To understand just what a unique cultural phenomenon Star Wars was, consider this: a disco adaptation of John Williams's symphonic score was not only recorded and released, it became a number-one hit record.
That was Meco's "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band," a single from the album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk. Understandably, there were follow-ups, though not quite as successful: among them, Meco Plays Music From the Empire Strikes Back and Ewok Celebration.
"Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band" is still in the Guinness Book as the best-selling instrumental single ever released—though it's only "instrumental" if you discount R2-D2's contributions.
What's Meco? Well, Meco is a man, a band...a legend, really. Born Domenico Monardo, Meco trained as a jazz musician at the Eastman School of Music, where his friends included Chuck Mangione of "Feels So Good" flugelhorn fame. By the '70s, Monardo was working as a studio musician in New York; that's him playing the trombone (!) solo on Diana Ross's 1980 disco hit "I'm Coming Out."
Transfixed by Star Wars—he saw the movie five times in its first two days of release—Monardo had the idea to create a disco version of the movie's music. ("I was convinced," he said years later, "that John Williams's themes were recordable and danceable.") With the film and the soundtrack album both racking up huge numbers, Millennium Records decided it was worth a shot, and somehow it actually worked: in October 1977 the lead single climbed to the top of the charts, where it remained for two weeks.
At the Grammys that winter, Meco earned a nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, but lost—to John Williams, for the original Star Wars soundtrack.
Improbably, Meco turned out to be more than a one-hit wonder: he scored further Top 40 hits with his versions of music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Empire Strikes Back, although his holiday single "What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)" stalled at #69. (You can't make this stuff up.)
Meanwhile, the b-side of Meco's original Star Wars album, "Other Galactic Funk," took on a life of its own. The three percussion-heavy tracks, recorded with six kids Meco found practicing their drum corps routines in Central Park, found favor with dance and hip-hop DJs looking for unusual breaks to sample.
Meco's take was far from the only pop interpretation of Williams's robust themes: the official Star Wars website rounds up several more, including Empire Jazz and even an homage by Irwin the Dynamic Duck. (That would be Irwin the Disco Duck, rebranded for the '80s.) Needless to say, there was also a Moog synthesizer version of the Star Wars score.
As recently as 2000, Meco was still remaking Star Wars music: his compilation Dance Your Asteroids Off (seriously) included his take on themes Williams wrote for Darth Maul and for the Gungan band in The Phantom Menace prequel.
Now 75, Meco is still eight years the junior of Williams—who wrote a whole new score for the upcoming Star Wars movie. Will The Force Awakens get its own Meco megamix? While you wait, put "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band" on the box at your next party—and watch the dance floor awaken.
With anticipation for The Force Awakens running high, we're exploring the musical world of Star Wars in a series of five features. Previously, we traced John Williams's classical influences.