Oh, those lonely rivers

Cover art for Bear Family release I Hunger For Your TouchAlex North and Hy Zaret are no doubt beaming from whatever cloud they’ve been uploaded to; there have been perhaps a thousand different recordings of “Unchained Melody,” a throwaway song from a 1955 Warner Bros. prison film that caught on immediately with the general public, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead seeing a 1955 Warner Bros. prison film. Thirty-one of those recordings are collected on a new Bear Family set called Unchained Melody: I Hunger For Your Touch, which contains all the versions you know, along with rather a lot of the ones you don’t, or at least rather a lot of the ones I don’t.

After Hy Zaret’s death in 2007, I wrote this:

“Unchained Melody,” as it was called, hit the charts in four versions in ’55; Les Baxter (Capitol 3055) took it to Number One, but his version was more or less an instrumental (there’s a brief chorus), leaving the vocal prize to Al Hibbler (Decca 29441), who coaxed it to #3 and bestowed upon it pop-standard status. Lots of people recorded it over the next decade or so; Phil Spector tossed it into a 1965 Righteous Brothers session as the B-side to “Hung On You” (Philles 129), the intended follow-up to “Just Once in My Life.” But “Hung On You” never broke Top 40, and DJs turned the 45 over to find, not the usual Spector throwaway instrumental, but a lovingly-produced Bobby Hatfield solo performance in front of the Wall of Sound at its lushest. (This being a B-side, rumors persist to this day that the other Righteous fellow, Bill Medley, actually produced it; I have my doubts, though Medley’s production for the Brothers’ post-Spector discs for Verve demonstrates his mastery of the Wall.) “Unchained Melody” climbed to #4; its inclusion in the 1990 romantic fantasy Ghost led Verve to reissue the single, which reached #13. (A re-recording by the Brothers also charted, reaching #19.)

Zaret, of course, approved. He was reportedly not amused by a George Martin-produced version by the Goons, which Parlophone stuffed back into the Abbey Road vaults before it could see the light of day, prompting the Goons to move to Decca. The recording finally surfaced in 1990, and apparently not even Dr. Demento would play it.

The Bear Family set includes a version by Todd Duncan, who sang the song in Unchained; it did not chart, despite Duncan’s brand-name status — George Gershwin himself had tapped Duncan for the lead in Porgy and Bess — perhaps because Duncan’s operatic baritone seemed out of place on mid-Fifties pop radio, and perhaps because the record was saddled with the title “Lonely Rivers.” Judge for yourself after the jump:

Regrettably, Bear Family did not include that infamous Goons recording, which sounds like this:

That said, the guy I feel for is Bill Medley. He still tours at 73, and fans of the brothers Righteous still call out for “Unchained Melody,” of which Medley sang not one note, it being out of his range.

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