Ask anyone over the age of, say, 30 if they remember the song “Unchained Melody” and they will likely begin to sing you the lyrics ? “Oh, my love, my darling / Ive hungered for your touch / A long, lonely time…”. The young lyricist who wrote those words waited a long time, 19 years, to hear it performed in public. But when the song finally hit the charts in 1955, it went straight to the top and has been there on and off for almost 50 years.
Freehold Township resident William Stirrat, 83, aka Hy Zaret ( his pen name ) (August 21, 1907 – July 2, 2007), still has a gleam in his eye when he remembers writing the lyrics. He was 16 years old and infatuated with “the prettiest girl in my neighborhood.” He remembers well the frustration of being too shy to act on his feelings, the stuttered response when she spoke to him, the frozen reaction when she smiled at him.
“Now, I think she was in love with me, too, but I was too shy to do anything or even talk to her,” Stirrat says 67 years later.
So the romantic teenager wrote about his need and his longing and then went on with his life, a life full of real and enduring relationships, engaging work, travel and recognition for accomplishments other than song writing. But all along, there was an unchained melody running through his life. And it wasnt the girl, Mary Louise “Cookie” Pierce, that dogged his life, it was the song.
Pierce, it seemed, had married someone else.
“The way I felt about Cookie was over in my mind when I heard that she had married the best catch in town,” he said, adding, “I read about it in the papers. It was hard.”
Stirrat became an electronics engineer and did post-graduate studies in aerodynamics. He went to work for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., where he grew up, and eventually wound up in Monmouth County working for Northrop Grumman Corp. in Eatontown.
The romantic boy became a romantic man and in 1958, when he saw Bernice, the woman who would become his wife, for the first time across a room, he fell in love with her.
“I knew she was the girl for me,” he said.
He was right about that. They have been married for 45 years and have three children and six grandchildren.
Whether Stirrat was right about not going into song writing as a profession is anyones guess. He made the decision early.
“I asked Alex North (who wrote the music for the song) if Unchained Melody was going to be a hit. Alex said it was going to be a big hit. He wanted me to team up with him to write lyrics, but I took the raving with a grain of salt and thought it was no way to earn a living. I wanted to write that song for two reasons, I needed money for college and I wanted to get that girl.”
Another reason that Stirrat did not pursue his interest in song writing was his mothers displeasure. Stirrat, whose mother was a music teacher of a classical bent, said she was furious when she heard he had written a jazz song.
“The director of Yaddo (Yaddos Triuna Arts of the Theatre School in Lake George, N.Y.) said they wanted to put an article in the local paper. Mother said no,” he recalled.
Thirty-nine years ago, in 1964, Stirrat reconnected with Cookie, who is deceased now. She was married for the second time and living in Fayetteville, Tenn. Stirrat got in touch with her and, along with his wife and two of his three children, visited and stayed at her house.
“She was musical, too. Thats what we had in common,” he said.
Stirrat wrote the words to “Unchained Melody” in 1936 when he was on a summer scholarship at Yaddos Triuna Arts of the Theatre School. It was there that he met North, who composed the music. North, a composer and accompanist for a modern dancer at the time, was on the staff.
“I pestered him and pestered him to compose a piano copy for me. Finally, he told me that he had music for a song. Basically, I sang the words and he guided me with what he wanted for the music. You might say I sang the song under his guidance,” Stirrat said.
When he and North were working on the song, Stirrat hoped that Bing Crosby would sing it since he was a neighbour.
“Id spoken to Bing Crosbys wife so I thought it was a good connection. I styled it for him, you know, his songs had a dip at the end,” the lyricist said.
When that plan did not work out, Stirrat told North that he wanted Duke Ellingtons orchestra to record it. It took 19 years, but they finally got Al Hibbler, who had been Ellingtons vocalist, to record the song, Stirrat said.
Disc jockey Dave “The Rave” Kapulsky, whose national debut of his Relics and Rarities show was last weekend on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 6, the 1960s channel, said the song first appeared in the movie “Unchained” in 1955.
