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Elvis Presley’s Genius Interpretation of “Unchained Melody”

In “Unchained Melody,” Elvis displays his operatic aspirations as a vocalist.  His 1977 performance of the song in Rapid City, South Dakota was recorded for posterity.   Elvis’s powerful baritone fills the room; he seems to have inexhaustible breath to draw upon.

However, his breathing was labored as he engaged in banter with the crowd before beginning the song. Elvis’s frail heath shows an interesting contrast between the decline of the mortal man and the still considerable power he wielded as a performer.  Still, we perceive Elvis’s stage fright; he is vulnerable, unsure of himself and meandering. 

Then Elvis sits at his piano and amiably asks his associate to hold the microphone while he sings.  It would be a menial task in any other context.  

Elvis appears bloated and unhealthy, foreshadowing his early death which would occur just two months later.  He gave his audience everything, and in doing so, lost his life.  He gave too much. 

What he left, among the rest of his voluminous catalogue, is this divine performance, “Unchained Melody”:

The lyrics tell of a powerful love; “unchained” indeed.  It could be addressed to a lost lover: 

Oh, my love, my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time

This suggests a separation.  Yet despite this separation, the pathos is still as strong as ever.  

And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?

The passage of time is portrayed as tragic in that it separates us from those whom we knew, in better times.  This poses the question: Can a spiritual connection transcend time? 

It is in doubt, which forms the melancholy question:

“Are you still mine?” 

That Elvis’s voice reverberates on this particular line tells us that a great love hangs in the balance; and that by sheer will we might seek to transcend time and be rejoined with a former lover.  

This performance was considered by Rolling Stone to be the “last great moment of his career.”  And if so, then it was a becoming manner in which to end an illustrious career. 

“Unchained Melody” was written in 1955 by Alex North and Hy Zaret, and then performed by the Righteous Brothers in 1965.  Elvis’ interpretation of this song as a vocalist gave the song new meaning. I should use the present tense, “gives the song new meaning,” because the work stands as a living artistic statement.

This performance was included in the film Elvis, in which Austin Butler plays Elvis.  Butler performs “Unchained Melody,” just as in the video above. But then the real Elvis is transposed on screen, and we understand the tragedy and beauty of Elvis, who has been so unfairly caricatured for so long.  One hopes that Baz Luhrmann’s film will provoke a reevaluation of Elvis’ career and some long-overdue respect. 

This special would air two months after Elvis’s death.  The camera crew and filming was arranged by Colonel Parker, Elvis’s notorious manager.  Rolling Stone portrays this as one last act of exploitation. It is true that Elvis should have more rightly been in a hospital, given his grievous physical condition, both from drugs and his poor dietary habits.  Yet had Colonel Parker not arranged for the performance to be filmed, we would not have this great moment in musical history. 

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