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The Story Behind the Song "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

The Righteous Brothers. Photo taken at Knott's Berry Farm.

The Righteous Brothers. Photo taken at Knott's Berry Farm.

"Unchained Melody" is such a beautiful song and one that every girl in 1965 was hoping the DJ would play so she could slow dance with her favorite beau. This was the ultimate make-up—and make-out—song.

The Unlikely Origins of This Love Song

The song was originally written as part of a score for a 1955 movie called Unchained, which was based on a book published by Kenyon Judson Scudder in 1952. Both the book and the movie follow the story of a man serving time in a medium-security prison. He is deeply conflicted and must decide whether to behave himself behind bars and serve out his sentence or try to escape so he can see his wife, who he loves deeply and misses so very much.

The movie version of the song was performed by Todd Duncan, who also had a minor role in the movie.

Who Wrote "Unchained Melody"?

"Unchained Melody" was written by composer Alex North and lyricist Hy Zaret. North composed the score for the film and was then asked to write a theme song. Zaret was originally not interested in helping North with the lyrics for the song, but North kept after him, and Zaret finally agreed.

Two different versions of the song were released to coincide with the movie's release; an orchestral version and one with the lyrics performed by Al Hibbler. Hibbler's version of the song hit the number one position on the R&B charts in 1955, as did a version by Roy Hamilton. Another version from June Valli reached the #29 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles list in May 1955. The song was also recorded by Harry Belafonte later that same year.

A Brief Biography of The Righteous Brothers

When they first caught each other in action, blue-eyed soul singers Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield were both performing in different California-based bands, singing in clubs throughout the state. Medley was with a group called The Paramours, and when a spot opened up in that group, Medley invited Hatfield to audition.

Though The Paramours were signed to a record deal with the Moonglow label, they failed to release anything beyond one single and soon went their separate ways. It was 1963 and Medley and Hatfield decided to go it alone using the name The Paramours.

It happened that the duo were booked into a club in Irvine California near the El Toro Marine Base. Some of the African-American servicemen who frequented the club were quite taken with their soulful performance and would call out "that was righteous, brothers" at the end of songs. And so it was that the duo known as The Paramours soon became The Righteous Brothers. Still obligated to fulfill the terms of their contract with Moonglow, they recorded three LPs for that label using the new name.

While in Daly City in 1964 with one of his groups The Ronettes, music producer Phil Spector happened to catch a performance by The Righteous Brothers. Spector immediately approached the guys about coming to work for him and learned they were already under contract with Moonglow. Undeterred, he negotiated a deal with Moonglow that gave him the US, UK and Canadian rights to songs he produced with The Righteous Brothers for his own label, Philles Records (photo below).

An old 45 recording of "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers

An old 45 recording of "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers

Five Unchained Facts

  1. When songwriter North first called lyricist Zaret for help with the song's lyrics, Zaret replied he was too busy painting his house.
  2. Todd Duncan, who sang the song in the movie, was the first African-American opera singer to appear with what was otherwise an all-white ensemble in the New York City Opera Company.
  3. A total of four versions of the song made it to the Top 40 in 1955.
  4. The song became known as the "Unchained Melody" because it came from the film Unchained. The word unchained doesn't appear in the lyrics at all.
  5. Hatfield and Medley flipped to see who would get to sing solo on "Unchained Melody," and Hatfield won the toss.

The Righteous Brothers Record "Unchained Melody"

When the duo joined the Phillies label, Spector asked Medley if he would produce The Righteous Brothers albums so that Spector could focus on churning out singles. Medley had previously been producing the songs the duo recorded for Moonglow, so he readily agreed to the arrangement.

The guys had a hit with their first release with Spector, a song called "Just Once in My Life" that was penned by Spector, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. For their follow-up, Spector asked a couple of the songwriters in his stable to come up with the duo's next hit, and "Hung on You" was the result.

Spector insisted on having songs never meant for radio play appear on the B-sides of his releases. Wanting to feature "Hung on You" as the A-side of the 45's release, he chose an older song for the guys to cover for the B-side. And so it was that "Unchained Melody," a hit from a decade earlier, was covered by Medley and Hatfield.

