Lou Bega had the No. 1 single of 1999 with Mambo No. 5.
Lou Bega had the No. 1 single of 1999 with Mambo No. 5.

True story behind biggest song of 1999

1999 was what you might call a vintage year of pop music.

It was the year Britney Spears, in her twin pigtails and baby voice, had her first hit single in … Baby One More Time.

It was the year Cher asked us all to Believe, the year Shania Twain wasn't impressed by either Brad Pitt or rocket scientists. Christina Aguilera was a Genie in a Bottle who just needed to be rubbed the, er, right way, and T. L. C were desperately trying to avoid scrubs.

Like I said: a vintage year for pop music. But not one of these songs was the most popular single of that year in Australia, and nor was anything by Ronan Keating, S Club 7 or Five. The number one single of 1999, with eight weeks at the top of the charts, was a little track by German musician Lou Bega called Mambo No. 5.

You know the one we're talking about, right? A nonsensical laundry list of women's names - Monica, Erica, Rita, Tina, Sandra, Mary, Jessica - all clamouring for a night of love with Mr Bega himself.

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The song, which trundled along merrily courtesy of its mambo beat, was based on a sampling of a famous mambo track by the same name composed in 1949 by the Cuban artist Dámaso Pérez Prado. Bega took just 30 seconds of that original song, composing a set of brand new, catchy lyrics ("everybody in the car so c'mon let's ride") for his brand new, catchy track.

The song, released in 1999 as part of Bega's album A Little Bit of Mambo, became an instant, record-breaking hit everywhere from Australia to the UK, Germany, France and the US.

The only problem was in the eyes of the Prado estate Mambo No. 5 wasn't a brand new, catchy track at all. It was a violation of Prado's original composition and his intellectual property. And so began a torturous legal battle between Bega and the Prado estate that would sour the legacy of the hit song forever.

 

 

A MAMBO BY ANY OTHER NAME

The original Mambo No. 5 was composed in sun-drenched, salty Mexico where Prado moved in 1949 to pursue his musical career. Bega's Mambo No. 5 was created in Munich.

This is where Bega, or David Lubega as he was then known, was living and working and where he met music producer Goar Biesenkamp, a German music producer. Biesenkamp has always maintained it was he who discovered Prado's music and created Bega's Latin-inspired image. Biesenkamp's story is he discovered a Prado CD while looking for songs to appear in a German romantic comedy and instantly new there was something special about the track.

 

Bega changed the words to the 1949 song of the same name.
Bega changed the words to the 1949 song of the same name.

 

Bega, on the other hand, says he first heard the song in Miami.

(This, according to a website called Unicade, which is either a fan site or a platform run by Beisenkamp, was a "small story invented for the media".)

When another collaborator, Zippy Davids, found an old recording of the original track and brought it to the studio, Bega immediately began making up new lyrics on the spot. The resulting track became Bega's Mambo No. 5.

The lyrics were inspired by Bega's lothario youth, he has said. "I dated a lot of pretty nice ladies when I was younger," he told Fox News in 2014. "These names of my past, you know, just came to me and I wrote it down, got the melody and the rest is history."

His favourite "pretty nice lady"? "Sandra, that's why she was the one in the sun," Bega added.

 

Mambo No. 5 will always be Bega’s signature song despite a protracted legal battle over the song’s copyright.
Mambo No. 5 will always be Bega’s signature song despite a protracted legal battle over the song’s copyright.

PRADO'S RESPONSE

Regardless of who discovered the original Prado track, everyone is in agreement the song was based on a riff from the first Mambo No. 5. It was for that reason the song retained the same name as the original, for one thing. But secondly, anyone who has listened to both versions can recognise that shared blaring, sensual brass section underpinning both tracks.

Prado's estate thought so, too.

