Sixties City presents a wide-ranging series of articles on all aspects of the Sixties, penned by the creator of the iconic 60s music paper  Mersey Beat

Unchained Melody


Alex North In 1955 composer Alex North (left) was writing the music for a prison drama set in an ‘honour’ prison called ‘Unchained,’ which starred Elroy Hirsch and Barbara Hale. The movie had been based on a non-fiction book ‘Prisoners Are People’ by Kenyon J. Scudler. It was set in a men’s prison in Chino, California, and the lead character has to decide whether he wants to escape from jail and continue his criminal career or serve his sentence and return home to his wife and family.

At the last minute the producers of ‘Unchained’ decided that they wanted a title song for the movie, so North went to visit his friend Hy Zaret (right) and asked him to write the lyrics to his melody. Zaret was painting his house at the time and said he was too busy, but North persisted, and Zaret finally agreed. However, he found he couldn’t incorporate the word ‘unchained’ into the song as requested. Instead, he wrote the story of someone parted from his love by a jail sentence. He didn’t have a title, but wrote ‘Unchained Melody’ at the top of his lyric sheet.

Todd Duncan sang the song on the film soundtrack and, although the film was soon forgotten, the song was nominated for an Oscar and became one of the most recorded songs of all time, with almost 700 different versions by such diverse artists as:
Elvis Presley, Liberace, LeeAnn Rimes, Barry Manilow, Cindy Lauper, U2, Harry Belafonte, Gene Vincent, Roy Orbison, The Lettermen, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Bing Crosby, Henry Mancini, James Galway, Leo Sayer, Sonny & Cher, The Supremes, Perry Como, Neil Diamond, George Benson, Val Doonican, Heart, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, The Nolan Sisters, Donny Osmond, Elaine Paige, Gene Pitney, The Platters, Cliff Richard, Dionne Warwick, Andy Williams and Il Divo.
Hy Zaret

North was born in 1910 and was to earn no less than 15 Oscar nominations for his movie scores. The composer, married to film actress Sheree North, only received an honorary Oscar due to the fact that he never won a competitive award. His impressive list of nominated scores reads: A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Viva Zapata, The Rose Tattoo, The Rainmaker, Spartacus, Cleopatra, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Shanks, Bite The Bullet, Dragonslayer and Under The Volcano. He received a nomination in 1955 for ‘Unchained Melody’ as ‘Best Song.’

In 1955, the year of the film’s release, no less than four versions entered the American charts. Les Baxter & his Orchestra topped the charts with their instrumental interpretation of the number, Al Hibbler reached the No.3 position the same week, Roy Hamilton reached No.6 two weeks later and June Valli’s version reached No.29 in the charts two months after that. Incidentally, Liberace reached No.20 in the British charts with his instrumental version, which became his only British chart entry.

The number topped the British charts on no less than four occasions – with Jimmy Young in 1955, The Righteous Brothers in 1990, Robson Green & Jerome Flynn in 1995 and Gareth Gates in 2002. Jimmy Young’s version was issued on Decca F 10502 and topped the charts for three weeks. In 1986 Leo Sayer took it to No.54 in the British charts.

The biggest British hit version was that by Robson & Jerome in 1995. The actors Robson Green and Jerome Flynn were appearing in the TV series ‘Soldiers’ and sang the song in one of the episodes. There were so many requests inundating the TV network requesting a record of them performing the song that Simon Cowell persuaded them to record it and it became the biggest selling British single of the year, selling more than a million copies. Gareth Gates came second in the ‘Pop Idol’ series in 2002 and his debut record was ‘Unchained Melody’ which leapt straight to No.1 in the British charts. At one time the publishers refused to allow Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan to release a funny pastiche of the number, but it eventually found its way onto ‘The Peter Sellers Collection’ in 1990.
Jimmy Young - Unchained Melody

Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody The Les Baxter Orchestra version, issued in America on Capitol 3055, topped the charts for two weeks from 9th April 1955 and spent 21 weeks on the chart.

Al Hibbler’s vocal version, issued on Decca 29441, reached the No.3 position in America on 9th April 1955 and spent 19 weeks on the chart.

Roy Hamilton’s version, issued on Epic 9102, on 23rd April 1955, reached No.6 in the American charts and spent 16 weeks on the chart (this was the version Elvis Presley liked). June Valli’s version, issued on RCA 6078 reached No.29 on the American chart on 14th May 1955, but only had a chart life of a single week.

The Righteous Brothers version, produced by Phil Spector and issued on Philles 129, surprisingly only reached No.4 in the American chart, on 31st July 1965, with a chart life of 11 weeks. Spector had spotted The Righteous Brothers (Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield) on a television show and signed them to his label in 1964, having a major hit with ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'.

Originally, Spector had issued ‘Hung On You’, a number he’d penned with Gerry Goffin and Carole King as the 'A' side, with ‘Unchained Melody’ on the flip. Spector was furious when radio programmers began to play ‘Unchained Melody’ instead of the 'A' side and refused to record anything with them but ‘oldies’ in the future.

Zaret was born Hyman Harry Zaritsky in New York on 21st August 1907. Among his other compositions was the comedy number ‘One Meat Ball'. Incidentally, a rather bizarre story emerged when an electrical engineer, William Stirrat, falsely claimed to have written the lyrics to the number using the pen name ‘Hy Zaret.’ He said that he wrote it at the age of 16 when he was at summer camp where he claimed Alex North was a teacher, which is untrue. Although he is an imposter, many websites believe his story and cite him as lyricist of the song.

The 2007 Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards ceremony took place in New York on 8th June 2007 where ‘Unchained Melody’ was named as the year’s ‘Towering Song'. Hy Zaret was too ill to attend but filmed a video of his acceptance speech and James Lipton presented the honour to Hy. The iconic song was then performed by New Orleans’ Nigerian/American singer Ledisi.

Alex North died on 8th September 1991 and Hy Zaret died on Monday 2nd July 2007, a month prior to what would have been his 100th birthday. Todd Duncan, who recorded the song for the soundtrack, didn’t have a chart hit with his version. He was a black singer who George Gershwin chose to be the first actor/singer to portray Porgy in his musical ‘Porgy and Bess'.
Todd Duncan died of a heart ailment on 28th February 1988.
Ricky Nelson - Unchained Melody




Mersey Beat Magazine Bill Harry attended the Liverpool College of Art with Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon and made the arrangements for Brian Epstein to visit The Cavern, where he saw The Beatles for the first time. Bill was a member of 'The Dissenters' and the founder and editor of 'Mersey Beat', the iconic weekly music newspaper that documented the early Sixties music scene in the Liverpool area and is possibly best known for being the first periodical to feature a local band called 'The Beatles'. He has worked as a high powered publicist, doing PR for acts such as Suzi Quatro, Free, The Arrows and Hot Chocolate and has managed press campaigns for record labels such as CBS, EMI, Polydor. Bill is the critically acclaimed author of a large number of books about The Beatles and the 60s era including 'The Beatles Who's Who', 'The Best Years of the Beatles' and the Fab Four's 'Encyclopedia' series. He has appeared on 'Good Morning America' and has received a Gold Award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.


Article Bill Harry 2017               Original Graphics SixtiesCity 2017

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