Into the studio, they went to record the song. After the tracks had been laid down, Hatfield asked if he could make a change. Feeling that he could add something more to the song, Hatfield asked Medley to let him record over part of the original take. As the producer, Medley agreed.

The part that Hatfield re-recorded? The plaintive, soaring line "I need your love". Arguably, this line made the song what it was. You don't have to go looking for the original recording to hear this lovely song. There is a great compilation CD available called The Best of the Righteous Brothers: 20th Century Masters Millennium Collection that includes this song, plus "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." This way, you get two of their best.

"'s a record designed to reduce anyone separated from the one they love to a "pile of mush"'.

— Tom Ryan, American Hit Radio: A History of Popular Singles From 1955 to the Present

"Unchained Melody" Hits the Charts Once Again

The song made its debut at #72 on The Billboard Hot 100 the week of July 17th, 1965, and steadily rose up the chart, peaking in the number four spot the week of August 28th. It didn't disappear from the list until the week of October 16th, 1965.

The song saw a massive resurgence in popularity again in 1990 when it was used as the love theme in the movie Ghost, featuring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The Righteous Brothers wanted to re-release the song because of the renewed interest caused by the movie.

Due to licensing issues, The Righteous Brothers were forced to record a new version of the song, this time on Curb records. Both the original version and the re-recorded version actually appeared on The Billboard Hot 100 at the same time, making The Righteous Brothers the very first group to have two versions of the same song charting in the top 20 at the same time.

Questions & Answers

Question: Did Medley ever try his luck at singing the song?

Answer: Though Medley's voice is not the one you hear in the original recording, he has indeed performed the song. In recent years, he has sung it as a tribute to Hatfield, who passed away in 2003.

© 2018 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on January 13, 2020:

Hello DJ, you are most welcome.

What a great wedding song...just a lovely, timeless song.

DJ58 on January 12, 2020:

This was our wedding song in 1993 as the movie Ghost was our first official date and the song was in the movie Ghost. Thank you for sharing all the history this was very interesting to learn

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 05, 2019:

Hi Reginald,

Agreed, it is a very emotional song. The vocals are wonderful!

Reginald Moyo on June 05, 2019:

I real love the song.I can never explain the emotions it bears.splendid!!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 13, 2019:

I'm with you Jerry, this is a beautiful song...timeless!

Jerry Fleming on March 13, 2019:

In my unimportant musical opinion, this is the most perfect song sung by the most perfect singer to sing it. Righteous!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 22, 2019:

You are so welcome Bill. Every song has a backstory, it seems, and I love digging those up!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 22, 2019:

I had no idea about the origin of this song...and I didn't know how the Righteous Brothers got together. One of the truly beautiful songs ever written, and their recording of it will always be a classic. Thanks for the background, Kaili!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on December 17, 2018:

Hi Dieter, I'm so glad you enjoyed this! I can absolutely see why you would associate it with someone serving in 'Nam...anyone, anywhere who has ever missed someone they love would feel this song tugging at their heartstrings for sure.

Dieter Meins on December 14, 2018:

Thank you for the wonderful read and explanation of the origin of this song. As a teen at the time of the Righteous Brothers release I had always imagined it as an plea of someone deployed in NAM!

I was a bit disappointed to learn of its original plea, by a convict, but after all these years it still moves me beyond measure.

So I thank You so very much and all my best to ya!

But talk about "How to write and sing a Song" this is surely the number ONE example!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 19, 2018:

That's what I thought too when I read that Flourish. I'll bet he was glad later on through when the royalty payments came in!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 19, 2018:

I like that reason for being so busy (painting his house). It’s kinda like a “I have to wash my hair” type of reason.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 18, 2018:

Hi Reginald,

So glad you enjoyed this. I was really surprised about the origin of the song...never knew it existed before The Righteous Brothers!

Reginald Thomas from Connecticut on April 18, 2018:

Nice article! Information about the song I never New before. Love the song.