The Cuban singer's estate, via record company Peermusic, were soon embroiled in a copyright trial with Bega and his producers. The case was nuanced: Bega had written an entirely new song, with fresh lyrics. Bega's team argued that as they had only sampled one of Prado's riffs, they were actually the true creators and wanted sole ownership over all the track's profits. But the actual melody of the track leaned heavily on that 30-second riff lifted from Prado's original song. And also, the two tracks shared a name.

The court case was complicated and spanned a gruelling seven-year trial period. The case was only resolved when the Federal Court of Justice of Germany ruled that as Bega had reached out to Peermusic and Prado for a royalty agreement, the copyright for the riff belonged to Prado. But given Bega's new lyrics, the 1999 Mambo No. 5 was an original work in its own right, co-written by both Bega and Prado.

 

 

This was by no means the end of Bega's woes, though. The singer's relationship with his one-time manager and reported producer Biesenkamp was in pieces.

According to Vanity Fair, Biesenkamp believes Bega's new team ousted him from their partnership and his role in the creation of Mambo No. 5 has been obscured.

You can read all about that on Unicade, where there are 13 chapters of the Biesenkamp story, a bildungsroman in which Bega is merely a tool for Biesenkamp's own artistic vision.

The iconic black and white music video? Biesenkamp's idea. The song's eventual success in the US? Courtesy of Biesenkamp's graft. He did all that, Biesenkamp says, only to be ousted from his role by Bega's side in the mid-00s.

Bega's team denied Biesenkamp's side of the story to Vanity Fairand "downplayed Biesenkamp's role as simply a manager, not a producer".

THE LEGACY OF MAMBO NO. 5

Even, and maybe especially, after the court case, Mambo No. 5 was a huge hit. Bega's album A Little Bit of Mambo, on which you can find the single, had sold 3.4 million copies by 2013. (To put that into perspective: In 2015, only two albums sold more than one million records and they were Taylor Swift's Reputation and Ed Sheeran's Divide.) Every week, according to Billboard, the song is downloaded up to 2000 times and can be found in every karaoke bar and every wedding DJ's tracklist around the world.

 

 

In 1999, the song's success thrilled Bega. "It felt like Sputnik," he told Billboard.

"You shoot up into the atmosphere in supersonic speed and you don't even know where your head is. I switch on the television and see myself sitting on Jay Leno's couch. The next day, you fly … from Paris to New York City, then from New York to London, so you can have breakfast twice a day on two different continents. All these things you have to imagine, for a 23-year-old, were impressionable."

At the height of his fame, Bega was nominated for a Grammy Award alongside Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony and was seated at the awards ceremony behind Jennifer Lopez (clad in that infamous plunging Versace gown). He performed on television shows and was flown around the world for appearances.

 

 

The track was used by president Bill Clinton's Democratic Party in 2000 as part of their marketing materials until someone awkwardly noticed the lyrics included a reference to a woman name Monica.

Despite releasing five albums, including one '80s cover record, Bega never had a hit like Mambo No. 5 again.

Today, Bega spends his time performing his most iconic creation at '90s nostalgia concerts around the world. Not that he minds though.

 

 

In interviews, Bega is self-aware about the importance of Mambo No. 5 when it comes to his own enduring pop culture notoriety.

"I recognise that it is my signature song, and it will be my signature song," Bega told Billboard.

"It doesn't matter how many other songs I write in my life. I don't consider it the best song that I wrote, ever, but it surprised people, from the way I dressed to the way it sounded, and it had the biggest impact of all of them. So I have to love it, and I do love it … Because without Mambo No. 5 I'd still be David, just a striving musician under the bridge. It's a blessing from the skies, you know?"

 

 

But sometimes, just sometimes, when he's up on stage at one of those nostalgia festivals, a shadow crosses Bega's face. "Sometimes, especially when I play concerts, and there's that one guy in the audience," he told Billboard.

"You don't want to play it as the first song, but that guy from the top of his lungs screams: 'We want Mambo No. 5!".

Hannah-Rose Yee is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @hannahroseyee



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