William Stirrat, aka Hy Zaret, was 16 when he wrote lyrics about Mary Louise "Cookie" Pierce (below right).
Alex North wrote the music to Unchained Melody. 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/I’ve 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), 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.
Cookie, 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."
And it wasn’t the girl, Mary Louise "Cookie" Pierce, that haunted his life, it was the song.
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 anyone’s 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 mother’s 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 (Yaddo’s 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 Fayettesville, 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.
That’s what we had in common," he said.
Stirrat wrote the words to "Unchained Melody" in 1936 when he was on a summer scholarship at
Yaddo’s 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
neighbor. "I’d spoken to Bing Crosby’s 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 Ellington’s orchestra to
record it. It took 19 years, but they finally got Al Hibbler, who been Ellington’s vocalist,
to record the song, Stirrat said.
Disc jockey Dave "The Rave" Kapulsky, whose [recent] national debut of his Relics and Rarities show
on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 6, the 1960s channel, said the song first appeared in the prison-farm
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. It’s a song that knows no death.
A classic in the true sense. It’s 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, "I’m doing very well with MPL. They do everything for me." He explained that
the issue of authorship was complicated by the fact there were five men claiming to be Hy Zaret!
"I never met anybody that didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 I’d 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 Hatfield’s version (3.4 Mb .mp3) (from the
Righteous Brothers) version is the best, but Stirrat said
Presley’s version is the one he likes. "Elvis’ recording was the best since 1955. I didn’t like
Hatfield’s version because he jazzed it up with an, ‘oh yeah," he said (Hatfield, 63,
died November 5th, 2003).
"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 wasn’t to be. The ramifications of the huge popularity of the hit song chain him to the piece.
He is still trying to collect on past royalties, but he is doing it on his own, without lawyers.
"It’s time consuming, but in time I expect to collect all of the royalties that I should have
received on the song," Stirrat said.
Here are the
Lyrics and Chords to their timeless version, as used in the movie "Ghost."
Stirrat said there is some argument over what was the top song of the 20th century. "One radio
station said it’s ‘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, unrequited 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 Who’s Who publications.
"Unchained Melody" has been like a river running through his busy and productive life, sighing,
"Wait for me, wait for me..."
** Note from the archiver (Dan Martin): Although the lyricist William Stirrat (aka Hy Zarrat) gives
plenty of credit to Alex North for composing the haunting melody, the reverse is not true.
No mention whatever, much less any credit, is given to Stirrat on the
Alex North website for writing its lyrics.
The snub is painfully obvious, although there is no hint of why.
Another unanswered puzzle is when - and by whom - the name Unchained Melody was actually coined.
It seems quite reasonable that the 1955 movie Unchained - scored by North - would take as its theme the
unnamed song to which North had purchased the [movie] rights [only] so many years before.
I believe the song was nameless until that time in 1955 when Alex North christened it the "Unchained Melody"
the very best-ever recording (1.4 Mb MP3) of Unchained Melody was by the late
John Gary, a tenor of stellar proportion that somehow
missed the star of fame. It was John's version that The Blue Velvets played on every show.
The most inspiring version of Unchained Melody
has to be this one (9 Mb .mp3)
by the incredible Denver vocal group,
I have also archived more information about
the movie "Unchained".
It was never highly rated, and disappeared almost immediately from everyone's memory.
Yet we must all be thankful for its brief sojourn with us, for the legacy of Unchained Melody is surely as
great a gift to lovers as anything ever crooned by Johnny Mathis.
Some very interesting historical info on
(died 2001) has also been archived by me.
The purpose of this archive is not to steal, but rather to preserve. Over the last few
years the internet version of "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" has become all too common.
This archive is intended to act as a backup resource in the event the original disappears.
Jump to it here
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