In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
One night in December of 1808, Ludwig Van Beethoven stepped onto the podium of Vienna’s Theater An Der Wein. He was there to debut a whole new series of works he’d written, including his Fifth Symphony. That night, Beethoven conducted the orchestra himself. Things didn’t go well. The orchestra played badly. The theater was freezing cold. It took Beethoven four hours to get through all his new shit. By the time he’d finished, people were restless.
A year and a half later, though, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was published. Orchestras around the world started playing it. Its central four-note phrase eventually became, perhaps, the one piece of classical music that everyone recognizes, the one that essentially serves as an easy shorthand for the entire idea of classical music. In World War II, the Fifth Symphony became a symbol for Allied Victory, and the Morse Code symbol for the letter V was just that four-note phrase. And then, 168 years after Beethoven debuted the Fifth Symphony, it was transformed into disco, and it became a #1 hit. Play that funky music, Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Ludwig Van Beethoven is not the credited songwriter on “A Fifth Of Beethoven,” the strange and infectious disco novelty that eventually hit #1. Instead, that credit went to Walter Murphy, a young ad-jingle writer from Yonkers. Beethoven didn’t mind; he’d been dead for 159 years.
“A Fifth Of Beethoven” works in the same way that a cover or a rap sample does. It plays on our collective memory, twisting up a familiar piece of music, having some fun with it. But since the Fifth Symphony was part of the public domain, Murphy didn’t have to share songwriting credit with anyone. Pretty smart!
Murphy was just 23 when he hit #1. A child keyboard prodigy, he’d gotten lessons from the famous concert pianist Rosa Rio. Later on, Murphy had studied jazz and classical at the Manhattan School Of Music. As a young man, he’d found work writing ad jingles and doing arrangements for Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Orchestra. Those were the day jobs; at night, Murphy played soul covers in a bar band called WAM.
Possibly on the advice of an ad-jingle writer, Murphy had the idea of updating a piece of classical music for the disco era. He made a demo tape: Three new songs, one disco adaptation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Nobody cared about the new songs, but Private Stock Records founder Larry Uttal liked the Beethoven adaptation, so he put it out.
Murphy himself had played just about all the instruments on the record, but Uttal convinced him that it would sell better if the record jacket had the name of a group. So the song was credited to Murphy and the Big Apple Band, even though this particular Big Apple Band was just Walter Murphy himself. After they’d released the single, Murphy and Uttal learned that there already was a Big Apple Band, so on later pressings, they changed the credit to the Walter Murphy Band, and then just Walter Murphy. (As for the other Big Apple Band, they eventually changed their name to Chic. They’ll be in this column soon enough.)
From its stupid-pun title on down, “A Fifth Of Beethoven” is a deeply silly piece of work, a pure novelty record. This is not a complaint. Sometimes, novelty works. It sure as hell does here. Chintzy, pseudo-sophisticated string arrangements had been a big part of disco from jump. (See: Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme.”) And Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony turns out to be a perfect vehicle for noodly funk riffage.
Part of it, of course, is that “A Fifth Of Beethoven” is not a pure adaptation of the Fifth Symphony. That wouldn’t work. Instead, Murphy uses that central phrase as a way to vamp. For long stretches of the three-minute instrumental, that string-riff will fade to the back, and Murphy will do squelchy, rolling organ improvisations and slow, building horn-bursts instead. But the Beethoven of it always comes back, adding drama and urgency that might’ve otherwise gone missing. And it’s not like Beethoven’s melodies suffer when they’ve got a beat attached.
If anything, I wish “A Fifth Of Beethoven” had gone a little more over the top with its gimmick. If Murphy had tried out chilly Euro-disco synths, or added Donna Summer sex-moans, the song would’ve been even more crass and ridiculous, and it might’ve been better, too. But honestly, “A Fifth Of Beethoven” is probably a best-case scenario for this kind of ridiculous high-concept gimmickry. It’s a whole lot more fun than it needs to be.
Murphy had some misgivings about this whole adapting-classical-music thing. Talking to People at the time, he said, “It’s really sad that the kids today can only relate to Beethoven via a rock version of his music. I keep hoping that maybe if they’ve heard this much of his symphony, they’ll go out and buy the original.”
But Murphy evidently wasn’t that worried, since he kept trying to repeat the trick. For years, Murphy kept putting out disco versions of famous classical pieces. None of them sold. Murphy never made the top 40 again. He only made the Hot 100 two more times. The first was the immediate follow-up to “A Fifth Of Beethoven”: “Flight ’76,” a disco adaptation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight Of The Bumblebee,” that made it to #44 later in 1976. Then, six years later, Murphy got to #47 with another orchestral disco refashioning called “Themes From E.T. (The Extra-Terrestrial).” Really, “A Fifth Of Beethoven” had a longer shelf life than the rest of Murphy’s career, since the song wound up on the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack a year after it hit #1.
So maybe Walter Murphy wasn’t cut out to be a pop star. Fate, in any case, had other plans for Murphy. Even at his peak, Murphy was still writing jingles. From there, he went on to compose music for TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s: Stingray, Wiseguy, Hunter, The Commish, the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Since 1999, Murphy has been the prime musical collaborator for Seth MacFarlane. He’s done music for a bunch of MacFarlane’s TV shows: Family Guy, American Dad!, The Cleveland Show. Murphy also scored MacFarlane’s movies Ted and Ted 2, and he was even nominated for an Oscar in 2013 for “Everybody Needs A Best Friend,” a song that he and MacFarlane co-wrote for Ted. (That year, the year that MacFarlane hosted, Murphy and MacFarlane lost to Adele’s James Bond theme “Skyfall.” “Skyfall,” incidentally, peaked at #8. It’s a 6.)
So Walter Murphy might not be Beethoven, but he’s done pretty well for himself.
BONUS BEATS: In 1998, the teenage New York rapper A+ rapped over a sample of “A Fifth Of Beethoven” on his single “Enjoy Yourself.” “Enjoy Yourself” wasn’t huge in America; it peaked at #63. But in the UK, where “A Fifth Of Beethoven” had peaked at #28, “Enjoy Yourself” made it up to #5. Here’s A+’s “Enjoy Yourself” video:
BONUS BEATS: On his 2003 debut single “When I Get You Alone,” a young and longhaired Robin Thicke, a man who will eventually appear in this column, sang over a sample of “A Fifth Of Beethoven.” “When I Get You Alone” did not chart in the US, but it went top-10 in the Netherlands and New Zealand. Here’s Thicke’s video for the song: