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Artist: The Righteous Brothers
Writers: Alex North, Hyman Zaret
The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody is a soaring, or as Billboard put it in 2007, towering song. Few know that it was not an original. In fact, the song was over ten years old when The Righteous Brothers recorded it. Written by Alex North and Hy Zaret, Unchained Melody was originally penned for the 1955 prison movie Unchained, hence the name of the song, starring the famous football player Elroy Hirsch. It was performed for the soundtrack by Tod Duncan. It received an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
In 1955 there were three other versions of the song, by orchestra leader Lex Baxter, and singers Al Hibbler and Roy Hamilton. All of them were hits in their own right, reaching the top 10 in the United States. Additional version charted in the UK, by Liberace and Jimmy Young.
To date, there have been hundreds of versions of the song. The Righteous Brothers’ version, released in 1965, will remain the standard, despite some notable additional covers, including by Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Many, if not most, versions afterward have been based on the Righteous Brothers, who changed the melody on the last “I need your love” verse.
Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers also recorded a solo version of the song, having won a coin toss to decide which of the two, between him and Bill Medley, would get to record it. Bobby Hatfield sang the leads on the duo recording alone so, as you’d expect, the solo version wasn’t a departure.
Phil Spector, who is credited as the producer of the song, famously never wanted the song to be played on the radio. It is said that he would intentionally place throwaway songs on the B-side of singles to discourage them from being played and to make sure that the song he thought of as a ‘hit’ would be focused on. In this case, the A-side was Hung On You while Unchained Melody was intended to be an album song, what people today would call a ‘deep cut.’ Radio DJ’s never got the memo, however, and began playing the B-side, much to Spector’s annoyance, who actually called them to get them to stop playing it. According to Bill Medley, who was a producer in his own right, Spector only claimed producer credits after the song became a hit.
In 1990, the song’s fame was renewed by the movie Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. According to Medley, a new recording was needed due to licensing issues with the original. The new recording sold well, was certified Platinum and received a Grammy Award nomination. Although Bobby Hatfield felt his voice was not as good as it used to be but, personally, I feel that the new version may be better as his voice has a mature and rich timber that was lacking on the original and it is the imperfection that helps drive the emotion of the song. Perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be.