Unchained Melody

Skilled jazz singers, apparently, were hard enough to come by some eight decades ago that a bandleader in need of a vocalist might be willing to overlook warning signs where auditioners were concerned. Now Duke Ellington, it would seem, by the early '40s well-established as one of America's premier conductors, could have his pick among the best available. Or could he? When a blind singer named Al Hibbler showed up (gassed to the gills yet giving a strong performance anyway), Duke rejected him, not for being drunk, nor because of his obvious disability; it was the combination he admitted he couldn't (or lacked the patience to) handle. It then became Hibbler's responsibility to clean up his act and hone his craft elsewhere, which he did. Had he been discouraged by the rejection, great potential might have gone unrealized.

Tyro, Mississippi, a remote spot about 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, was little more than a desolate spot for sharecroppers to attempt to live off the land. Though he claimed the nearby town of Como as his birthplace, it was where Albert George Hibbler began life without sight, wholly dependent upon his parents, who moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas in the mid-1920s. He attended the state-run Arkansas School for the Blind starting in 1929, studying music when time permitted. His voice developed into a rich baritone and he preferred the popular white-singer style over taking a jazz- or blues-based approach. In the mid-'30s he hosted a daily radio show on KHKI from 7:45 to 8PM, opening each night with the Hoagy Carmichael-Mitchell Parish standard "Star Dust." He had opportunities to sing with many bands, including Ellington's during a stop in Little Rock, which eventually led to his failed audition.

Between 1938 and '42 he toured with Dub Jenkins and his Playmates and a well-known San Antonio outfit, Boots and his Buddies. Later he headed to New York City and gained favor with Jay McShann, who'd relocated his band from Chicago; his star saxophonist, Charlie Parker, had taken a liking to "Hib" and insisted Jay hire him to replace departing vocalist Walter Brown. In the summer of '43, McShann had a top ten "Harlem Hit Parade" disc, "Get Me on Your Mind," penned by the band's drummer Gus Johnson and manager John Tumino, a swinging ballad crediting vocalist Albert Hibbler on the label of the Decca 78. Then, much like Brown had done after scoring a hit with McShann the previous year, Hibbler sought something better, namely that vocalist spot with Ellingon's top-tier group. This time he went in sober and got the gig.

Turns out Duke had been impressed with Al all along; the singer carried himself quite well onstage in spite of his handicap. Coming up with a phrase typical of his own own brand of slang, Ellington called Hibbler's sound "tonal pantomime." Sonically, Hib used a wide range of unusual vocal tricks he'd picked up through the years: soft whispering interspersed with brief booming moments and a vibrato unique to his tone. Duke's best sellers with Al's vocals include the Mack David-Ellington tune "Don't You Know I Care" and "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" (written by Don George and Ellington, the recording features a female vocal obbligato by Kay Davis), both on the RCA Victor label in 1945. In '47, Al won the the Esquire New Star Award, then "Don't Be So Mean to Baby" (a cover of Peggy Lee's original) was a hit for Duke and Al on Columbia in '48, a year before Hibbler won the Down Beat award for Best Band Vocalist and, coincidentally, started scoring solo hits on the side.

"Trees" (with its famous opening line 'I think that I shall never see...a poem as lovely as a tree'), composed in 1922 by Oscar Rasbach and Alfred Joyce Kilmer, was a hit for Al in 1949 on the independent Miracle label and became one of his signature songs. His interpretation of the traditional Irish-English song "Danny Boy" scored for him in '50 on Atlantic, then his top seller of '51, "What Will I Tell My Heart," appeared on Chess. Collaborations with Ellington and The Ellingtonians were released through other record companies until Hibbler quit for good over salary and a dispute Duke instigated over all his (successful!) freelancing. He made numerous recordings over the next few years on the abovementioned labels in addition to Mercury, Clef and even more, solo efforts and projects with the orchestras of Johnny Hodges and Count Basie.

Al Hibbler

The biggest hit of Hibbler's career came right after he signed with Decca Records in 1955. "Unchained Melody" was introduced in a low-budget prison film, Unchained, based on the 1952 nonfiction book Prisoners Are People by Kenyon J. Scudder; a version of the song slightly over a minute in length was sung in the film by Todd Duncan, an actor and singer whose greatest success had come as the star of the original 1935 Broadway production of Porgy and Bess. Les Baxter's vocal chorus recording of the song (with the word 'unchain' added, which was not in the original or most versions), entered the charts in April '55, followed closely by Hibbler's and Roy Hamilton's covers; Baxter reached number one on disc jockey charts and all three were top ten in the best sellers that spring. It was a natural for Hibbler; his vocal style was closest to Duncan's and he landed at number one on the R&B chart in June, following Hamilton, who'd topped the chart in May. Songwriters Alex North and Hal Zaret received an Oscar nomination for Best Song and a staggering number of remakes through the years have made "Unchained Melody" one of the most popular musical compositions of all time.

Hibbler's career hit a lucrative second wind the next couple of years. "He," a spiritual number penned by Jack Richards and Richard Mullan, was a top ten hit late in the year; with the proceeeds from the two singles, Al was able to buy a nice house in Teaneck, New Jersey, paid in full. Swirling ballad "11th Hour Melody" (a King Palmer-Carl Sigman tune) made the top 30 in March 1956. Hib's distinctive baritone remained on the airwaves with "Never Turn Back" and "Away All Boats" before he jumped back into the top 20 at the end of summer with "After the Lights Go Down Low" (written by Alan White and regular session pianist Leroy Lovett), a sophisticated romantic jive featuring a Cockney accent Al enjoyed affecting from time to time. 15 more singles on Decca touched on various romantic concepts before he left the label at the end of the decade. He recorded for Top Rank, Reprise and other labels and became politically active during the following decade, joining Reverend Martin Luther King. Jr. for the protest in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963 that came shortly after King's march from Selma. Prior to his death in 2001, Al Hibbler remained in high demand and performed regularly.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Unchained Melody Starring Al Hibbler