The Story of... 'Unchained Melody' by The Righteous Brothers
2 September 2021, 17:31
'Unchained Melody' is one of the UK's best-loved songs of all time, reaching number one on four separate occasions.
Just about every singer has attempted it, we can't not think about pottery making whenever we hear it, and you simply couldn't escape it in 1990. And 1995.
But how did the song come about? What inspired its lyrics? Here's all you could need to know about the iconic ballad...
Who wrote 'Unchained Melody?
The ballad was written in 1955, with music by Alex North and lyrics by Hy Zaret.
What inspired the song?
In 1954, North was asked to compose the score for the prison film movie Unchained. North composed and recorded the score, and then was asked to write a song based on the movie's theme.
North asked Hy Zaret to write the lyrics, but Zaret initially declined, saying he was too busy painting his house! Thankfully, he was convinced to take the job.
Zaret refused the producer’s request to include the word 'unchained' in his lyrics, and it became known as 'Unchained Melody'.
Instead, Zaret focused on someone who pines for a lover he has not seen in a "long, lonely time".
Who sang 'Unchained Melody' first?
The film centered on a man who contemplates either escaping from prison to live life on the run or finishing his sentence and returning to his wife and family.
Todd Duncan sang the vocals in the film. Lying on a bed, he sings it accompanied by another prisoner on guitar, while others listen sadly.
It was nominated for an Oscar in 1955, but it went to the hit song 'Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing' from the movie of the same name.
Who else recorded it in the 1950s?
Bandleader Les Baxter released a version soon after the film, reaching number 1 on the US charts and number 10 in the UK.
Al Hibbler released a vocal version that reached number 3 in the US and number 2 in the UK, quickly followed by Jimmy Young, who hit number 1 in the UK in 1955.
Also released in the 1950s were versions by Liberace, Roy Hamilton, Harry Belafonte, Perry Como, Eddy Arnold, Cliff Townshend of The Squadronaires, and Gene Vincent.
When did The Righteous Brothers record it?
The best-known version of the song was the 1965 recording by The Righteous Brothers.
The lead vocal was performed solo by Bobby Hatfield.
His singing partner Bill Medley later said that 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.
It was originally released as the 'B' side of the single 'Hung On You'. However, that song failed to interest radio DJs, who instead chose to play the 'B' side.
There is uncertainty over who produced the song, as Phil Spector took the credit on many tracks and 'B' sides that were actually produced by Bill Medley.
However, Medley, who had produced the duo before they signed with Spector and Philles, consistently stated that he produced this recording.
Early copies of the song didn't credit a producer, and only credited Spector after it became a hit.
Bobby Hatfield improvised on the song
Hatfield made a change to the song during the recording sessions. He initially recorded a couple of takes as it was written, but returned later, changing the melody for the "I need your love" line in the final verse, singing it much higher.
Hatfield said he could do another take better, to which Medley replied: "No, you can't."
Bill Medley played the Wurlitzer piano on the song, later saying that "if I knew that it was gonna be a hit I certainly would have brought in a better piano player".
It was a huge hit again in 1990 after its use in Ghost
The Righteous Brothers' version reappeared in the charts in 1990, after it was used in the box office blockbuster film Ghost starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.
Two versions charted in the US that year: the original and a new recording.
In the UK, the original reached number 1, where it stayed for four weeks, becoming the UK's top selling single of 1990.
As of 2017, it has sold 1.17 million copies.
Robson & Jerome took it to number one in 1995
In November 1994, an episode of the TV drama Soldier Soldier showed actors Robson Green and Jerome Flynn performing the song as an impromptu duo The Unrighteous Brothers, after the entertainment failed to appear for a friend's wedding.
Their performance triggered a strong reaction from viewers, who demanded a full recording of the song.
Simon Cowell was alerted to the interest shown by the public, and convinced the two reluctant actors to record the song (after four months of trying - Robson Green threatened legal action to stop Cowell harassing them!).
Their version 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. It stayed there for seven weeks, becoming the best-selling single of 1995, selling 1.87 million copies.
...and so did Gareth Gates in 2002
Gareth Gates first performed the song as a contestant in the first series of Pop Idol, which included Simon Cowell as one of the judges.
Gates reprised the song in the final as his personal choice, but the show was won by Will Young.
Gates was soon signed by Cowell, and released the song as his first single three weeks after the winner had released his single.
His cover became one of the fastest-selling singles in the UK, selling 328,000 copies in the first day of release. It reached number one, with sales of 850,000 copies in its first week. It became the second best-selling song in the UK in 2002, as well as that of the decade, after Will's single 'Evergreen'. It has sold 1.35 million copies in the UK as of 2017.
'Unchained Melody' now holds the record for being number one by the most different artists (4), along with the four versions of 'Do They Know It's Christmas' by Band Aid.
Who else has covered it?
Read more: Elvis Presley's greatest performance just two months before he died with 'Unchained Melody' cover
Other performers of the song include:
- Sam Cooke
- Bing Crosby
- Spike Milligan & Peter Sellers
- Willie Nelson
- George Benson
- Leo Sayer
- Cyndi Lauper
- Barry Manilow
- Elvis Presley
- Leann Rimes