Hy Zaret PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 04 March 2009 10:56

Hyman Harry Zaritsky

Born: August 21, 1907 New York City, New York, USA

Died: July 2, 2007, Westport, Conn.

Age: 99

Cause of death: Old age.

Notable because: A contrarian. Had he agreed to include the word 'Unchained' as required when commissioned to write lyrics for the 1955 movie of the same name, he might never have arrived at his masterwork -  Unchained Melody.

Hy Zaret was an American lyricist and composer best known as the co-author of the 1955 hit "Unchained Melody", one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century

Zaret was born Hyman Harry Zaritsky in New York City and attended West Virginia University and Brooklyn Law School, where he received an LLB. He scored his first major success in 1935, when he teamed up with Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn to co-write the pop standard "Dedicated to You." The early '40s brought some collaborations with Alex C. Kramer and Joan Whitney, including 1941's "It All Comes Back to Me Now" and the socially conscious, WWII-themed "My Sister and I." Zaret also wrote lyrics for an English translation of the French Resistance song "The Partisan" (aka "The Song of the French Partisan"), which was later covered by Leonard Cohen. He also wrote the novelty song "One Meatball."

Zaret's biggest success, though, was "Unchained Melody," a song he co-wrote with film composer Alex North for the 1955 prison film Unchained (hence the title), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. No less than three versions of the song -- by Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, and Roy Hamilton -- hit the Top Ten that year, with Hibbler's version ranking as the best-known for the next ten years. The song was also recorded successfully by Jimmy Young and Liberace, and covered by countless others, but the Righteous Brothers' 1965 version -- given a supremely romantic production by Phil Spector -- became the definitive take, reaching the pop Top Five. That recording was revived in 1990 thanks to its inclusion in the film, Ghost, and nearly reached the Top Ten all over again. Elvis Presley also recorded a version of the song.

Zaret turned his attention to educational children's music in the late 1950s, collaborating with Lou Singer on a six-album series called "Ballads for the Age of Science"; different volumes covered space, energy and motion, experiments, weather, and nature. The records were quite successful, and the song "Why Does the Sun Shine" (aka "The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas") was even covered by quirky alt-rockers They Might Be Giants in 1994. (source: Steve Huey, Allmusic)

Mr. Zaret liked to tell about the time the composer Alex North called him to say he had written a song for a movie and needed words. Mr. Zaret replied that he was busy painting his house. But he found time to write the lyrics for “Unchained Melody.” The movie itself, “Unchained,” a low-budget prison film, turned out to be a lot less memorable than the song.

Mr. Zaret, a habitual contrarian, refused a producer’s request to include the word “unchained” in his lyrics, though it was impossible to keep it out of the title. The words have again and again evoked a lover’s loneliness in recordings by more than 300 artists, including Lena Horne, Guy Lombardo, the Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley and U2: “Oh, my love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch a long, lonely time. ...”

Last month the Songwriters Hall of Fame honored “Unchained Melody” with its Towering Song award for having “influenced the culture in a unique way over the years.”

The song’s triumphal march began when it was nominated in 1955 for an Academy Award for best original song. In 1992, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers gave it an award for being the year’s most-performed song. In 1999, Ascap said it was one of the 25 most-performed songs and musical works of the 20th century. In a list released in 2003, Ascap called it the most-performed love song of the 1950s.

None of Mr. Zaret’s other songs came close to this success, but many did very well. “One Meat Ball,” a novelty song with music by Lou Singer about a poor man with only 15 cents to spend for a meatball, was a hit for the Andrews Sisters in 1945. Jimmy Dorsey took “My Sister and I,” a tale of sisters in an occupied country, written with Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney, to No. 1 in 1941. Vaughn Monroe had a No. 1 song with “There I Go,” which Mr. Zaret wrote with Irving Weiser, in the early 1940s. “Dedicated to You,” written with Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, is a perennial jazz favorite.

Mr. Zaret also wrote the English lyrics for Anna Marly’s French Resistance song “The Partisan,” which Leonard Cohen recorded.

“He had some big, big hits,” said Jim Steinblatt, assistant vice president for special projects at Ascap. Indeed, “So Long, for a While,” for which he wrote the lyrics, was the closing theme song for “Your Hit Parade,” a show that for many years played the week’s top songs, on radio and later on television.

Although Mr. Zaret appreciated the royalties — “Unchained Melody” made him financially independent — he was just as proud of the educational and public service songs he wrote, often with Mr. Singer, for radio, television and schools. He addressed fire prevention with “Never Clean With Gasoline,” fought racism with “Brown-Skinned Cow” and satisfied curiosity with “Why Are Bananas Picked Green?” and “How Does a Frog Become a Frog?”

Hyman Harry Zaritsky was born in Manhattan on Aug. 21, 1907, the son of Max Zaritsky and the former Dora Shiffman, who had emigrated from Russia in the 1890s. Max was a clothing manufacturer. Hyman Zaritsky legally shortened his last name in 1934.

Mr. Zaret’s name would become an issue again years later when William Stirrat, an electrical engineer, claimed he had written “Unchained Melody” as a romantic teenager under the pen name Hy Zaret. Several articles on Mr. Stirrat’s claims to authorship were printed. Legal proceedings ensued, but both Mr. Zaret’s son and Mr. Steinblatt said the dispute was resolved completely in favor of Mr. Zaret, who continued to receive all royalties.

Mr. Stirrat, who Mr. Steinblatt said had legally changed his name to Hy Zaret, died in 2004.

Mr. Zaret attended public schools, where he often skipped classes to read in the local library. Although he weighed only 125 pounds, he played football on a community center’s team. He graduated from the University of West Virginia and Brooklyn Law School. He practiced law for a while and later wrote and produced shows for radio and television, but the greatest part of his working life was spent writing songs.

Mr. Zaret’s son Thomas died in 1984. In addition to his son Robert, who lives in Boston, he is survived by his wife, the former Shirley Goidel, and one grandson.

In his later years, Mr. Zaret wrote poetry that stressed gentle themes, including how it feels to grow old. One of those poems, which he hoped to set to music, was “Love Song for Senior Citizens.”

Last Updated on Friday, 22 June 2012 07:54

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