The Backstory on Unchained Melody

Inspired by a prison movie. Popularized by the Righteous Brothers and featured in “Ghost,” it’s had over 1500 incarnations.

Most of us remember “Unchained Melody” as a tune popularized by The Righteous Brothers. Although it first appeared in the on the charts in the mid 1950s, it has had many incarnations in film, popular culture and on the air in the six-plus decades since its composition.

“Unchained Melody” is a ballad about a woman who misses her lover and longs for his return. The writer and the love interest are seemingly separated by time space. It grew out of the creative mind of film and theatrical composer, Alex North, who was asked to come up with a song for actor Todd Duncan to sing in the 1955 prison film “Unchained.”

North recruited Hy Zaret for assistance in writing the lyrics. Duncan’s character sings the song with the other inmates, his desire for his family outside of prison walls poignantly reflected in the song’s words.

Les Baxter’s version of “Unchained Melody”, was a breakthrough, topping the Billboard Hot 100 in the wake of the film’s success. Recordings by Al Hibbler, and Roy Hamilton also charted that year.

It was a decade later that the Righteous Brothers’ iconic rendition of “Unchained Melody” was released. At the time, the duo had no clue it would become a hit.

The line “I need your love,” which was added by Bobby Hatfield, didn’t appear in Zaret’s original lyrics, but became part of every cover thereafter.

The Righteous Brothers take on “Unchained Melody” got a second life when it appeared in the soundtrack of the 1990 film “Ghost.” We hear it during one of the film’s most indelible sequences, when Patrick Swayze’s character, Sam, holds Demi Moore’s character, Molly, as she spins clay on a pottery wheel.

Elvis charted with his cover version, released just months before his death in 1977. And Austin Butler leveraged his video recording of the song to win the lead in the 2022 “Elvis” bio-pic. He sent it to Baz Luhrmann who ultimately cast Butler in the leading role.

1500 versions of “Unchained Melody” have been released over the years by more than 670 artists. In addition to its many US chart appearances, the tune cracked the top 20 in the U.K. four times, by four different artists, a record that is still unmatched.