Friday Song: "Unchain My Heart"

An upbeat song about dying love connects two great singers across the decades

Friday Song: "Unchain My Heart"

Today’s entry is this summer’s final “Friday Song” feature for “The Geyser.” If you liked this feature, you can find more about music at “Mad About Music,” an e-newsletter by yours truly and Rick Anderson.

Sold for $50 by a drug addict out of desperation, “Unchain My Heart” is one of those songs that you’ve probably heard, but don’t quite remember. A #1 hit in 1961 for Ray Charles, the song has been revived a number of times — by Joe Cocker, Trini Lopez, and Hugh Laurie, for example. It’s also been used to market taxation in Australia. But it’s one of those songs that seems to wander the perimeter of the classic rock canon, dropping in now and again for an enjoyable visit.

Bobby Sharp wrote the song, and sold it to Teddy Powell, a jazz musician and band leader, for $50. Powell also wanted half the songwriting credit. Sharp granted that, but later sued for full credit, prevailing in court. Copyright for the song was renewed in 1987 by Sharp’s company, B. Sharp Music.

Written in A minor, the song is played by both Charles and Cocker at 120 bpm, which puts it at about the pace modern people walk. This provides a comfortable but brisk tempo. When I played Cocker’s version for a young person in their 20s, they said, “Oh, disco!” when the beat dropped. Not every song with this tempo is a dance song — for instance, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and One Republic’s “Counting Stars” are played at about this tempo, but they don’t have the same propulsive force.

It’s appropriate that both artists performed the song — Cocker acknowledged that Charles inspired him to sing and influenced his singing style. Cocker made the song the title track of his 1987 album.