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

Updated on April 19, 2018
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2017 are stuck in her head.

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

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.

"Oh, my love, my darling

I've hungered for your touch

A long, lonely time

Time goes by so slowly

And time can do so much

Are you still mine?"

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 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 | Source

Five Unchained Facts

  1. When song writer 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 followup, Spector asked a couple of the song writers 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 form 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.

"...it'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 Rigteous Brothers the very first group to have two versions of the same song charting in the top 20 at the same time.

© 2018 Kaili Bisson

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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      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 profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 months ago from USA

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      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 profile image

      Reginald Thomas 

      5 months ago from Connecticut

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

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