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A Fifth of Beethoven - Walter Murphy
(Private Stock 45073)
Walter Murphy began his musical training at the age of four, with Rosa Rio, an organist on radio soap operas. She gave lessons in a Manhattan music store, and because Walter could not read at the time, she used colors to teach him the notes. He became so proficient that he appeared in Hammond organ commercials and also in concert with Rio.
By the time Walter graduated from high school, he had mastered classical and jazz piano. He enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music as a composition major, and even before graduating, he was writing arrangements for Doc Severensen and the "Tonight Show" orchestra. A final year of college kept Walter from relocating in California with the show in 1972.
Instead, he entered the mad world of Madison Avenue, writing ad jingles. Among his clients were Revlon, Woolworth's, Lady Arrow, Viasa Airlines, and Korvette's. He also wrote for the children's TV show "The Big Blue Marble" and several made-for-TV films (The Savage Bees, The Night They Took Miss Beautiful, and others).
Walter's interests included rock recordings, especially those adapted from classical themes. The Toys, for example, hit in 1965 with "A Lover's Concerto"; Apollo 100 sold a million copies of "Joy" in 1972.
"I had this crazy idea to take symphonic music and combine it with contemporary rhythm," he said. "Nobody had done it in a while, and nobody had done it in this particular way. It was an experiment -- taking an instrumental that was about as far from pop music as you could get, and making a hit single out of it.
"I made up a demo tape of several songs and took it around to all the record companies in New York. Nobody liked any of them, except 'A Fifth of Beethoven.'
"I wrote the song, arranged it, played most of the parts; it was basically my own doing. Then, after it was made, Private Stock told me that we would have a better chance of getting air play if it was credited to a group. I wasn't really in favor of this but went along, and we came up with the name Big Apple Band. The record had been out two days when we learned there already was a Big Apple Band. We changed to the Walter Murphy Band, and then just plain Walter Murphy.
"The first time I heard the song on the air, I was driving in my car and almost hit a tree. It was really exciting. I knew it was being played in some parts of the country, but not New York. It wound up selling about two million singles, and about 750,000 albums."
"A Fifth of Beethoven" entered the Hot 100 at number 80 on May 29, 1976, and was the number one single in America on October 9, 1976. But even bigger sales were yet to come.
"Early in 1977, the people at RSO called up Private Stock and said they were making a movie with John Travolta called Saturday Night. Nobody knew what it was about, but they wanted to use 'A Fifth of Beethoven' on the soundtrack. We said it was fine, to go ahead. Little did we know that it would turn out to be Saturday Night Fever -- the largest-selling album in music history. I'd say that was a lucky turn of events."
Walter's follow-up, "Flight '76," was based on another classical masterpiece, "Flight of the Bumblebee," however it peaked at only number forty-four. His next single, a discofied version of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" didn't make the charts at all, and it seemed as though Walter had taken the concept of making full-blown disco songs from classical standards about as far as it could go. His last chart single was a medley of "Themes from E.T. (The Extra Terrestrial)," which went to number 47 in 1982.