Monday, February 18, 2019

The Whitewashing of Unchained Melody

In late 1954, Russian-Jewish-American composer Alex North was putting the finishing touches to his score for a prison drama - a distinct type of B-movie fodder - titled Unchained. If you’ve seen the film, it’s probably because you’re either an insomniac addicted to the TCM channel, or because you’re a die-hard Dexter Gordon fan who has to have heard every performance he ever laid down. Gordon was, purely by co-incidence, serving a sentence for drug possession when the movie was shot on location in the California Institution for Men, a correctional facility in Chino, and he makes an uncredited cameo appearance as a saxophone player in the prison band.

This 1955 movie is one of those weird instances where a Hollywood script is based on a non-fiction book that tries to offer a corrective to the way mainstream America perceives a social problem - in this case the issue of incarceration and re-socialization of criminal offenders. Hall Bartlett, who started out as a documentary film maker, wrote the screenplay (spending six months living with inmates in a prison while writing it), and was both director and producer as well. He was clearly a man with a conscience and a message. He went on to direct better-known films such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Bartlett was happy enough with North’s score to the movie, but reminded him that there needed to be a song in there as well. After all he had cast African-American operatic baritone Todd Duncan (the original Porgy in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess) in the flick, and he had to have a song to sing. North had a melody in mind, and called up his Tin Pan Alley lyricist Hy Zaret to get him to pen some lyrics. Zaret was pissed off, because he had made plans to paint his house that day and couldn’t be bothered to churn out another set of trifling lyrics. North cajoled him into it after all, and the result was a song without a title, that we all now know as “Unchained Melody”. Heard outside the context of the prison setting that it was performed in in the film, it in fact sounds like any other love song from the dominant middle-class culture of the 1950s. The lyrics seem unconnected to the theme of the film, and the word “unchained” does not appear in the lyrics anywhere.

Bartlett was a bit miffed that Zaret’s lyrics didn’t spell out the social message, but the way Todd Duncan sang the song by turning it into a Lead Belly style blues/worksong manages to convey the right feeling of longing for freedom that brought the song in alignment with the sentiment of the film: “Long all you want, but don’t break out of jail before you’ve served your time!” In Duncan’s version we suddenly hear the word “time” in a different sense - that of doing hard time in prison, when he sings the lines “Time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much”… The effect is deepened by the blue, dropping glissando Duncan adds to the word “slowly”. In contrast he refrains from glissando on the word “love”, thus shifting the whole dynamics of the lyrics. Remarkably Duncan does not perform the song’s minor key bridge, which in all subsequent versions is a striking feature, enhancing the eerie mood of the song.

Duncan’s abbreviated version, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, lasts little more than a minute on screen, but still the song got an Academy Award nomination and almost won an Oscar. Harry Belafonte recorded a folky version of the song, retaining the simple guitar accompaniment, and also performed it live at the Awards show in 1956, but in the end it was pipped for the Oscar by Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing - incidentally another product created by a Jewish-American Tin Pan Alley song-writer. However, the vision of a black man longing for freedom from shackles and chains resonated in a much deeper way with black performers than even the Unchained film-maker had envisioned, and before the year of release of the film was over two very distinct black vocalists had hits with their versions of the song: Roy Hamilton and Al Hibbler. Both these performers have interesting trajectories in show business and in Hibbler’s case also in civil rights activism, as does a third performer who 5 years later recorded a version of Unchained Melody - Sam Cooke, whose posthumously released 1964 song “A Change Gonna Come” is one of the Civil Rights Era’s classic anthems and comprises the same theme of longing for escape and redemption.

Belafonte's folk version above; Sam Cooke's soul version below...

Each of these four black artists’ version of Unchained Melody added a particular subtext to the otherwise banal love song lyrics, but let's look more in depth at Hibbler's and Hamilton's. Al Hibbler’s version on Decca was officially recorded to tie in with the release of the film, and it owed quite a bit to Duncan’s version in spirit. Hibbler had had a long career as vocalist for Duke Ellington’s big band in the 1940s, and had been struggling to make the transition into solo success as a pop artist in the early 1950s. With Unchained Melody he struck gold. Hibbler was quite the character, often ridiculed for his over the top vocal quirks and idiosyncrasies. He was also a Civil Rights activist as early as the late 1950s which of course made him a problematic commodity as a pop star for record companies. It took the unlikely intervention of Frank Sinatra to ensure that Hibbler could keep recording via a contract with Reprise Records. Hibbler's later career highs include a spirited LP of primarily Ellington material recorded with free jazz horn player Rahsaan Roland Kirk in 1965, but not released till 1972. Perhaps these two, on the surface of things, unlikely collaborators were kindred spirits in more ways than one. Both artists were blind - Hibbler from birth, Kirk from the age of two…

Hibbler’s Unchained Melody is straight-forwardly delivered, with only slight quirks in his dwelling on the word “God” and adding a clear melisma on “to” in the fervently expressed wish in the lyrics “God speed your love to me”. The minor key bridge is rushed in nearly recitativo style, and there are bluesy inflections in phrases such as “Are you still mine?” and on the word “love” - and a vast vibrato effect on the final repetition of the word “me”.

