Unchained Melody

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This article is about the song. For the compilation album by LeAnn Rimes, see Unchained Melody: The Early Years.

"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.[1] It has since become one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, most notably by the Righteous Brothers.[2] 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.[3]

In 1955, three versions of the song (Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, Roy Hamilton) charted in the Billboard Top 10 in the United States,[4] 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.[5][6] The song and "Do They Know It's Christmas" are the only songs to reach number one by four different artists in the UK.[7][8] 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.

Origin of song[edit]

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." [9][10] Zaret refused the producer’s request to include the word "unchained" in his lyrics.[11] 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".[12] 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.[12] 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,[1] 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".[12]

Early versions[edit]

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.[1] 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.[13] 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.[14]

Al Hibbler followed close behind with a vocal version (Decca Records catalog number 29441),[15] 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.[16] 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",[17] and took it to number 29.[18] 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".[19] 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,[20] and this version was used in the soundtrack for Goodfellas in 1990.[21][22]

Chart performances[edit]

The Righteous Brothers version[edit]

"Unchained Melody"
Single by The Righteous Brothers
from the album Just Once in My Life
B-side "Hung on You"
Released July 17, 1965
Format 7"
Recorded March 2, 1965, Radio Recorders, Hollywood CA
Genre Blue-eyed soul
Length 3:36
Label Philles
Writer(s) Music: Alex North
Lyrics: Hy Zaret
Producer(s) Phil Spector
Bill Medley
Certification Platinum (RIAA), (BPI)
The Righteous Brothers singles chronology
"Just Once in My Life"
(1964)
"Hung On You/Unchained Melody"
(1965)
"Ebb Tide"
(1965)

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.[32]

"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".[33] 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.

Recording[edit]

Bobby Hatfield changed the tune to the line "I need your love" for the climax of the song, a change found in many subsequent versions

Problems playing this file? See media help.

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.[34] However, Medley, who had produced the duo before they signed with Spector and Philles, consistently stated that he produced this recording.[35] 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."[36] By Medley's account, Spector only claimed production credit after it supplanted "Hung On You" as the hit.[37] 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."[35] 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."[33][37]

Re-recording and re-release[edit]

"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.[38] 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,[39] and received a Grammy Award nomination.[40]

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).[41] 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.[42] 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.[43] The 1990 reissue also reached number 1 in Australia, Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

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;[44] later in 1990, it issued its own regular-priced Righteous Brothers greatest hits CD that included the recording.[45]

Reception[edit]

The Righteous Brothers' cover of "Unchained Melody" is now widely considered the definitive version of the song.[6][35] Hatfield's vocal in particular is highly praised; it has been described as "powerful, full of romantic hunger, yet ethereal,"[6] and a "vocal tour de force", although his re-recording was noted as "fudging only a bit on the highest notes".[46] 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"."[32]

Robson & Jerome version[edit]

"Unchained Melody"
Single by Robson & Jerome
from the album Robson & Jerome
Released 8 May 1995
Format CD single, cassette single
Recorded 1995
Length 3:17
Label BMG Records
Writer(s) Alex North, Hy Zaret
Producer(s) Mike Stock, Matt Aitken
Certification 2x Platinum (BPI)
Robson & Jerome singles chronology
"Unchained Melody" / "White Cliffs of Dover"
(1995)
I Believe / Up on the Roof
(1995)

The version by Robson & Jerome is notable as the best-selling single of 1995 in the UK. It also launched the singing career of Robson & Jerome, and became the biggest hit in the UK for Simon Cowell, marking his beginning as a key player in the music industry.[60]

In November 1994, in an episode of the UK television drama series Soldier Soldier, actors Robson Green and Jerome Flynn performed "Unchained Melody" as an impromptu duo The Unrighteous Brothers after the entertainment failed to appear for a friend's wedding.[61][62] Their performance triggered a strong response from the audience who attempted to find a recording of the song that was then unavailable.[63] Simon Cowell was alerted to the interest shown by the public, and pursued the two reluctant actors for the next four months to record the song, to the extent that Robson Green threatened legal action to stop Cowell harassing them.[64][65] The actors were eventually persuaded to sign a recording contract with Cowell and record a Righteous Brothers-type version of the song as a duo. The recording was produced by Mike Stock and Matt Aitken. It was later revealed by Stock that the vocals were "assisted" and with parts sung by other session singers.[66][67] It was released as a double A-sided single with "White Cliffs of Dover", a popular song during World War II, included in recognition of the 50th anniversary of VE day, the date of the single release.[63][68] The video released for "Unchained Melody" also incorporated clips from the 1945 film Brief Encounter.[62]

