Ask anyone over the age of, say, 50 if they remember the song "Unchained Melody" and they will likely begin to sing you the lyrics: «Oh, my love, my darling / I’ve hungered for your touch / A long, lonely time...» The young lyricist who wrote those words waited a long time to hear it performed in public, but when the song finally hit the charts in 1955, it went straight to the top. Hyman Harry Zaritsky (born 1907, August 21, in New York City), aka Hy Zaret (his pen name), still has a gleam in his eye when he remembers the reason he wrote the lyrics. He was 16 years old and infatuated with "the prettiest girl in my neighborhood." He remembers well the frustration of being too shy to act on his feelings, the stuttered response when she spoke to him, the frozen reaction when she smiled at him.
So the romantic teenager wrote about his need and his longing and then went on with his life, a life full of real and enduring relationships, engaging work, travel and recognition for accomplishments other than song writing. But all along, there was an unchained melody running through his life. And it wasn’t the girl, Mary Louise "Cookie" Pierce, that dogged his life, it was the song. «The way I felt about Cookie was over in my mind when I heard that she had married the best catch in town,» he said, adding, «I read about it in the papers. It was hard.»
Zaret wrote the definitive words to "Unchained Melody" in 1936 when he was on a summer scholarship at Yaddo’s Triuna Arts of the Theatre School. It was there that he met Alex North (1910, December 4 - 1991, September 8), who composed the music. North, a composer and accompanist for a modern dancer at the time, was on the staff. «I pestered him and pestered him to compose a piano copy for me. Finally, he told me that he had music for a song. Basically, I sang the words and he guided me with what he wanted for the music. You might say I sang the song under his guidance,» Zaret said. «I asked Alex North if “Unchained Melody” was going to be a hit. Alex said it was going to be a big hit. He wanted me to team up with him to write lyrics, but I took the raving with a grain of salt and thought it was no way to earn a living. I wanted to write that song for two reasons, I needed money for college and I wanted to get that girl.» Another reason that Zaret did not pursue his interest in song writing was his mother’s displeasure. She was a music teacher of a classical bent, and became furious when she heard he had written a jazz song.
When he and North were working on the song, Zaret hoped that Bing Crosby would sing it since he was a neighbor. «I’d spoken to Bing Crosby’s wife so I thought it was a good connection. I styled it for him, you know, his songs had a dip at the end» the lyricist said. When that plan did not work out, he told North that he wanted Duke Ellington’s orchestra to record it. It took 19 years, but they finally got Al Hibbler, who had been Ellington’s vocalist, to record the song.
“Unchained Melody” first appeared in the movie "Unchained" in 1955. Todd Duncan sang it in the film, but the 1955 hit versions were by Al Hibbler (# 3 on the Billboard charts) and Jimmy Young (# 1 on the British charts). Harry Belafonte sang it at the 1956 Academy Awards where it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1955. But the Oscar went to the rival hit "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing". “Unchained Melody” became a reliable standard but it took exactly ten years for it to reach "hit song" greatness, thanks to the Righteous Brothers cover (produced by arranger/gun enthusiast Phil Spector), although Bobby Hatfield sang it solo.
The song finally became a movie hit when The Righteous Brothers’ version was used in the film "Ghost" (1990) for a scene that effectively visualized the lyric's yearnings. Alex North went on to become successful, scoring Hollywood movies. «Over his lifetime, North had been nominated about 13 times for an Oscar. They finally gave him one, an honorary one» Zaret said. He has received some royalties from his work, but not nearly all he believes he is owed, and most of it has been used to pay lawyers in a legal battle over authorship. Although he held a copyright, the song was not registered until 1982 after a legal battle with CBS, the corporation that owned the publishing company that owned the song. MPL, owned by Paul McCartney, now owns the publishing house formerly owned by CBS. In 1964 Zaret reconnected with “Cookie”, his teenager muse. She was married for the second time and living in Fayetteville. Zaret got in touch with her and, along with his wife and two of his three children, visited and stayed at her house.
Although Zaret has written other songs, he never pursued his interest in song writing. Over his long career in elec-tronics engineering he has been recog-nized in a number of Who’s Who publications. "Unchained Melody" has been like a river running through his busy and productive life, sighing "Wait for me, wait for me." He passed away in 2007, July 2, just 50 days before completing one hundred years!
Along the years this timeless song was covered by many artists, becoming one of the most covered songs ever, with more than 500 versions around the world. Some years ago, a Rato’s friend asked for a collection of those covers, because “Unchained Melody” was the song of her life. So, here it is, a Double-CD Set with 49 different artists. The choice was entirely mine (a very difficult one), and I hope you enjoy the selection.