The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #218: Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #218: Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers (and a cast of thousands).

“Unchained Melody” is a soaring ballad that was originally written way back in 1955 by two men named Alex North (he wrote the music) and Hy Zaret (who wrote the lyrics). This song gained fame in later years based on a recording by two guys who weren’t brothers but, who went by the name, The Righteous Brothers…Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield. This song is interesting for many wierd and wonderful reasons, as I shall list below. Here we go…….

First things first, the song “Unchained Melody” was actually written for a prison movie called, “Unchained”. The song was to play over the opening credits, hence the title, “Unchained Melody”. The premise of the movie was that a prisoner was pining for his love and was trying to determine if he had the strength and courage to change his lifestyle in order to merit release so that he could be with the one he loved. In other words, he wanted to become “unchained” from his past. At the time of the movie’s release, no one thought of the song of a hit.

Yet, “Unchained Melody” was covered by several singers and big bands and charted numerous times before The Righteous Brothers ever got their turn at the mic. In fact, including The Righteous Brothers original hit in the 1960s, plus the remake that happened when the song was used in the 1990s in the movie, “Ghost” (with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore), “Unchained Melody” has actually reached the number #1 spot on the charts four different times (which is a record for the same song reaching #1). Obviously, there is something about the song that resonates within the hearts and minds of those who listen to it.

The Righteous Brothers version is rightfully credited with being the default version of this song. However, even this version has some unusual issues about it. Apparently, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield had a pact when it came to each album and who sang what. The pact was that they would do duets for all songs but two. For those two songs, each would take one as a featured solo. When it came time to record “Unchained Melody”, both men wanted to be the one to record it. In order to determine who would sing the song, they reverted to their childhood and held a rock-paper-scissors match. Bobby Hatfield won and it is his voice that you hear on their famous recording.

In situations when one partner was doing the singing, the other would pitch in with the recording in studio. However, when it came time to make the final cut….after much of the work had been done….the final production responsibilities fell to the infamous Phil Spector. If you recall, Phil Spector was famous in the 1960s for his recording technique known as “the wall of sound” thus, when you listen to “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers, one aspect that always strikes listeners is the fullness of the sound. It is a big sounding, soaring song! That having been said, the story is that almost 99% of the recording for this song was done by Bill Medley and that Spector merely listened to the final edit that Medley had put together and signed off on it. For some of the first run of manufacturing, the 45s listed Medley as the producer. Phil Spector was outraged and demanded his usual production credit….and ended up getting it. The moral of this story for you is that, if you are ever hunting for bargains in a thrift shop or record store and come across an old 45-single that lists Medley as producer then, you have yourself a true collector’s item.

As mentioned, not many people originally thought of this song as a hit. Most industry insiders felt it was more of a complementary track or “filler” as they say. Back in the 1960s, the money was made selling singles that could be played on the radio or else, in jukeboxes. Putting a single on an album was merely a means to an end of getting music into the hands of listeners. It wasn’t until The Beatles came along and started putting together albums where the songs connected thematically, that having a whole album meant more than having the “hit single” that the record company was pushing at the time. So, no one ever thought of “Unchained Melody” as anything other that filler for the next Righteous Brothers album. In fact, it was first released as a B-side to another song that was being pushed out as the “hit”. But, when radio DJs started playing side “B” of the 45, just to see what was on it, that is when “Unchained Meldoy” burst to life and caught on with listeners who demanded it be played, again and again.

So, there you have it. A song that has been covered by, literally, hundreds and hundreds of musicians and bands (including Elvis during his farewell concert, two months before his death). It is a song that has reached #1 position four different times and yet, was never meant to be a hit! Sometimes, things are simply meant to be and, in the case of “Unchained Melody”, it appears that the adage of the customer always being right applies here.

So, sit back and enjoy the powerful beauty of a song originally wirtten for a prison movie…..”Unchained Melody”, Righteous Brothers version and enjoy.

The link for the video to the song, Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers, can be found here.

The link to the video that shows how “Unchained Melody” was used in the movie, “Ghost”, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Righteous Brothers, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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