"UNCHAINED MELODY" HISTORY
History written by: Charlie Harvey
One of the most romantic and durable modern songs to emerge from the world of film, "Unchained Melody" had its roots in an obscure movie called "Unchained". The picture was the brainchild of one man, Hal Bartlett who wrote, produced, and directed this movie about the life in the California Institute of Men, an "honor farm" state prison at Chino. Hardly the stuff of romance.
The film was based on the career of Kenyon J Scudder, former supervisor at Chino, as detailed in Scudder's book, "Prisoners Are People". Most of the scenes were actually filmed on location at the prison. Former football player Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch played the lead character, while other inmates, each with a story to tell, were played by Chester Morris and Jerry Paris, among others. Television buffs will recognize Paris as a top TV director who got his start playing Dick Van Dyke's buddy on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" of the early '60's. Others in the cast included Peggy Knudsen and Barbara Hale, who appeared as women visiting the prisoners. Hale went on to star as Della Street in the long running "Perry Mason" television series.
The song "Unchained Melody" has fared considerably better than the film, which quickly sank into obscurity. The movie was released in January 1955 with music by Alex North and lyric by Hy Zaret. As was required in order for the song to be eligible for Academy Award nomination, the words and music were sung on the soundtrack by Al Hibbler, a blind black singer. The song finished fifth in the 1955 voting for the Award. Hibbler's version of the song and an instrumental recording by Les Baxter were released simultaneously on April 9, 1955. Baxter's orchestral version on the Capitol label actually went higher on the charts, reaching the Number One position and holding it for two weeks in the course of a 21-week chart run. This was the only version of the song to ever make it to the Number One position on the U.S. charts. Hibbler's version peaked at Number Three with a 19-week run. Two other artists reached the charts that year. Roy Hamilton reached Number Six and was on the charts for 16 weeks. June Valli was Number 29 for one week. On the London charts, Jimmy Young topped at 1 and Liberace made it to number 20.
The song was revived briefly in 1963, when Vito and the Salutations recorded a version of it that climbed the charts to number 66. This was the first "fast" version of the song. The most popular revival would come two years later, in 1965, with a brand-new recording by the Righteous Brothers, who, under the helm of legendary producer Phil Spector and his renowned 'wall of sound,' helped "Unchained Melody" find a new audience and reach the number 4 position. Not bad, considering that it was the "B-side" of a 45 RPM record. It remained on the charts for 13 weeks. Three years later, the Sweet Inspirations recorded the perennial favorite. On 9-5-1968, it reached number 73, for a total of five weeks on the charts. And once again, in 1981, Heart took a turn with "Unchained Melody", but by now it was a case of diminishing returns--their version made it only to number 83.
"Unchained Melody" the love song that began as a prison movie theme, was most recently used in the 1990 hit movie "Ghost", staring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The Righteous Brothers' version is prominently used in the sexy pottery love scene between the film's two leads. Once again, the Righteous Brothers (Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley) made it to the charts for 25 weeks. This was a new recording. It reached number 19 on 10-13-1990. A re-issue of the original was used for the movie and it reached number 13.
In 1995 Robson and Jerome from England opened at number 1 on 5-20-1995 and remained there for 7 weeks
In 2002 Gareth Gates from England opened at number 1 on March 18. 2002
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