The song is ‘Unchained Melody’; 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 called ‘Unchained’ in 1955, hence the song title. Todd Duncan sang the vocals for the film soundtrack. It has since become a standard and one of the most often 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 charted in the ‘Billboard Top 10’ in the United States, and four versions (by 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 continued to chart in the 21st century, and it was the only song to reach number one with four different recordings in the UK until it was joined by ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ in 2014.
Of the hundreds of recordings made, the ‘Righteous Brothers’ version in July 1965, with a solo by Bobby Hatfield, became the jukebox standard for the late 20th century. Hatfield changed the melody and many subsequent covers of the song are based on his version. The ‘Righteous Brothers’ recording achieved a second round of great popularity when featured in the film ‘Ghost’ in 1990. In 2004, it was Number 27 on ‘AF1’S 100 Years of 100 Songs’ survey of top tunes in American cinema.
Origin of the Song
In 1954, North was contracted to compose the score for the prison film ‘Unchained’ (released in 1955). North composed and recorded the score, and then was asked to write a song based upon the movie's theme. North asked Hy Zaret to write the lyrics, 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 film centred on 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’. ‘Billboard’ ranked this version as the Number 5 song of 1955.
Al Hibbler’s recording of the song 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 In the British charts. Jimmy Young also later re-recorded another version of his 1955 chart topper in early 1964, which rose to Number 43 in the United Kingdom. Two weeks after Young's version entered the top 10 of the British charts in June 1955, Liberace would score a Number 20 hit. Roy Hamilton’s version reached Number 1 on the ‘R&B Best Sellers list’ and Number 6 on the pop chart. Harry Belafonte sang it at the ‘1955 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, as did, Perry Como which was released in 1955. In 1963. American rock and roll star Gene Vincent and a version of this song was used in the soundtrack for the film, ‘Goodfellas’ in 1990.
I recall this song for three main reasons. First was that while I could sing the song at the age of 21 years as it was meant to be sung (especially at the close of it), fifty-four years of non-singing practice between 1964-2018 left me unable to reach its musical crescendo ever again as I once could. The second reason I remember the song so well was when I learned that Jimmy Young (a radio presenter I had listened to for most of my life on BBC Radio 2) had been one of the first singers to have had a Number 1 hit with ‘Unchained Melody’. The third and most popular version of the song that I enjoyed was by Robson and Jerome. I recall being a regular television viewer of a hit 1994 military drama series that starred Robson Green and Jerome Flynn; and particularly one week when the duo was called upon to sing ‘Unchained Melody’. The military drama series ‘Soldier, Soldier’ was to spawn one of the hottest pop acts around. Seeing them, the opportunist, Simon Cowell, who was still trying to make his name in the musical production business, spotted the couple’s potential and offered them a £1million contract to record and release the song after huge public demand. Initially Robson Green threatened legal action against the persistent harassment Cowell initiated of them over a four-month period as he tried to persuade them to record the song. The song proved a massive success for Cowell and the impromptu singing duo, and it raced to the top of the charts in 1995.
Their cover of the song (in the Righteous Brothers’ style) had ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ on the ‘B’ side. It immediately reached Number 1 in the charts, stayed in the top spot for 7 weeks, and became the best-selling song of 1995 in the UK. It was also the best-selling song of the 1990s decade until it was overtaken by Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ in 1997 and Elton John’s funeral tribute to Princess Diana.
The duo’s follow-up singles. ‘I Believe’ and ‘What becomes of the Broken hearted’ (released in 1996) also reached the Number 1 spot on their release. They became the first act in the United Kingdom to have their first three singles go straight into the Number 1 spot in the charts. Their third single ’What becomes of the Broken-hearted’/ ‘Saturday Night at The Movies’/ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is the only single ever released as a Triple ‘A’-side to go to Number 1.
The duo made cover versions of popular songs that became huge hits under their names. They sold over 12 million records of their hits and decided to quit despite being offered £3 million for a third album by Cowell.
The sad thing was that despite their singing success in so short a time, the musical critics (who were too snobbish and purist in their opinions) rated them as essentially being second-class pub singers. They argued that while Robson & Jerome were popular among the ‘Baby Boomer Generation’ the music critics argued that they lacked artistic merit. Stephen Thomas Erlewine in ‘All Music’ wrote that they "offered nothing new musically" and said that: "such grand success made them the target of derision for much of the music press, who criticized the duo's manufactured, polished covers of pop and rock classics as nostalgia mongering”. As a consequence, to such criticism, the duo decided to get out of the music business and return to their acting careers. All I can say is “What a loss! Come back Robson and Jerome. We all love you.”
I dedicate this song to my good neighbours, Brian and Veronica Morehouse and allotment buddies of me and Sheila who celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary on March 23rd 2019. A very happy belated anniversary you two love birds. Thank you for being there for both Sheila and I whenever needed over the past few years. Your friendship is greatly valued by both of us. Long may your love remain ‘chained to each other’s affections’ and provided you with the link to eternal happiness.
Love and peace Bill xxx