He was a genius musician, a voracious reader, a dedicated cineaste, an unwavering anti-establishment, anti-corporate, anti-greed maverick and a curmudgeonly friend who chided his pals for ordering “animals” at restaurants.
That’s how Willie Murphy, a pillar of Minneapolis music, was remembered this past weekend at a memorial service and an all-star musical evening in a bar on, of course, the West Bank.
He was a deep, complex man. So it’s not surprising that his life and career could not be celebrated in just one or two days.
The celebration moves into its third day on Monday, with a jam session at Palmer’s Bar on Murphy’s beloved West Bank.
On Saturday, in front of an overflow crowd at Hoversten Chapel at Augsburg University, Murphy, who died Jan. 13 at age 75, was saluted in words, music and video.
Lifelong friend Don Anderson remembered how Willie joined a car club in grade school when all they did was look at cars in magazines.
He recalled taking LSD with Willie during a tornado warning and Willie deciding they should link arms “because if it blows us away, at least we’ll have each other.”
He regaled about late lunches (Willie didn’t get up till after most restaurants stopped serving lunch) and dinners where his pal would lecture him for ordering deceased animals. Eventually, the vegetarian Murphy was convinced by doctors to eat fish for much-needed protein, so he zealously introduced an unenthusiastic Anderson to such delicacies as eel and jellyfish.
Fellow West Bank music institution Spider John Koerner reminisced about he and Murphy recording their legendary 1969 duo album, “Running Jumping Standing Still.” He recalled their East Coast tour to the Newport Folk Festival when a mattress in the back of their funky old van caught fire (through the bottom of the vehicle) and how the cops hesitantly tried to help these hippie musicians put out the flames.
Saxophonist Eugene Hoffman talked about the founding of Willie & the Bumblebees when Willie said there would be no leader and then Willie proceeded to lead everything.
Mike Rivard put together a video tribute, which included some narration by Garrison Keillor that Murphy had written to be read when he appeared on radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” It included the declaration that Willie “became a juvenile delinquent while at St. Stephen’s” grade school.
Perhaps best was the last speaker, Steve Mayer, a psychologist, professor and friend of Murphy’s. After speaking eloquently and insightfully about Willie, Meyer recited the last few lines from each of the songs on Murphy’s “Dirtball” album that was released on his 75th birthday in November.
The lines were poetic, prescient and poignant. Murphy left us on a high note.
Sunday was Willie Murphy Day in Minneapolis as declared by Mayor Jacob Frey. That meant nearly six hours of music by an all-star cast on the West Bank at the very crowded Cabooze.
There were many highlights including:
Organizer/emcee Bobby Vandell reading some heartfelt words from Bonnie Raitt, who hired Murphy to produce her 1971 debut album. ("He was a musical genius... a virtuoso trailblazer ... a badass singer ... criminally underappreciated outside the Twin Cities");
Koerner doing a spoken word rendition – well, pretty much a rap version – of Murphy’s “Mud Puddle”;
An appearance by Binky Griptite of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings sitting in with both the Willie Murphy Band and the Angel Headed Hipsters.
But the real treat of the night was a reunion of the Bumblebees, Willie’s often terrific you-should-be-dancing funk ‘n’ soul band that kept the Twin Towns partying from 1969 to ’84 (plus for a few one-off reunions).
With Maurice Jacox, Howard Merriweather and Joe Demko sharing the lead vocals, the Bees funked it up for a generous and impressive 50 minutes.
They did a few songs from their early album, “Honey From the Bee,” as well as “Supermarket,” “You’re No Good, You’re Funky” and “Fairytale,” a sweet and soulful finale to a reunion that begs for more honey from the Bees -- even without their leader.
Here's Koerner doing "Mud Puddle" with Demko and Griptite (aka Frank Stripling, who played with Murphy in the 1990s):