Lyricist Hy Zaret, who wrote the haunting words to “Unchained Melody,” one of the most frequently recorded songs of the 20th century, has died at age 99.
Zaret died at his home Monday, about a month shy of his 100th birthday, his son, Robert Zaret, said Tuesday.
He penned words to many songs and advertising jingles but his biggest hit was “Unchained Melody,” written in 1955 for a film called “Unchained.” It brought Zaret and Alex North, the composer, an Academy Award nomination for best song.
Zaret refused the producer’s request to work the word “unchained” into the lyrics, instead writing to express the feelings of a lover who has “hungered for your touch a long, lonely time.”
The song was recorded by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Lena Horne, U2, Guy Lombardo, Vito & the Salutations and Joni Mitchell, who incorporated fragments into her song “Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody.”
An instrumental version was a No. 1 hit in 1955 for Les Baxter, while a vocal version by Al Hibbler reached No. 3 the same year.
But most baby boomers remember the song from the Righteous Brothers’ version. The record, produced by Phil Spector, reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart in 1965, and was a hit again 25 years later when it was used on the soundtrack of the film “Ghost.”
In all, it was recorded more than 300 times, according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which listed it in 1999 as one of the 25 most-performed musical works of the 20th century.
Among other songs Zaret co-wrote were “My Sister and I,” a hit in 1941 for Jimmy Dorsey; “So Long, for a While,” the theme song for the radio and TV show “Your Hit Parade”; “Dedicated to You”; and the Andrews Sisters’ novelty song “One Meat Ball.”
“He had some big, big hits,” said Jim Steinblatt, an assistant vice president at ASCAP.
In later years, Zaret had to fend off the claims by another man, electrical engineer William Stirrat, who said he wrote the “Unchained Melody” lyrics as a teenager in the 1930s and even legally changed his name to Hy Zaret. Robert Zaret and Steinblatt both said the dispute was resolved completely in favor of the real Zaret, who continued to receive all royalties. Steinblatt said Stirrat died in 2004.