Timeless and iconic: ‘Unchained Melody’ et al

What’s in a song? Is it the singer or the song, itself? What’s the key element that entices the listeners: the lyrics or the melody? Could it be the dynamics of its poetic composition or the narrative content that moves emotions and make listeners relate to the message? What makes a song catapult to the Billboard Chart that turns  it to an iconic music piece that transcends generations and stays timeless?

Some songs were meant to be seasonal. There are romantic ballads meant for Valentine’s Day, lonely tunes or dirge for departed loved ones, and still a great number intentionally written and composed for special personal occasions. One of the universally accepted compositions was “Happy Birthday To You.” Considered as the most recognized song in English and translated into 18 languages from the original composition of sisters Patty Hill (a kindergarten principal in Kentucky) and Mildred Hill (a pianist and composer) in 1893.

But nothing ever gets “stale” when written and composed for the Christmas season especially “Silent Night, Holy Night” (“Stille Natcht, Heilige Nacht” in German) originally composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber (an organist and headmaster) to the lyrics of Joseph Mohr ( a Catholic curate) in the small town of Oberndorf  bel Salzburg, Austria. It was an accidental hit that sprung out from the  necessity for an emergency Christmas Eve song after the organ’s mechanism was chewed away by mice.

Another “accidental” Christmas classic was “Joy To The World” which was originally written as a poem in 1719 by Isaac Watts, a great church writer, based on Psalm 98 (included in his book, Psalms of David) celebrating Jesus’ role as King of both His church and the whole world. The music was attributed to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) although several modifications were made but the version we have today was from the edition by Lowell Mason.

Despite several Christmas carols and hymns written and composed thereafter including modern creative ditties performed and popularized by top recording artists of this generation, “Silent Night, Holy Night” still remains to be the top and perfect piece for the spirited season.

However, the music business has accumulated a record of numerous top hits that indelibly stayed for the longest time in the annals of the recording industry. Some of these songs’ original writers and composers, including singers, maybe gone but their legacy remained immortal.

Who wouldn’t be moved and feel nostalgic upon hearing old-time-favorites like: The Platters’ 1955 Doo-wop chart topper “Only You,” Jo Stafford’s 1950 hit “No Other Love,” The Beatles’ 1965 Baroque Pop “Yesterday” (regarded as the most covered pop song of all time with over 3,000 versions), Johnny Mathis’ 1961 Tin Pan Alley record breaker “My Love For You,” Michael Jackson’s 1983 best selling single “Billie Jean,” Survivor’s 1982 hit “Eye Of The Tiger,” Queen’s 1975 all-time-hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Petula Clark’s 1964 eternal signature song “Downtown,” and Connie Francis 1961 most requested song “Where The Boys Are.”

Even songs from way back when are still enjoying airwave supremacy especially the likes of: Journey’s 1981 consistent hit “Don’t Stop Believin,”  Dionne Warwick’s 1964 ballad “A House Is Not A Home,” Elvis Presley’s 1960 covered hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight,?” Neil Diamond’s 1969 release “Sweet Caroline,” Ray Peterson 1961 sentimental ditty “Missing You,” The Animals’ 1964 mellow rock “Hose of The Rising Sun,” and Diana Ross’ 1970 unmatched recording of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Paul Anka’s 1957 pop ballad “Diana,” Pat Boone’s 1931 romantic hit “Love Lettwers In The Sand,” and many others that either keep us heartrending or make us merely dwell in poignant memories.

Currently and even during times when she was still actively making the rounds of every single performing arts venue around the world, Whitney Houston had effortlessly established a name hard to replicate and recorded a staggering string of hits reputable recording artists and aspiring singers incessantly resonate and emulate… a vivid attestation to her strapping status as one of the most unbeaten talents among her league. Consider her immortal hits like “I Will Always Love You” and “I Have Nothing” (from the 1992 The Bodyguard album), 1985 CD single “Saving All My Love For You” (a cover from the 1978 original recording of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.), and her 1986 version of “Greatest Love Of All” (from the original 1977 recording of George Benson).

Although there are quite a number of popular singers whose recorded songs are very much associated and synonymous to their names like: Mariah Carrey’s 1990 “Vision of Love,” 1993 “Hero,” and 2007 “Touch My Body;” Celine Dion’s 1997 “My Heart Will Go On” 1993 “The Power of Love,” and 1996 “Because You Love Me;” Beyonce’s 2008 “Halo,” 2003 “Crazy In Love,” and 2008 “Single Ladies” and Christina Aguilera’s 1999 “Genie In A Bottle,” and 2001 “Lady Marmalade.”

After having heard thousands of timeless melodies and compositions that had exceeded and relentlessly defied the test of time, and if there will be one song that has indubitably stamped its mark, carved a niche, and created a wide range of following, that would easily be “Unchained Melody.”

Composed by Alex North (1910-1991) and lyrics by Hy Zaret (1907-2007), “Unchained Melody was originally recorded and popularized by Al Hibbler (1915-2001) and Roy Hamilton (1920-1969) in 1955. Later in 1955, baritone and Opera singer Todd Duncan (1903-1998) performed it in most of his shows until it became the movie soundtrack of the 1955  film “Unchained” based from the story by Kenyon J. Scudder.

The popularity of the song spread like wild fire that even already big name stars and highly regarded record labels couldn’t help but give a try or affix their own brand and style of musicality on the said long enduring composition.

Among all artists who tried to stamped their mark on “Unchained Melody,” Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley (collectively known as the Righteous Brothers) easily made it a hit in 1965.  It was Bobby’s vocal that was used in the recording while Billy played the organ. Needless to say, the Righteous Brothers’ version became one of the most played records in history especially after it was used as the theme song of the 1990 Patrick Swayze (Sam Wheat)- Demi Moore (Molly Jensen) starrer “Ghost.”

The Righteous Brothers cover of “Unchained melody “ is currently considered the definitive version of the song  with Bobby Hatfield’s vocal being highly praised for its power, full of romantic innuendoes, yet ethereal. His was a “vocal tour de force” that was considered epic loaded with emotionally packed rendition that soared to stratospheric heights… especially when he changed the line “I need your love” into a falsetto in the final bridge.

According to the song’s publishing administrator, over 1,500 versions of “Unchained Melody” have been recorded by more than 670 artists in multiple languages worldwide. Aside from the original singer, Band leader Les Baxter released his own Capitol Records recording of the song that reached number 1 on the US charts and number 10 in the UK; Al Hibbler’s version on Decca Records occupied number 3 in the local charts and number 2 in the UK;, Jimmy Young’s version hit number 1 on the British charts; June Valli’s RCA Records got the 29th slot, Harry Belafonte sang it at the 1956 Academy Awards and recorded it under RCA Victor label; even the King of Rock n’ Roll Elvis Presley had his own version in 1977.

Ace vocal artist Perry Como, country crooner Eddy Arnold, English Jazz musician Cliff Townshend, rock n’ roll star Gene Vincent, Vito & the Salutations (used as the 1990 Goodfellas soundtrack); and the flamboyant pianist Liberace were only a few who did their own interpretative adaptations of the song.

The immortal masterpiece that was originally based on a non-fiction book “Prisoners are People” written by Kenyon J. Scudder as adapted from the 1955 Hall Bartlett Production of the movie “Unchained” has gained universal recognition and unending praise.

It’s now for us to predict as to how far the song will journey, up to what height it still has to soar, until how long will its fame last and how many more hearts will its melody touch and influence hopeless romantics.

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