Their recording immediately reached number 1 in the UK, selling 314,000 copies in its first week, at that time the fastest-selling debut single in UK chart history.[62] It stayed at the top of the chart for seven weeks.[61] It became the best selling single of 1995, and one of the country's all-time biggest-selling singles (No. 9 as of November 2012), with 1.86 million copies sold.[69] The self-titled album they released later in the year also became the best-selling album of 1995,[70] and although they decided to quit the following year, they would eventually sell 7 million copies of albums and 5 million copies of the 3 singles released.[71] Simon Cowell, who before this was known largely as a creator of novelty records with television characters such as the puppets Zig and Zag and action characters Power Rangers,[72] then came to the attention of the media for his ability to create hit records.[71]

Charts[edit]

Chart (1995) Peak
position
Ireland (IRMA)[73] 2
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[74] 1

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/Sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[75] 2× Platinum 1,860,000[43]

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

Gareth Gates version[edit]

"Unchained Melody"
Single by Gareth Gates
from the album What My Heart Wants to Say
Released March 18, 2002
Format CD single
Recorded A-side Studios,
Stockholm, Sweden (2002)
Genre Pop
Length 3:54
Label BMG, S Records
Writer(s) Alex North, Hy Zaret
Producer(s) Steve Mac
Certification 2x Platinum (BPI)
Gareth Gates singles chronology
"Unchained Melody"
(2002)
"Anyone of Us (Stupid Mistake)"
(2002)
Gareth Gates first performed "Unchained Melody" as a contestant in the first series of the UK singing competition television show Pop Idol, which included Simon Cowell as one of the judges. Gates reprised the song in the final as his personal choice,[76] but the competition was won by Will Young. Gates was signed by Cowell, and as the runner-up, Gates released the song as his first single three weeks after the winner had released his single, the double A-sided "Anything Is Possible"/"Evergreen". Gates' cover of "Unchained Melody" was released together with his versions of the same two songs as the winner's single,[77] and became one of the fastest-selling singles in the UK, selling around 328,000 copies in the first day of release.[78][79] It reached number one on the UK Singles Chart in its first week of release with sales of 850,000 copies,[80][81] and stayed at the top of the chart for four weeks.[6] It became the second best-selling song in the UK in 2002, as well as that of the decade of 2000s, after the single by the winner Will Young.[82] It has sold 1.34 million copies in the UK as of 2016.[69]

Charts[edit]

Chart (2002/2003) Peak
position
Australia (ARIA)[83] 9
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[84] 15
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Wallonia)[85] 6
France (SNEP)[86] 4
Germany (Official German Charts)[87] 17
Ireland (IRMA)[88] 1
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[89] 12
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[90] 18
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[91] 1

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/Sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[92] 2× Platinum 1,340,000[69]

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

Other notable versions[edit]

"Unchained Melody"
Single by Elvis Presley
B-side "Softly As I Leave You"
Released March 1978
Format 7" single
Recorded June 21, 1977
Length 3:26
Label RCA Records
Writer(s) Alex North, Hy Zaret
Certification Gold (Music Canada)
Elvis Presley singles chronology
"My Way"
(1977)
"Unchained Melody"
(1978)
"Unchained Melody"
Single by LeAnn Rimes
from the album Blue & Unchained Melody: The Early Years
Released September 28, 1996/ November 23, 1996[93]
Format CD single, cassette single
Recorded 1996
Genre Country
Length 3:51
Label Curb
Writer(s) Alex North, Hy Zaret
Producer(s) Chuck Howard, Wilbur C. Rimes & Roger Wojohn
LeAnn Rimes singles chronology
"Hurt Me"
(1996)
"Unchained Melody"
(1996)
"The Light in Your Eyes"
(1997)

Country charts[edit]

Different versions of the song have made the Hot Country Songs charts.

  • Joe Stampley (number 41, 1975)[108]
  • Elvis Presley (number 6, 1978)[109] On June 21, 1977, Elvis Presley performed the song at a show in Rapid City, South Dakota. The performance, described as "the last great moment of his career", was recorded for his last television special two months before his death in August 1977.[110] A single, based on this recording, was released in March 1978.[111] It reached No. 6 in the country charts of both the US and Canada,[112] and was certified Gold by Music Canada on July 10, 1986.[113] Another live version recorded earlier in April 1977 in Ann Arbor, Michigan was included in his last album Moody Blue.[114]
  • Ronnie McDowell (number 26, 1991)[115]
  • LeAnn Rimes (number 3, 1997)[116] LeAnn Rimes' cover was originally released in November 1996 as a B-side track on a promotional single "Put a Little Holiday in Your Heart" that was only available at Target stores on the purchase of her first album Blue.[117] It was also released as a single to radio and included in the compilation album Unchained Melody: The Early Years.[118] The song reached No. 3 on both the Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts in the US, and No. 3 in the RPM Country Tracks chart in Canada.[119] It was ranked No. 64 on the 1997 Year End Country Songs chart in the US,[120] and No. 49 in Canada's Year End Country Tracks chart.[121]

