This first appeared in the 1955 movie Unchained, starring the former football player Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. The movie takes place in a prison, and the song was written for the movie to reflect the mood of the prisoners as they wait for time to pass.
Alex North wrote the music, Hy Zaret wrote the lyrics, and a black singer named Todd Duncan sang the version in the movie. Duncan went on to become a popular vocal instructor.
When the movie came out, an orchestral version by Les Baxter was released along with a version by Al Hibbler. Baxter's version hit #1 in the US; Hibbler's went to #3.
Bobby Hatfield, who had a higher voice than Bill Medley, sang lead on this track. It was his idea to record it, since Medley and Hatfield were each allowed to choose a song to sing as a solo vocalist on their albums. As Medley tells us, Hatfield knew the song well, and was a big fan of the Roy Hamilton and Al Hibbler versions of the song. In 2003, Hatfield died of a heart attack at age 63.
The Righteous Brothers version was a huge hit, but it was recorded with far more modest expectations. Phil Spector considered it album filler and released it as a B-side. The single had "Unchained Melody," with no producer credit on the label, as the flip to Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Hung on You," but many DJs preferred "Unchained Melody" and played that one instead. This infuriated Spector, who subsequently left no doubt as to which side of a Philles single was the A-side.
The famous climax of this song where Bobby Hatfield sings the high "I need your love" line wasn't how the song was written. In our interview with Bill Medley
, he explained that Hatfield did two takes of the song, then left. He would often reconsider his performance and come back later to change it, and that's what he did on this track, returning to ask Medley if he could make an edit. This was no easy task, since with a maximum of four tracks to work with, you had to record over part of the original take, but Medley accommodated and Hatfield delivered that soaring vocal line. Said Medley: "I punched that in and he left. He said, 'No, I can do it better.' And I said, 'No, you can't.' [Laughs] And I think it's a big part of that song."
This was released on Philles Records, Phil Spector's label. Spector, known for his "Wall Of Sound" technique, did not produce this - Bill Medley did. In a 2007 statement to the Forgotten Hits newsletter, Medley said: "You have to remember that I was producing our stuff before Phil Spector... I mean I produced 'Little Latin Lupe Lu,' 'My Babe' and all that stuff. Then when we went with Phil, Phil asked me if I would produce the albums because it was too time consuming for him to produce the entire albums. So he was going to do the singles and I would do the album. And so that's how that happened and that's how I produced 'Unchained Melody,' which Phil Spector apparently now takes credit for. He can have the credit. And I'm not a producer. I know how to produce. But it's obviously not a Spector production. 'Unchained Melody' was never intended to be the single... it was produced to be on the album. It was put on the B side of a Phil Spector single 'Hung On You' and the minute it was released 'Unchained Melody' just went through the roof."
This returned to both the US and UK charts in 1990 after it was included in the motion picture Ghost (it was used in a scene featuring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and pottery). Two versions charted in the US that year: a reissue of the 1965 original Righteous Brothers single was available only as a 45 RPM single, peaking at #13, and a 1990 re-recording of the song was available only as a cassette single, peaking at #19. For eight weeks, both versions were in the Hot 100 simultaneously.
When the re-release became a hit, the label that now owned the distribution rights underestimated it's popularity and the few copies that record stores had sold out quickly, with back orders that went into several weeks. Meanwhile the Righteous Brothers, who weren't making a dime off of the original any more, decided to re-record the song and release it on Curb, Bill Medley's current label. Since the charts are based on radio airplay (only the original version) and record sales (only the Curb release), both versions landed in the Top 20 at the same time. If these two figures had been added together, a song two decades old would have been the #1 song of the year. In the UK, that was exactly the case, as the song made #1 and was the biggest-selling single of 1990.
Although the Righteous Brothers' version is the most-remembered today, it was by no means the first or most-successful "Unchained Melody." Four versions of the song made the Top 40 in 1955, three of them simultaneously in the Top 20: Les Baxter (#1 - from the movie Unchained), Al Hibbler (#3 - first vocal version), Roy Hamilton (#6), June Valli (#29). All four of these recordings were in the US Top 40 on May 14, 1955. Harry Belafonte also recorded a version that year.
When the movie Ghost
brought this song back to the charts, it marked the second time a Patrick Swayze film boosted the fortunes of Bill Medley. In 1987, Medley's duet with Jennifer Warnes, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life
," became a #1 US hit when the film it was written for, Dirty Dancing
(also starring Swayze), took off at the box office.
Medley told us: "I had talked to him a few times over the years - I used to joke with him. I said, 'Why aren't you calling us to do every one of your movies?'"
In 1995, Robson And Jerome released this as a single with "The White Cliffs Of Dover." The single went to #1 in the UK and was the best-selling single there that year. Both songs were used in a TV show called Soldier Soldier.
The Righteous Brothers released just two more singles on Phil Spector's Philles Records, and they were both covers of older songs: "Ebb Tide
" and "The White Cliffs Of Dover
." Spector didn't want to put his efforts into recording original songs if the public just wanted to hear standards from the duo.
After these releases, MGM Records bought The Righteous Brothers' contract, which paid off for the label when their first single for the label, "(You're My) Soul And Inspiration
" - an original song - went to #1.
The only record to be a #1 hit with four different versions, Jimmy Young, The Righteous Brothers, Ronson & Jerome, and Gareth Gates all topped the UK chart with this song. This is also the first song to be a million seller in the UK in more than one version (Robson & Jerome also had a million seller with this in 1995).
In 2002 Pop Idol runner up Gareth Gates scored a #1 single with this in the UK. At the age of 17 he became the youngest solo male British artist to have a UK #1. Gates' version was voted Record of the Year by ITV viewers in 2002. It sold 300,000 copies on its first day and 1.3 million overall. Gates performed this in the final of Pop Idol, in which he finished runner up to Will Young.
This was one of several songs that Simon Cowell said he never wants to hear again at an X Factor audition. "Whoever said that was my favorite song was joking," he said.
This was Gareth Gates' mother's favorite song and Gates himself knew this from The Righteous Brothers version in the film Ghost
. It was the first song that Gareth learned to play on guitar. According to 1000 UK #1 Hits
by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, he knew it would be a great song to perform on Pop Idol
: "It's a song you can sing very badly, lots of people mess up the 'I need your love' bit, but I knew I could do it okay." The CD single included Gareth's versions of "Anything Is Possible" and "Evergreen," which would have been the A-sides if he'd won the contest.
The 1990 re-release of this song went to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, giving The Righteous Brothers their only chart-topper on that tally.
The Supremes recorded a cover of this song for their album I Hear a Symphony