The Real Story Behind The Song Unchained Melody

"Unchained Melody" is a song that was popularized by The Righteous Brothers in the 1960s, but it has reappeared in popular culture and on music charts multiple times over the past 50 or so years. And, the song has been associated with a wide variety of artists and even films, as well. When artists create new versions or adapt a song for new eras and new contexts, the original version can get a bit muddled. Take "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell which was covered (and somewhat remixed) by Counting Crows decades later. Sometimes it is better to not know the story behind a song so that listeners can interpret it in a way that applies to one's own life or make one's own associations based on a favorite version of the song.

The lyrics to "Unchained Melody" depict heartache and longing for a lover. The writer and the love interest are seemingly separated by time and physical distance. But, how did this song come to the forefront of pop culture and become an American standard?

Liberace released a cover of the song

Classical and theater composer Alex North gained success through screen adaptations of theater productions. This led him to a handful of films outside of the realm of theater ties in the 1950s. North was working as the composer for the film "Unchained" in the mid-1950s. The film follows a prison inmate who longs to escape the prison and reunite with his wife and family.

According to Smooth Radio, when asked to write a song for "Unchained," he recruited Hy Zaret for help with the song's lyrics. The character Bill Howard — played by Todd Duncan — sings the song with the other prisoners listening (posted on YouTube). The lyrics poignantly reflect his longing for his family outside of the prison confines.

"Unchained Melody" had a rather slow climb to prominence, however. Les Baxter when released his version of the song in 1955 (via Discogs) it hit the top spot on the charts in the United States. Liberace and Harry Belafonte covered the song as well.

Elvis Presley covered the song months before he died

The most well-known version of "Unchained Melody" is the one sung by The Righteous Brothers in 1965, though they did not foresee it being the hit that it became upon its release. Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers added the line "I need your love." This version of the song featured in the 1990 film "Ghost" during the iconic scene in which Patrick Swayze's character, Sam, holds Demi Moore's character, Molly, as she spins clay on a pottery wheel. The film's popularity brought the song back to the charts once again (via Song Facts).

Elvis Presley also famously covered "Unchained Melody" just two months before his death in 1977. When speaking to GQ, Austin Butler, who plays Presley in the 2022 film "Elvis" filmed himself singing "Unchained Melody" and sent the video to the film's director Baz Luhrmann. It caught Luhrmann's attention and helped Butler land the role.

Songwriters Hall of Fame states that there are around 1,500 recordings of "Unchained Melody" from over 600 different artists. In total, "Unchained Melody" hit the top of the U.K. song charts four times, each with a different recording.