Impact[edit]

Popularity[edit]

"Unchained Melody" was the only song to have reached No. 1 in the UK by four different artists on the official chart until it was joined by the charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas" in its fourth re-recording in 2014.[7][8] It is the only song to have sold over a million by three separate acts in the UK — Robson and Jerome (1.86 million), Gareth Gates (1.34 million), the Righteous Brothers (1.04 million).[43] The song has been number 1 on lists of love songs featured on the United Kingdom's Channel 4 and Five.

The song has been covered by many artists; 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. Its popularity also meant that the song is one of the highest grossing songs for its copyright holders, estimated in 2012 to be the fifth biggest earners of royalties according to the BBC's list of The Richest Songs in the World at £18 million.[122]

Accolades[edit]

The song was nominated in 1955 for an Oscar for best original song from the film Unchained.[123] The re-recorded version by The Righteous Brothers was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1991 in the best pop performance by a duo or group category,[124] and their original version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000.[125][126]

In 1992, the song was given an award by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) as the year’s most-performed song. ASCAP also announced it to be one of the 25 most-performed songs and musical works of the 20th century in 1999, and the most-performed love song of the 1950s in 2003.[11]

In 2001, the song was ranked at No. 138 in the list of Songs of the Century released by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.[127] In 2004, Rolling Stone placed the Righteous Brothers version of the song at number 365 on their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[4] It was placed first in Magic 1278's 500 greatest songs of all time. It was also listed in 2004 at No. 27 in the list of the 100 top movie songs of all time in American Film institute's centenary AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of songs in American cinema.[128]

In 2007, the Songwriters Hall of Fame honored "Unchained Melody" with a Towering Song award that is presented to creators of a song "that has influenced the culture in a unique way over many years."[129][130]

In popular culture[edit]

The use of the Righteous Brothers' cover of "Unchained Melody" in the film Ghost resurrected the song popularity, and the scene where the song was played also became widely recreated or parodied in popular culture, in films such as The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, and numerous television shows including Glee, Family Guy, Community, Saturday Night Live, Two and a Half Men, 30 Rock and Wallace and Gromit's A Matter of Loaf and Death.[131][132] The song was also used in the musical adaptation of the film Ghost the Musical.[133]

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External links[edit]

Preceded by
"My Babe" by Little Walter and His Jukes
Billboard R&B Best Sellers in Stores number-one single
(Roy Hamilton version)

May 21, 1955 – June 4, 1955
Succeeded by
"Ain't That a Shame" by Fats Domino
Preceded by
"The Ballad of Davy Crockett" by Bill Hayes, Fess Parker, and Ernie Ford
Cash Box best selling record chart number 1 record
(Les Baxter & Orchestra / Al Hibbler / Roy Hamilton versions)

May 21, 1955 (seven weeks)
Succeeded by
(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock
Preceded by
"Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" by Eddie Calvert
UK number-one single
(Jimmy Young version)

1955
Succeeded by
"Dreamboat" by Alma Cogan
Preceded by
"Oh Girl" by Paul Young
Billboard Adult Contemporary number-one single
(The Righteous Brothers version)

October 13–20, 1990
Succeeded by
"Love Takes Time" by Mariah Carey
Preceded by
"A Little Time" by The Beautiful South
UK number-one single
(The Righteous Brothers version)

October 28, 1990 (4 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice
Preceded by
"Groove Is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite
Australian ARIA Singles Chart number-one single
(The Righteous Brothers version)

November 24, 1990 – January 12, 1991
Preceded by
"Without You" by Debbie Gibson
Japanese Oricon International Singles Chart number-one single
(The Righteous Brothers version)

November 5, 1990
December 3, 1990 – December 17, 1990
Succeeded by
"Last Christmas" by Wham!
Preceded by
"Dreamer" by Livin' Joy
UK number-one single
(Robson & Jerome version)

May 14, 1995 (7 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Boom Boom Boom" by The Outhere Brothers
Preceded by
"Anything Is Possible" / "Evergreen" by Will Young
UK number-one single
(Gareth Gates version)

March 24 – April 20, 2002
Succeeded by
"The Hindu Times" by Oasis