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Hy Zaret, 99; lyricist for oft-recorded tune `Unchained Melody'

July 04, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

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 the age of 99.

Zaret died Monday at his home in Westport, Conn., about a month before his 100th birthday, his son, Robert Zaret, told the Associated Press.

He wrote the lyrics for many songs and advertising jingles, but his biggest hit was "Unchained Melody," written with composer Alex North for a 1955 prison movie called "Unchained," starring Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. It brought Zaret and North an Academy Award nomination for best original 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, Willie Nelson 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," with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze.

In all, "Unchained Melody" 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.

"Although I had had success as a pop songwriter, I hesitated when Alex, whom I knew from our days as soldier songwriters in World War II, called me ... to ask me to write a lyric for a movie theme he was working on," Zaret told Billboard magazine in 1991, a few months before North died. "I hesitated because I was busy writing songs that gave me enough income to fund me so I could continue to create musical public service announcements, work I was extremely proud of and for which I didn't get a penny. I was spending 85% of my career writing these spots, while using the other 15% to earn a living....

"I agreed to do the lyric, and in two days had it completed. It's unusual, because the title of the song is never used in the lyric. In the film, Todd Duncan sang the song as a prisoner with a cigar in his mouth."

Among other songs Zaret collaborated on 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' "One Meat Ball."

"He had some big, big hits," said Jim Steinblatt, an assistant vice president at ASCAP.

Born Aug. 21, 1907, in New York, Zaret graduated from West Virginia University and Brooklyn Law School.

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.

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