Roy Hamilton recorded his version of Unchained Melody hot on the heels of Hibbler’s and it cashed in almost as well as Hibbler’s ‘official’ release did. Hamilton was a seasoned Gospel artist and he took Unchained Melody to church in ways that Sam Cooke may have listened to and emulated to an extent - not that Cooke hadn’t perfected the transition from gospel to secular music in his own career already. Hamilton recorded for Columbia Records' ‘pop label’, Epic, one of Decca’s main competitors in the multiple genres Unchained Melody participated in - easy listening, gospel, pop, r&b and country. Hamilton’s ace in the hole, vocally, was that he had a voice that could tackle the operatic scale of songs such as Unchained Melody, as well as the earthier qualities vocalists such as Duncan and Hibbler mastered really well. Hamilton’s golden period had started with his hit recording of You’ll Never Walk Alone, and in his eager search for follow-up material, he had stumbled over Unchained Melody. After a brief career in the spotlight, Hamilton ran into health issues (possibly TB) that led to retirement from performances. After several half-successful attempts at comebacks, he died in 1969 from a sudden aneurism in the brain and has lapsed into relative obscurity among music fans.

Hamilton’s nasalised baritone is fuller than Hibbler’s, and Hamilton’s lyrics inflections are on words such as “need” and “touch”, rather than “time”. His use of melisma on “slowly” and vibrato on “love” pull the version out of jail, as it were. This aspect of the song was later exploited more fully when The Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield recorded what most people consider the definitive version of Unchained Melody in 1965. Hamilton’s musical arrangement at first follows Hibbler’s closely in the use of bugles, but later deviates considerably by adding mysterious string effects to the arrangement of the bridge, where the strings emulate the pull of the waters mentioned in the lyrics. At the end a grand piano emerges from the arrangement and lends a clear gospel tinge to the closing.

The point of this small account of the under-documented early African-American history of “Unchained Melody” is to highlight the versatile Americanness of this song. It throws light on binaries that run through American cultural and identity history, but are often denied or directly debunked. Tin Pan Alley’s greatest song-writers were Jewish-Americans, their songs were often best interpreted by African-American performers who added their own meanings to songs about longings and hardships - and yet the relations between Jewish- and African-Americans were often fraught with racism and stereotypes on both sides. In this particular case, we have a song that was reclaimed by black performers as a text speaking to their shared experience of chains and confinement - despite the fact that the song was not written by an African-American its lyrics and melancholia spoke directly to that part of black identity. However, no sooner was the song reclaimed for black identity, than it was re-appropriated for the white teen market and thoroughly whitewashed by mainstream performers.

Most of the material of the “Great American Songbook” was created by first or second generation immigrants, who worked hard to fit in and realize their American Dream - a Dream that black Americans were debarred from for several decades longer than most other minority groups. Much of the musical material that was recorded and made popular by African-American performers was also quickly re-recorded by white artists, often with more commercial success than the originals. This is obviously also the case with Unchained Melody. Contemporary with Hibbler and Hamilton’s versions, several whitewashed version circulated with great success, including a largely instrumental one by Liberace, a full orchestral and choral arrangement by Les Baxter’s Orchestra, and a strange bolero-tempo version by June Valli which reverses the gender dynamics of the song.

No success with Unchained Melody, however, has been greater than the one scored by Bobby Hatfield in 1965. His arrangement of the song scrubs it completely of its origins as a black man’s prison lament. It’s a white-bread love song by then. The musical changes to the arrangement and the unusual original structure of the song made in The Righteous Brothers’ version contribute to mainstreaming the song into a jukebox hit about teenage love. Hatfield uses excessive melisma on almost every word from the first line of the song, and adds vocal contortions and vibrato to the chorus and to the minor key bridge. He even puts a glissando from the word “me” over into an added “yeah” at the end of the bridge. The pathos of the song is underscored by the march tempo used by the orchestra, and the swelling effect of adding more and more instruments and a choral accompaniment after the bridge.

For the nostalgia market, this version of the song was used in one of the ultimate 1990s love stories, the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore movie about unattainable love after death, Ghost, sealing the Hatfield version’s evergreen status. The duo also re-recorded the song and for a few weeks bizarrely had two versions of the same song in the US charts. Coincidentally, another use of Unchained Melody in a movie soundtrack occurred the same year when the 1963 novelty/ white doo-wop version by Vito & the Salutations was featured in the gangster movie, Goodfellas… These recontextualizations of Unchained Melody removed the song from its original meaning, and made its cultural expression more universal, but also much less specific - and completed its whitewashing.

Elvis Presley, who had whitewashed a fair bit of black material in his younger days, was a late-comer to Unchained Melody, but managed to record it immediately before his death. His version paradoxically brought back some of the gospel elements Hatfield had taken out, which is especially audible in Elvis’ live TV-version of the song from Cleveland Auditorium in 1977. The footage is strangely ghostly, as an overweight and obviously ill Presley huffs and puffs his way to the piano, only to belt his soul out when the song starts. Once again Unchained Melody becomes associated with impending death in the listener’s mind. Presley brings in much the same orchestral arrangement as The Righteous Brothers’ used, but his use of grand piano takes us right back to Roy Hamilton’s gospel elements, and Elvis’ hiccup at the end of the word “God” (on two separate occasions, so clearly by design) is very reminiscent of Hibbler’s vocal tic at the same point in the lyrics. By odd coincidence, Elvis had met Hamilton shortly before Hamilton’s death in 1969, while they were both recording in the same Memphis studio, both being produced by Chips Moman. Elvis was a long-time fan of Hamilton, particularly his gospel recordings. When Elvis finally tackled Unchained Melody 8 years later he, in a manner of speaking, synthesized the versions that had come before and fused black and white vocal influences together in an all-American version of the song.

However, Unchained Melody never could become reclaimed as black again, despite Elvis, and despite the 100s of versions recorded later. This story is in no way atypical of how music was disseminated and consumed in the US in the 1950s, 60s and 70s where radio play, sales distribution and audiences were still to a large extent racially divided. It’s still remarkable that the early black recordings of Unchained Melody all had cross-over appeal and were enjoyed also by white audiences, and still the song ended up so whitewashed that few now know the African-American portion of its history.

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