He excelled at the blues, and suffered from it, too, but Willie Murphy was best known for consistently bringing joy to Twin Cities audiences for five decades whether he was fronting the sprawling R&B band Willie & the Bees or playing solo piano at the 400 Bar.
The celebrated singer, songwriter, producer, bandleader and all-out ringleader from the Minneapolis West Bank music scene died Sunday morning just a month after celebrating his 75th birthday by releasing a topical new album. He had been hospitalized for several weeks battling pneumonia after a hard year of myriad health complications.
“He was one of the most brilliant, unique and prolific musicians I’ve ever known,” Bonnie Raitt, who enlisted Murphy to produce her 1971 debut album, told the Star Tribune.
A charter member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame alongside Prince and Bob Dylan, Murphy cut his teeth playing clubs around his native Minneapolis as a teenager with mostly African American R&B bands in the early 1960s.
From there, he joined the folkier West Bank scene and briefly flirted with national fame in California in the late-’60s before settling back into Minneapolis to form Willie & the Bumblebees, later just the Bees, who would become one of the Twin Cities’ preeminent club acts of the 1970s and early-’80s with their lively blend of mostly original R&B, funk, blues and rock songs.
“He was the heart and soul of the Minneapolis music scene,” said fellow bluesman Paul Metsa. “If anybody asks if white men can sing the blues, they’ve never heard Willie Murphy.”
Willie & the Bees co-vocalist Maurice Jacox said, “He was one of the best songwriters in America, or at least the best songwriter I’d ever worked with.”
Longtime running buddy Spider John Koerner, who paid Murphy a visit just after Thanksgiving, said he had been fighting through his illnesses in recent months but “it just amounted to too much. And he had been fighting depression, too.”
It was the cult-loved 1969 Koerner-Murphy collaborative album “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” that led to Murphy producing Raitt’s first album.
While the acoustic trio Koerner, Ray & Glover would be the best-known of Minneapolis’s blues- and folk-picking West Bank scene makers of the 1960s, signing to Elektra Records and influencing Dylan and the Beatles, Koerner said Murphy was “the one who really blew the lid off what was possible.”
“I was just a folk musician, but Willie was a real musician,” he said. “That’s why Bonnie wanted to work with him.”
Murphy suffered from a flurry of health issues over the past year, including kidney trouble, a severe stomach flu and a blood infection. He had re-entered a hospital before Christmas and was in an intensive care unit, where he fought a long battle against pneumonia.
“He died peacefully in the place he had spent the last three weeks,” said Max Ray, friend and longtime horn player in Murphy’s bands.
“Twice this week he had periods of lucidity, and we all believed he would be allowed to leave the ICU to go to a regular hospital room. Instead, his lungs began to collect fluid, and breathing became increasingly difficult.”
Raitt was among the many fans and friends who recently donated money to a fund to help Murphy pay his mounting health bills.
Added Raitt, “His enduring contribution to one of America’s funkiest and most flavorful music scenes, the West Bank of Minneapolis, where I first fell in love with his band, Willie & the Bees, will be treasured by all of us who can appreciate the incredible breadth, soul and inventiveness of the music he made.”
A crowdsourcing campaign also helped pay for the production of Murphy’s new album, “Dirtball.” The record arrived to raves just before Thanksgiving with seething but high-energy songs that preached peace and love amid the politics of the day, including the eco-disaster-themed title track and “A Shot of Love in a Time of Need.”
Murphy was physically unfit to perform at a release party for the album at the Minneapolis Eagles Club in November, so it was turned into a listening party instead. In true blunt form, he clarified in a Star Tribune interview beforehand, “This is the release party. I hope to sell some damn CDs.”
In an interview with Jim Walsh for City Pages last month, Murphy opened up about his struggles with depression over the decades and how it did — and didn’t — influence his music.
“I don’t think the blues as I know it, and I know it pretty well, has as much to do with depression,” he said. “Singing the blues is often joyful, actually. When you’re depressed, you don’t want to do anything. Nothing interests you. I’m trying to fight it without drugs and stuff, by keeping on doing stuff.”
Murphy rather infamously struggled with alcoholism and drug problems through much of the 1970s and early-’80s, especially during the rowdy heyday of Willie & the Bees (also known as Willie & the Bumblebees). His reputation at the time was such, the city of White Bear Lake entirely banned him from performing there. But he fought his way to sobriety and lived a much healthier lifestyle over the past quarter century.
Metsa said the last time he saw Murphy was walking his beloved dog, Clyde, along River Road and “he was doing this kind of running-in-place exercise, which seemed so un-Willie-like but was touching to see.”
“He was an epic drunk in the Bees days, and a [jerk] to a lot of people,” said his bandmate at the time, Jacox. “But amid all that, he remained unquestionably talented, and underneath all that was a gentle soul.”
Former First Avenue general manager Steve McClellan remembered Willie & the Bees’ 1984 farewell performance as “among the most packed shows” he’d seen at the club. The gig infamously ended with police arresting some of the bandmembers and hanger-ons for after-hours drinking.
A neighbor of Murphy’s in the Seward area of south Minneapolis, McClellan added, “He was so much more than just a musician. He was really well-informed and very much an activist. I’d leave his house with homework assignments on what books I needed to read on different social issues.”
‘Home to Minneapolis’
A South Side native who started playing clubs while still a student at Minneapolis Central High School, Murphy often stood out not only for his youth, but also as one of the only white guys in predominantly African American groups, including Dave Brady & the Stars, the Big M’s and the Valdons.
After falling in with the West Bank folkies, he headed to California and pursued the hippie lifestyle with Koerner in the late-’60s, which led to the making of “Running, Jumping, Standing Still” for Elektra.
Heralded by Crawdaddy magazine as “one of the most unique and underrated albums of the folk boom” and “perhaps the only psychedelic ragtime blues album ever,” the groundbreaking hybrid of flower-power vibes and rootsy traditions included among its tracks “I Ain’t Blue,” which became a staple for Raitt after she re-recorded it.
By the time he served as producer and backer for Raitt in 1971, Murphy had moved back to Minneapolis and formed the Bumblebees, carrying on the multi-racial makeup of his earlier bands and possibly influencing a fledgling, young Prince, who was said to have attended some of their shows.
Though better known as a live act, the Bees recorded several well-received albums, including 1978’s “Honey from the Bee,” which is being prepped for a double-vinyl and CD reissue with bonus tracks via Nero’s Neptune label later this year.
“Willie was really excited about it,” label operator Mark Trehus said.
After the Bees splintered, Murphy sporadically recorded and performed with other large-scale, high-energy ensembles, including his coyly named group of late, the Angel Headed Hipsters. But more often he would play stripped-down solo gigs or blues jams at venues including the 400 Bar, Viking Bar, Wilebski’s Saloon and Richfield’s American Legion Post.
In a 2010 interview with the Star Tribune, he candidly explained how the tough economics of live gigging around the Twin Cities prevented him from performing more often with big, horn-laden bands he helmed so well.
“I only like to play with real musicians, and real musicians need to get paid,” he said.
In that same interview, though, he showed no regrets about returning to Minneapolis after turning down offers to remain in California or move to New York to record for Elektra and Warner Bros. around 1970: “I’d probably be dead if I had done it,” he said. “I was quite an addict at the time, so going to New York and having money wouldn’t have been a good combination.”
“I did think kind of naively at the time that I could go back home to Minneapolis and just make records there. Well, I’ve done that, but it hasn’t been very easy.”
Memorial service info is still pending, as are murmurs of various musical tributes for Murphy.
Star Tribune critic Jon Bream contributed to this story.