“It was a Top 30 charted tune by four artists when it was first released in 1955. Al Hibbler is believed to have been the first to sing the song. The song has charted in the Top 100 10 different times between 1955 and 1990. It was last charted in 1990 by the Righteous Brothers as the song was featured in the Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze film “Ghost”. My quote on the song is, “Unchained Melody should be called the Undated Melody”. The song is timeless. Its a song that knows no death. A classic in the true sense. Its a safe bet that Unchained Melody will re-emerge once again in the current decade,” Kapulsky said.
Stirrat has received some royalties from his work, but not nearly all he believes he is owed, and most of it has been used to pay lawyers in a legal battle over authorship.
Although he held a copyright, the song was not registered until 1982 after a legal battle with CBS, the corporation that owned the publishing company that owned the song. MPL, owned by Paul McCartney, now owns the publishing house formerly owned by CBS, Stirrat said.
“CBS gave it to him to do an album,” he said.
Stirrat is still fighting for past royalties but, he added, “Im doing very well with MPL. They do everything for me.”
He explained that the issue of authorship was complicated by the fact that there were five men claiming to be Hy Zaret.
“I never met anybody that didnt believe I wrote that song, but another Hy Zaret, who was a close friend of the lawyer that was representing the publisher, was collecting royalties,” he said.
Stirrat said he had given up on the song when nothing happened with it between 1936 and 1955.
“In 1941, I signed documents authorizing Alex to use the song in a motion picture, so in 1955 when it was used in “Unchained” I didnt even know about it,” he said.
Alex North went on to become successful, scoring Hollywood movies.
“Over his lifetime, North had been nominated about 13 times for an Oscar. They finally gave him one, an honorary one,” Stirrat said.
“When the Righteous Brothers came out with their version (in 1965) I wasnt even looking for royalties. In 1979, I joined the Song Writers Guild, then I collected royalties. I joined them to collect royalties. I just told them my name and what Id written. At that time, there were two albums with my song on them, one by Elvis Presley and another by Willie Nelson,” he said.
Many people think Bobby Hatfields (from the Righteous Brothers) version is the best, but Stirrat said Presleys version is the one he likes.
“Elvis recording was the best since 1955. I didnt like Hatfields version because he jazzed it up and added, “eoh yeah,” he said.
“One of the reasons I decided to collect royalties was to get at the facts and find out what was going on. At first, I just figured the song would go away and I could forget about it,” he explained.
That wasnt to be. The ramifications of the huge popularity of the hit song chain Stirrat to the piece. He is still trying to collect on past royalties, but he is doing it on his own, without lawyers.
“Its time consuming, but in time I expect to collect all of the royalties that I should have received on the song,” he said.
Stirrat said there is some argument over what was the top song of the 20th century.
“One radio station said its “Unchained Melody”. Billboard magazine says there is no record. And ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) says that “Unchained Melody” was the top love song of the 1950s and top song of the 1990s,” he said.
The lyrics were inspired by young, un-requited love at an age when time goes by “so slowly / And time can do so much.”
Regardless of who says what about the charts, the song is timeless and continues to inspire vocalists. It has been No. 1 on the charts four times in Great Britain and was recently named Song of the Year there.
Although Stirrat has written other songs, he never pursued his interest in song writing. Over his long career in electronics engineering he has been recognized in a number of Whos Who publications. “Unchained Melody” has been like a river running through his busy and productive life, sighing, “Wait for me, wait for me.”
Wikipedia / Unchained (film) In 1955, Alex North and lyricist Hy Zaret were contracted to write a song as a theme for the obscure prison film Unchained, and their song eventually became known as the “Unchained Melody”. The song doesn't actually include the word “unchained”, and songwriter Zaret chose instead to focus his lyrics on someone who pines for a lover he hasn't seen in a “long, lonely time”. The 1955 film centers around a man who contemplates either escaping from prison, to live life on the run, or completing his sentence and returning to his wife and family.
With Todd Duncan singing the vocals, the song was nominated for an Oscar in 1955, but the Best-Song award went to the hit song “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”.
Footnote.Wikipedia may be slightly wrong, as Id rather go with the interview with Stirrat himself. But at least Wikipedia gives details about the film the song was going to be used on.