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Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Unchained Melody"

The Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody (1965)

Ahhh 8th grade. This was my one and only dance with a girl I liked that year. Thank goodness for Ghost.

This version had a long strange trip to get here. Originally it was written as the title theme to a movie of the same name. It was about a man in a minimum security prison with only a short time left on his sentence. He wants to escape and see his family, eventually another prisoner stops him and holds him in his cell. Later this trustee sings the first vocal version of the song. He's a baritone and it's only backed by a single guitar, so it sounds nothing like any other version of it you've ever heard. This was 1955.

That same year, five different versions were released in the U.S., all making the top 40 one in the top five and one reaching number one. These are all tenors singing except for the one female alto. They all have lush arrangements, some string heavy, some woodwind, and one that sounds like it belongs as a La Résistance style snare drum heavy anthem. In the U.K. the recording was very guitar strumming heavy, which gives it an uplifting feel. Many more recording followed including fast doo-woop versions. It is said to have been recorded over 500 times in dozens of languages.

10 years after it's initial release, The Righteous Brothers recorded it and took it up the charts again. Controversy surrounds who produced the track. It was the B-side of a Phil Spector produced song Hung on You. The listing says it was Spector, but many people claim that it was bass singing "Brother" Bill Medley. He was the producer of (You're My) Soul and Inspiration just the next year, so he certainly had the chops. And Spector was known for having his name put on anything he could. Interestingly, if Medley didn't produce it, then it really wasn't much of a The Righteous Brothers track; only tenor "Brother" Bobby Hatfield can be heard singing on the single.

His voice is really emotive. Ever since the original it has been sung by a high versed tenor like Hatfield. He really sounds like his love is just out of his reach. It's not a thin tenor sound either, this is a full voice. He really cranks it up at 2:50, putting the song out of the reach of slightly inebriated, totally infatuated, karaoke singers everywhere. The arraignment owes a lot to the string heavy version that topped the charts 10 years prior. It's got a really slow build up, from just electric piano and quiet high hat at the start, to adding a few strings, then some back-up singers. By midway, the drummer is playing full out, we've got a full string section, at least two pianos and the beginning of some brass creeping in. At the high point, the trumpets are playing three and four note rising responses to Hatfield's vocals. I dig the song, and in 1990, so did all of the world, when Ghost came out and made the song, and pottery wheels, the sexiest damn things on the planet.

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