Meet the Writers Behind the Righteous Brothers Hit, “Unchained Melody”

Though “Unchained Melody” was written as the theme song for the 1955 prison film, Unchained, it’s since become one of the most well-known songs in popular music. Composed by Alex North with lyrics by Hy Zaret, the pair was contracted by the studio to write a theme song for the film that’s centered around a man who has to choose between breaking free from prison or fulfilling his sentence and returning home to his wife and children.

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Born in New York City in 1907 to Russian immigrants, Zaret intended on being a lawyer, attending West Virginia University, and earning an undergraduate law degree from Brooklyn Law School. He later became part of what was known as Tin Pan Alley, a group of popular songwriters and music publishers in New York City in the 1900s. Prior to the massive success he saw with “Unchained Melody,” Zaret also wrote “My Sister and I” in response to World War II, which was recorded by Jimmy Dorsey, and the pop standard “Dedicated to You” that’s been recorded by numerous artists, including Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Andy Kirk.

It was Zaret who refused to include the word “unchained” in the lyrics, despite it being the film’s title. “Mr. Zaret liked to tell about the time the composer Alex North called him to say he had written a song for a movie and needed words. Mr. Zaret replied that he was busy painting his house,” the New York Times reports. “But he found time to write the lyrics for ‘Unchained Melody.’”

In 1955, “Unchained Melody” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards and it’s now regarded as one of the most performed songs of the 20th century, with Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Roy Orbison among the many singers who have covered it. Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, and Roy Hamilton each had a top 10 hit with their renditions, with Hibbler’s version hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and Hamilton reaching the summit on the same chart in 1955. The Righteous Brothers also had a hit on their hands when their cover of “Unchained Melody” reached the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.

Following the success of “Unchained Melody,” Zaret then focused on writing children’s educational music with songs “Why Does the Sun Shine?,” “Ballads For the Age of Science” and more.

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As for North, he’s also the composer behind scores for classic films, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Cleopatra, Death of a Salesman, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like his “Unchained Melody” cohort, North was also born the son of Russian immigrants and raised in Pennsylvania. He served in the Army during World War II and during his tenure of service, he composed the score for several documentaries for the United States Department of War. Throughout his career, he was nominated for 15 Academy Awards and won a Golden Globe for Original Score in 1968 for his work on the film The Shoes of a Fisherman. He was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1986.

Zaret passed away at the age of 99 in 2007, weeks before his 100th birthday. He was preceded by North, who died at 80 years old in 1991 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage

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