28th February 2023

The mind wobbles in mysterious ways. 

Just last week, I read the sad and moving news of Bruce Willis’ fall towards frontotemporal dementia, communicated in a beautiful note from his family. 

Bruce has five daughters, and an ex-wife as well as a current wife. All came together to confirm Willis’ health status, using the occasion to explain a little of what happens when a man’s neurones become frayed, and his synapses scrambled. 

They signed themselves ‘Ladies of Willis / Moore’. 

I took it all in, while conjuring those things I knew of the Moore in question. 

Demi Moore – a woman I seemed to recall only for her tabloid moments: pregnant and naked on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991; dating a man much younger than her in the 2000s; and that moment in the movie Ghost, when she received the impossible gift – the return of a loved one from death, for a final, life-affirming kiss. 

Memory is a cloven darling, gin-soaked in the pastures of romance. 

Not knowing much of action movies, I could only think of Willis by thinking of his ex-wife; and I could only think of her by recalling the moment her fictional character dragged a dead lover back to life. All the while, a monumental piece of music played on-screen.

My thinking was of Unchained Melody. 

Oh, my love. My darling. I’ve hungered for your thirst a long, lonely time.

The song first showed up in a forgotten 1955 film, ‘Unchained’. A prisoner pines for his love beyond the barbed-wire walls. The scene is a tad stilted, perhaps by dint of the nine men on-screen who seem to intrude on his precious musical reverie, accompanied by a lowly guitar. The prisoner’s voice is big, baritone and classical, more beautiful than his surrounds; and the melody yet more memorable than the singer. 

Unchained Melody became a breakout hit, with multiple covers in 1955 in the USA and in Europe.  

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

Every great tune is destined, eventually, to find its perfect interpreter. 

Bobby Hatfield – the smaller, higher, older Righteous Brother – became Unchained Melody’s true voice. The 60s duo had agreed to lay down one solo song each in their second 1965 album, and they tossed a coin for who might sing this little number, composed for screen by Alex North. 

Bobby won. 

His interpretation of Unchained Melody, performed live on the Andy Williams television show on 25h October 1965, is a magic carpet of beauty. 

Handsome Bobby, just 25 years old, has completed some scripted banter with the host, when the live orchestra strikes up behind him. He unpicks the microphone, and assumes the posture of a Teddy Boy crooner. Little suggests this moment will be long remembered. 

What emerges, however, is the youthful voice of pure romantic love – soft, mellifluous, honeyed. 

Hatfield understood the yearning centre of one of the 20th century’s most exquisite songs, and gave it full life.

He performs vocal acrobatics of deft precision, paying homage to North’s melody, winding in and out of the vocal line with absolute grace. The effect feels so fresh, he could be an African American hip-hop artist from the far future, brought incongruously to life in a pink suit, white pants and coiffed blond hair. 

As Hatfield moves towards the song’s crescendo, he innovates – lifting the melody by a full octave, catapulting the sound into his head and falsetto voice. 

I need your love. I need your love. God speed your love to me. 

His live performance is a journey of 3’30” duration; an epic love story, written for the ages.

And his voice would accompany Demi Moore’s character in Ghost in 1990, as she received that impossible gift from beyond the grave.

Unchained Melody has a transcendent quality – more feeling than song. Good reason, then, to back-flip through my mind as I contemplate the living death of dementia, borne with love by the Ladies of Willis / Moore.

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