous Brothers albums because he would have taken too long and it would have cost too much money.” By Medley’s account, Spector only claimed production credit after it supplanted “Hung On You” as the hit. Early copies of the single did not credit a producer for “Unchained Melody” and only credited Spector as producer of the original single “Hung On You”. Later pressings of the single credited Spector as the producer.

During the recording sessions, Hatfield initially recorded a couple of takes of the song, but returned for another session, changing the melody for the “I need your love” line in the final verse from the way it was written, and sang it much higher instead. Hatfield then said he could do it better, to which Medley replied: “No, you can’t.” Medley played the Wurlitzer piano on the song and he noted that “if I knew that it was gonna be a hit I certainly would have brought in a better piano player.”

Re-recording and re-release

“Unchained Melody” reappeared on the Billboard charts in 1990 after The Righteous Brothers’ recording was used in the box office blockbuster film Ghost. Two versions charted in the US that year – the original and a new recording. According to Medley, he was interested in having the original recording released due to the renewed interest in the song, but was told that there were issues with the licensing. Although Hatfield was no longer in the same condition vocally than when he first recorded the song, they decided to re-record the song for Curb Records. The re-recorded version was released as both a cassette single and a vinyl single. It received minimal airplay but recorded excellent sales, peaking at number 19. The re-recorded version was certified Platinum by the RIAA on January 10, 1991, and received a Grammy Award nomination.

The 1965 original Righteous Brothers recording was reissued by oldies-reissue label Eric Records, under licensing from Polydor Records (which had acquired the rights years earlier). The original version received a lot of airplay, and topped the U.S. adult contemporary chart for two weeks in 1990. However, sales were minimal in the US since it was only available as a 45 RPM single and the song peaked at number 13. For eight weeks, both versions were on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously and the Righteous Brothers became the first act to have two versions of the same songs in the Top 20 at the same time. This re-released song reached number 1 in the UK where it stayed for four weeks, becoming the UK’s top selling single of 1990 and as of 2012, it has sold 1.04 million copies. The 1990 reissue also reached number 1 in Australia, Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

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Due to the success of their re-recording, The Righteous Brothers also re-recorded other songs and released them as part of a budget-priced CD compilation by Curb Records. For the original recordings, Polydor had licensed the CD rights to Rhino Records for a premium-priced 1989 compilation of Righteous Brothers hits from various labels; later in 1990, it issued its own regular-priced Righteous Brothers greatest hits CD that included the recording.

Reception

The Righteous Brothers’ cover of “Unchained Melody” is now widely considered the definitive version of the song. Hatfield’s vocal in particular is highly praised; it has been described as “powerful, full of romantic hunger, yet ethereal,” and a “vocal tour de force”, although his re-recording was noted as “fudging only a bit on the highest notes”. The production of their original recording has been described as “epic”, and that with “Hatfield’s emotion-packed tenor soaring to stratospheric heights, it’s a record designed to reduce anyone separated from the one they loved to a “pile of mush”.