I have a message from Sam. No, I’m not Whoopi Goldberg, relaying a message from a dead lover to their spouse. And actually, this message isn’t from Sam; it’s from me. That message: every version of Unchained Melody ever recorded is amazing. Seriously, have you heard the version by Heart? What about Elvis? And how about the haunting instrumental by Les Baxter? Seriously, this is the version they should have used in the movie Ghost!
Unchained Melody might be the loneliest song ever recorded; it also might be one of the best songs ever recorded. Several versions of the song have reached the top of the charts. The original version of the song was nominated for an Oscar, and The Righteous Brothers version was nominated for a grammy. The RIAA ranked it at 138 on their song of the century list. Rolling Stone ranks it at 374 in their Greatest 500 Songs of All Time list.
No matter which version of the song you hear, Unchained Melody offers amazement, no matter who records the song. Still, some versions of Unchained Melody are a little more amazing than others. Which versions of Unchained Melody stand out from the rest? Join me, as I explore six different versions. This is Cover vs Orginal: Unchained Melody.
The original version of Unchained Melody, recorded for the film Unchained, is short and sweet. Duncan gives no-frills to his version, not even an intro. We hear Duncan’s baritone immediately as he strums his guitar.
Considering the context of the film (Duncan’s character is an inmate, playing a song in the presence of other inmates), we shouldn’t expect any grand production. What we do expect, and what we get, is the emotions of a man who misses their “darling.” And as a bonus, the mystery of the song’s title is solved. Unchained Melody is literally a melody from the film Unchained.
The birth of Unchained Melody is lonely, simple, and beautiful.
The Righteous Brothers
Just like the original, The Righteous Brothers jump right into the song. Half a second in, the vocals start. No instrumental openning.
While the accompaniment is certainly more elaborate than the original prison movie version, The Righteous Brothers version of Unchained Melody is still pretty simple for most of the song. The same basic notes and chords are played although the song on various stringed instruments and guitars. At the same time, as the song progresses, more instruments join the song. We hear drums at the start of the second stanza. We hear the string sections amplified towards the end of the song. There’s even hear a chorus of singers.
The Righteous Brothers keep their version simple, yet they maximize the simplicity of the song.
Roy Oribison still takes a little longer to get to the vocal part than in previous versions. Instead of half a second, Orbinson starts his vocals about two seconds into Unchained Melody. The extra breathing room is certainly a welcome feature.
Like the Righteous Brothers, Orbison finds a balance of simplicity vsx progressive complexity. In fact, it’s almost tempting to call this a first wave cover of the Righteous Brother’s version. Still, Orbison brings his unique crooner style to the song. Orbison was a good guitarist, but his real talent was his voice. In fact, Orbison might have been the greatest singer of the 20th century, but I digress. My point being, it was impossible for Orbison to do just a basic cover. So much work and talent went into every note the man sang.
Orbison extends the intro and croons Unchained the Melody. The results are even more beautiful than we thought possible.
A B-side to “All I Want Is You,” U2 brings a slightly more rock styling to Unchained Melody. Still, Bono keeps with tradition and keeps the vocals pretty simplistic. He does add a few notes here and there, but overall he stays the course for the song. Mullen’s drums also follow tradition, as they sound fairly simple at first but build in complexity as the song progresses.
The Edge, however, throws tradition out the door. His guitars sound chaotic and ear-piercing loud. Considering the context of the song, a B-side to a song about The Edge’s failed marriage, these wailing guitars are important. The loud and raw guitar rock sound is The Edge screaming in his own way. The ending of the song drives this point home, as we hear The Edge sing “I need your love” a few times as the song closes.
U2’s rock version serves as a vehicle for the Edge to express his own sorrow.
Imagine Elvis singing Unchained Melody with a Reggae backing band. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Dread Zeppelin’s cover of Unchained Melody. Yes, there’s an actual Elvis impersonator in Dread Zepplin. Together with a cast of bandmates who are part Bob Marley, part Led Zepplin, we get a wild ride of a song.
Dread Zeppelin entertains us with their unconventional version of Unchained Melody.
I mentioned Gregorian before, but for those of you unfamiliar, they mix Modern pop music with classical Gregorian chants. With this style applied to Unchained Melody, the results are mind-bending and exciting.
Gone is simplicity and tradition. Gregorian starts Unchained Melody with a full harmonizing chorus, along with several classical strings and horns orchestrated beautifully. Of course, they do keep a little tradition. During the ending stanza, the song increases in complexity. More vocalists join the chorus and more instruments join the orchestra. The result is a sound so full, it’s almost impossible to hear the individual parts. There’s just so much going on.
While the original version of Unchained Melody proves less is more, Gregorian’s version proves more can be just as good.
Norah Jones returns Unchained Melody to simplicity. With her best Patsy Cline inspired voice, Jones sings sultry notes that transport us back to the early 1960s. Meanwhile, an electric rhythm guitar plays in the background (and even in the foreground between the second and third stanzas). An electric organ plunks a few notes throughout the song, and a drum kit keeps a modest beat. At less than three minutes long, Jones keeps her cover of Unchained Melody short and to the point.
There isn’t much more to say about Jones’ cover of Unchained Melody; it’s just simple and beautiful.
Which version of Unchained Melody breaks our chains?
A couple versions of Unchained Melody, while interesting and entertaining, really can’t compare to other versions. Dread Zeppelin’s version is fun, and Gregorian’s version is mind-bending. Still, the genre experiments don’t hold the song’s essence well. Likewise, as much as I love U2’s version of Unchained Melody, Bono’s voice just doesn’t seem right for Unchained Melody.
Todd Duncan’s version sets the framework for Unchained Melody but seems like half a song in comparison to other versions. Norah Jones, Roy Orbison, and (of course) The Righteous Brothers shows us what the song can and should be. With that said, Norah Jones’s version could use a bit more of the complexity that defines other versions of Unchained Melody.
Like I said earlier, Roy Orbison’s version is almost identical to the Righteous Brothers version. The major difference is Orbison’s voice. And like I said earlier, Orbison might be the best vocalist of the 20th century. So, yes – with that said, although The Righteous Brother recorded the most popular version of Unchained Melody, Roy Orbinson’s version is simply superb! Sure, the Orbison version cannot exist without the Righteous Brothers version, and sure, but the subtleties in his vocal stylings bring out the best in Unchained Melody.