Unchained Melody, by Jimmy Young (his 1st of two #1s)
3 weeks, from 24th June to 15th July 1955
Forget ‘I Believe’, discard ‘How Much is that Doggie’, don’t mention ‘Mambo Italiano’… For the first time in this countdown, we have a song that everyone knows.
We’ve flirted with legend so far. Sinatra and Doris Day have hit the top, but not with any of their most famous recordings. Frankie Laine has set an unbeatable chart record with a song that will be unmistakeable to people of a certain age. And there have been other chart toppers that people might be able to sing a couple of lines from. But everyone, and I repeat everyone, knows ‘Unchained Melody’.
But not everyone will know this version. 4 (Four!) versions of ‘Unchained Melody’ have hit top spot in the UK charts – take a bow The Righteous Brothers, Robson & Jerome, and Gareth Gates, we shall hear from you anon. With these versions – the former especially – ingrained in popular culture, Jimmy Young’s version is a strange listen.
The tempo is faster, for a start. Then there are the Spanish guitars, when we are used to it being a piano led song. And then there is the clipped, British delivery. No glossy, American vocals here. Young’s voice is deep, sonorous even. It’s technically a good voice. But there is more than a whiff of David Whitfield about it, especially when he belts out the line Are you still MIIIIIIINE?
He still needs your love, and would like God to speed your love to him. It is the same song, but it’s not. I think that were this a more forgotten hit – a ‘Give Me Your Word’ for example -it might simply file in amongst all the other stiff, slightly overwrought, pre-rock ballads that we have sat through so far. But, unfortunately for Jimmy Young, people took this song and turned it into one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of popular music ever recorded. And his version, while still not the original (there were, inevitably, four other versions in the chart during the summer of ’55), now sounds very dated next to the more modern interpretations.
Interestingly, though, as we study the evolution of the number one record through time, we have a first here. At least, I think it’s a first (I can’t be bothered going back and listening to all the previous thirty-three). So many of these hits have favoured a bombastic THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG approach to the final chorus (to be referred to from now on as a TITEOES ending). And what song would have better suited this kind of OTT climax than ‘Unchained Melody’? But no. What we have here is Young singing the last line – God speed your love to me – the final note being held, the guitars strumming and a fade. A fade! And it works pretty well. It is, ironically – considering the time in which it was recorded – the most understated ending out of the four chart topping versions.
Why, though, is it called ‘Unchained Melody’ when the lyrics make no reference to being ‘unchained’? Is it because the singer is unchaining his heart, and pouring out his feelings to the one he loves? That would be a sensible guess, but no. We might as well address this here, though I am aware that I will have sod all to write about by the time we stumble across the Gareth Gates version. The song is from a film called ‘Unchained’, and is therefore the melody from ‘Unchained’. Kind of like Mantovani’s ‘Song from Moulin Rouge’. Simple. The film has been forgotten, but it lingers on in the title of a world-famous love song. And, it keeps up our run of film soundtrack #1s – four in a row, and counting. Of course, ‘Unchained Melody’ is also very well known for being in an ultra famous scene from another movie: ‘Ghost’. Which is turning this all very meta – kind of like the play within a play. Or not. I think I should stop writing soon.
But I can’t finish without mentioning the man who has played barely a supporting role in this post so far: Jimmy Young himself. I’ve not so far been able to relate many of these early chart toppers to life events, experiences, or memories… But I do have a special place in my heart for Jimmy Young.
He was known by most as a Radio 2 DJ, rather than a singer. My parents love a bit of Radio 2 – as parents tend to do – and while I did put in some half-hearted protests for Radio 1, or even a commercial station (Shock! Horror!), I didn’t actually mind long car journeys with Steve Wright or Wogan or whoever. But I hated the two hours over lunch when Jimmy Young came on to talk about, ugh, politics, the world, society and the issues of the day. Then I would really protest, and my parents would usually concede to putting ‘ABBA Gold’ on for a bit.
Young just came across as a crusty old man, who thought youngsters didn’t know how easy they had it, who was definitely in favour of bringing back National Service, maybe even hanging… This is obviously all complete speculation on my part (though I see now that he had a column in the Daily Express – draw your own conclusions there…) and he’s dead so I shouldn’t be too rude. He did talk an awful lot, though. And yet I look back on those days fondly now, sitting in a car on our way to a fortnight in, I don’t know, Devon, listening to an old man chuntering on – an old man I had no idea had been a chart-topping singer.
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