All male musicians are mama’s boys, and Willie Murphy was no exception. Inspired at the tender age of 3 when at his mother’s knee, tears streaming down his face enchanted by the beauty of her piano playing and singing, the salty seeds were planted on what would become nothing less than a hero’s journey. His mother’s melody sparked a vision quest that would both lead and sustain him throughout his life, caressing his muse while wrestling with the toxic dual demons of the music business and his own making, to eventually emerge bloody, unbowed and pulsing as the heart and soul of the Minneapolis music scene for over half a century.
Real heroes are in short supply these days, and Murphy always remained one of mine. Whether leading Willie and the Bumblebees, his rowdy rhythm and blues posse that could have sprung fully formed from a Sam Peckinpah fever dream — starting soul fires and burning down every dance floor they played in the process, uniting neighbors and strangers in a land of 1,000 moonshine dances, or holding forth at the 400 Bar on Cedar and Riverside for years naked for just a barrelhouse piano anchored by his hammer of a left hand, a right foot keeping time like a volcanic metronome, and a voice that could pluck from the cosmos slivers of Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, or Percy Mayfield at a moment’s notice from invisible shooting stars, often in the same set, sometimes in the same song, but always Willie Murphy — reaching for that midnight rainbow, howling at whatever moon was left.
He started playing bass in high school, often the only white cat in the band, eventually developing a style that resembled legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson in his ability to weave a double dose of rhythm and melody anchoring and propelling the song, often liberating it from what Robert Wyatt called “the tyranny of 4/4 time.” Maybe the ghost of Oscar Pettiford, a fellow Minneapolitan and bassist and who held down the holy house of the Duke Ellington band from 1945 to ’48, then helping midwife BeBop, who passed away in 1960 as Murphy was just starting, perhaps a molecule or two of him incarnated into Willie’s hands and soul. Either way, it was Willie’s bass, for me, thundering the Bees’ relentless, wave after taller wave of tribal rhythmic patterns, a horn section riding and riffing on top, hypnotizing crowds every time I saw them play often to the point of pure orgasmic frenzy. It was simply impossible not to dance (unless you were in a cadaverous state) and for those who knew Willie, nothing made him happier than a packed, sweaty dance floor. He considered it one of his highest callings, and where his congregation was to be found. And yet it was just one of the things that made this street preacher and music evangelist special.
Memphis-born soul singer extraordinaire Willie Walker, who moved to Minneapolis 50 years ago and is now the most nominated musician in the 40-year history of the Blues Foundation Annual Award Ceremonies, used to front Willie and the Bees in the late ’60s (leaving some to wonder which Willie we are talking about). Walker left because, as he told me, “You couldn’t make any money with Murphy as most of the gigs back then were community benefits.” In fact, the Bees were referred to as the “people’s band.” Murphy delighted in it and wore that handle proudly until the very end of his life. He was a stone cold beatnik-based hippie, an avowed Marxist, and never gave up on the idea of a better world — solidarity through song. The times might have changed, but Willie never did. Never sold out either — his belief system and moral compass anchoring him in the swirling madness and morass of modernity.
His personal and professional lives were no walk in the park. Even after sobering up in the early 1980s (no 30-day treatment for Willie — he saw the light after a weekend in detox) he still suffered severe bouts of depression and insomnia. He’d have several years of steady house gigs, production jobs and showcase gigs, followed by years of falling off people’s radar doing the musician’s hustle of waking up with two fingers crossed on one hand and the other not feeling like dialing the phone to face another afternoon of rejection. It was a drill he knew well, yet over the long run, and often in spite of it, he never stopped creating or dreaming. Pause, yes, but never stop. From folk to funk, there was no style of music this side of Igor Stravinsky that he couldn’t play. He was a bassist, an acoustic and electric guitarist, a piano pounder, vocalist, composer, arranger, producer, bandleader, soul renegade and philosopher king.
Willie the man was complex, inquisitive, well read, a huge fan of foreign films, a jazz buff, a contrarian, obstinate, moody, and on a good day, a total sweetheart. He was fearless and never backed down or sacrificed his principles. His hair rarely saw a comb or brush, nor his snazzier suit coats for the cooler gigs, a dry cleaner— he was like Einstein that way, the mad professor constantly tinkering and searching for answers to his various musical equations. While listening to him was also a supreme pleasure in whatever format on any given night, you knew Willie NEVER was going to phone it in — the bandstand was sacred space.
To know Willie Murphy or to have the pleasure of sitting in his living room on a battered couch in front of a coffee table full of Socialist magazines, books of poetry, song lyrics, coffee stains, cigar burns and ashes dotting the room like ancient hieroglyphics, Willie held forth usually holding a guitar in his lap playing little abstract blues riffs punctuating articulate thought and philosophy, while he smoked his small cigars reminding one of Mark Twain, if Twain lived in the inner city in a less than ideal neighborhood. You’d always feel you were in the presence of a real artist, and one who leads his life as if he had no other choice. He didn’t.
While listening to Willie over the years was one of the supreme pleasures of my life, working with Willie was not always easy. I had just gotten a well-paying job as a music director at a local upscale blues club, brought in to try to turn the club around. I booked a solid lineup of the greatest blues bands in town, including Dave “Snaker” Ray, the Butanes, and Willie Murphy, among others. My first big show was going to be the end of September 2001. Then 9/11 happened and we turned it into a fundraiser for the NYC firemen who were in town at another event collecting money in rubber fire boots still coated with the sacred dust of bones and falling buildings. Willie was going to kick off the evening at 5 p.m. The man whom the club was named after was there, all of his friends, and every corporate muckety-muck who worked for the corporation. The place was packed, anticipation high, and everybody ready to have a rockin’ good time. Willie came up, fiddled around with his piano, adjusted his microphone, only to say loudly and to all in attendance, “They call this a blues club? It’s barely a (insert F bomb) restaurant!” My buddy Dave Ray looks over at me, just before I almost passed out and said, “That’s Murphy … working on his book back!” In retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing and to a certain degree he was right.
Willie was a shaman. We didn’t go to hear Willie to be entertained, we went to be healed, and we always were. He knew how good he was, and so did we. The source of his music was as pure as the driven snow, and at his core, so was he. John Coltrane said the goal of his music was for his audience to “enjoy the capacity of a meaningful life.” Willie gave us that in spades.
Willie named his last band the Angel Headed Hipsters, copped from a line in Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”: “… angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Willie now joins two other West Bank giants — Bill Hinkley and Dave “Snaker” Ray — in both heavenly connection and exile, three kings whose music and memory may well outlast us all.
The last time I saw Willie was in the summer of 2018. I was driving windows down along River Road on the south side of the Mississippi River. I looked to my left and there on the upper side of the bank was Willie with his beloved dog Clyde, in a Hawaiian shirt and cutoffs exposing legs whiter than the clouds above. He was kind of jogging in place with quick pixie-like steps — blues tai chi. I smiled, slowed down, honked and waved. He smiled back, looking like he had the world by the bonnet, and I caught a glimpse of the magic in his eyes that twinkled when Willie was on his game.
I thought of him dancing in place after he passed Jan. 13, and again when I woke up today. Like fog lifting from a mirror, there was Willie Murphy — running, jumping, standing still.
Paul Metsa is an eight-time MN Music Award winner, author (“Blue Guitar Highway”), radio host (Wall of Power Radio Hour- AM 950), and TV host (Wall of Power TV, MCN6.org). His website is www.paulmetsa.com.
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