The room is dark. It is night. A man sits, unable to sleep, looking out the window, searching for the moon. He is alone; surrounded by so many men, he is indeed very alone.
I’ve never seen Unchained, but the movie is set in a prison in Chino, California – based on a book written by someone who worked there. The dilemma – does our main character stay in and serve his time and be guaranteed to see his wife and kids, or does he escape? At some point, perhaps as he gazes longingly out the window at night, this song plays – not this exact version, but this song. Unchained has faded into obscurity, but the song was recognized as an instant classic, nominated for an Oscar and being covered almost immediately – first as an instrumental, then by both Jimmy Young and Al Hibbler. By June of ’55, they battled for number one, Hibbler getting second place, but surviving ably as it is one of the best versions of the song (and there have been tons).
“Unchained Melody” is both named after the movie and also after the song’s structure itself – it feels a bit improvised, a bit loose, with lots of room for the singer to move and express him/herself. Certainly in the Righteous Brothers’ version there is a grandeur and longing that are practically operatic, for instance – but it is easy to take this song and simply belt it out as an expression of missing the Other and miss out on all the nuances. Those singers (such as, oh, Tom Jones for instance, and as another example, Robson & Jerome) forget that the lyrics are ‘sung’ by a man in prison. He needs his Other intensely and yet also worries that she doesn’t love him anymore or perhaps has found someone knew. He wants her to wait for him, but does she? He is beside himself to know how she feels, but he has no idea, no clue. Al Hibbler sings with some doubt but also some reassurance – as if this song is a lullaby he sings to himself to keep himself going. (Whether Hibbler's being blind from birth has anything to do with this understanding, I don't know - he sings the song with great sympathy, if I can put it that way). At the same time, it is formal enough - sweet strings, noble singing, nothing that would upset Lord Reith should he offhandedly hear it one morning. But Hibbler's "to....me" is humble and wishful, expanding the song into a prayer for anyone who has been away from anyone for too long, who is anxious to know that they are indeed loved.
If you know very well you're loved, The Goons' version is perfect, complete with a cry to "Make it fresh!" in the instrumental break. Clearly something rambunctious and impolite was heading towards the charts, as the smooth 50s gave way to something rougher and looser. But for now, Hibbler is a step forward to more open-throated singing (as opposed to Young's much more formal and British version) and the eventual appearance of r&b on the UK charts.