Today, composer-bandleader Walter Murphy may be best-known for his work with comedy’s enfant terrible Seth MacFarlane. Murphy has lent his talents to projects including Family Guy, American Dad and Ted, and has been recognized with an Emmy Award and an Oscar nomination. Yet the first time most Americans heard of Walter Murphy was in 1976 – as a result of a composition written between 1804 and 1808! The Walter Murphy Band took Beethoven onto the dance floor with “A Fifth of Beethoven,” based on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Minor, and Murphy was rewarded with a massive hit that reached No. 1 on the U.S. Pop chart. Big Break Records’ offshoot Hot Shot Records has just reissued A Fifth of Beethoven from The Walter Murphy Band on CD in a remastered edition with a pair of bonus tracks.
Walter Murphy was far from the first to fuse classical music with contemporary pop, but he was certainly among the most successful, artistically and commercially. The tradition of adapting classical pieces was nothing new; the now-standard 1918 showtune “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” was derived from a Chopin melody written in 1834. The Broadway writing team of Robert Wright and George Forrest fashioned Borodin’s themes into the 1953 musical Kismet. Allan Sherman’s 1963 novelty “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” could trace its roots back to an 1876 opera, and The Toys’ “A Lovers’ Concerto” from 1965 was based in Bach. In the 1970s, Eric Carmen and Barry Manilow took inspiration from Rachmaninoff and Chopin, respectively. Numerous jazz artists and progressive rockers, too, took their turns at modernizing, and improvising on, venerable themes.
Multi-instrumentalist and sometimes-jingle writer Walter Murphy hit upon the notion of fusing classical with disco and recorded a demo of “A Fifth of Beethoven” himself, shopping it to various labels. Larry Uttal of Private Stock Records saw the potential in what the multi-instrumentalist had accomplished, and advised him to release the album with a band name. Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band was Uttal’s first choice, but when it was discovered that another Big Apple Band existed, the “group” became The Walter Murphy Band. Uttal’s gamble on Murphy’s disco-classical hybrid paid off when the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1976. The accompanying album, produced by Thomas J. Valentino and adapted, arranged and conducted by Murphy, performed none too poorly itself, reaching No. 15.
When “A Fifth of Beethoven” was selected for inclusion on the soundtrack album of the record-breaking Saturday Night Fever, the song received a second lease on life. It also opened the doors for subsequent disco-classical productions. One such track, stage and screen composer David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain” (based on Mussorgsky’s dark “Night on Bald Mountain”), sat alongside “A Fifth” on Saturday Night Fever. Over at Salsoul, bandleader Vince Montana updated Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” into “Magic Bird of Fire” for The Salsoul Orchestra. Most notably, the Hooked on Classics series arrived in the wake of “Beethoven,” but the disco-classical fever was contagious. Even the “easy listening” pianists Ferrante and Teicher got into the act with a Classical Disco album in 1979.
On the album entitled A Fifth of Beethoven (obviously), Murphy surrounded the key track with three –more similarly-fashioned tracks: “Russian Dressing” based on Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto I in B-Flat Minor;” “Nightfall” based on Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E-Minor; and “Flight ‘76” based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The latter had long been a favorite of pop and jazz musicians in treatments like “Bumble Boogie.” Murphy rounded out the album with his own feel-good disco instrumentals, some dollops of funk like “Give a Little Lovin’” sung by Frank Dillard, and even a couple of enjoyable pop songs performed by Pat Bianco. “California Strut” features the vocals of future R&B star Angela Bofill.
After the jump: what extras will you find here? Plus: the complete track listing and order links!
Murphy remained on Private Stock for a couple more LPs in similar style but never achieved the same pop success as he did with “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Its follow-up single, “Flight ’76,” did make a respectable No. 44 showing on the Pop survey. Hot Shot’s reissue of A Fifth of Beethoven appends Part II of the “Flight ‘76” single and the Extended Version of “A Fifth” as its two bonus tracks. Nick Robbins has remastered the album, though Hot Shot notes that “some of the tracks on this CD were mastered from a mint vinyl copy of the original LP” due to the lack of available master tapes. Stephen “SPAZ” Schnee provides two pages of liner notes.
The Walter Murphy Band’s A Fifth of Beethoven is available now from Hot Shot Records at the links below!
- Flight ‘76
- (You’ve Got to) Be Your Own Best Friend
- California Strut
- A Fifth of Beethoven
- Russian Dressing
- Suite Love Symphony
- Midnight Express
- Give a Little Lovin’
- Just a Love Song
- Flight ’76 – Part II (Single Version) (Private Stock single PS-45-123, 1976)
- A Fifth of Beethoven – Extended Version (Private Stock PS 5100, 1976)