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Retro Redux: Walter Murphy – Bringing Beethoven To Disco

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One of my favorite musical sub-genres (or maybe sub-sub-genre) is when modern musicians put an updated spin on classical music. What might at first glance seem disrespectful can actually produce some intriguing sounds. It's long been a common practice among jazz musicians, and even has a name — "jazzin' the classics" — but in at least one instance it also invaded disco.

Walter Murphy has been a fixture in music for a number of years, but for the early part of his career he remained pretty much behind the scenes. A talented keyboardist with a solid musical education, the native New Yorker first began to find professional success as an arranger for Doc Severinson's band on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

Murphy's biggest claim to fame, though, occurred in the 1970s, when the disco craze took over much of pop music and John Travolta strutted his stuff in Saturday Night Fever. In the midst of all the unforgettable songs from the Bee Gees and others, Murphy's reworking of a portion of Beethoven's familiar 5th symphony became one of the most memorable pieces in the movie.

Murphy had already garnered a little success with a song called "Disco Bells," and had been experimenting with updating the classics for quite a while, working with the music of Bach and others. But it wasn't until he came up with "A Fifth of Beethoven" that he was able to interest a record company in an updated classic. The record came out in 1976 attributed to a fictional group called The Big Apple Band, even though Murphy did all the instrumentation. (It was later changed to reflect the true artist.) By late in the year it had managed to climb to the top of the charts, and was subsequently added to the Grammy-winning soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, which became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

Murphy has had a number of other musical efforts through the years, including his Phantom Of The Opera album, which yielded the scary "Toccata and Funk in D Minor" (clip). He's also kept himself pretty busy writing and arranging music for movies and TV, but he probably isn't doing too much with disco these days.

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