It was 1971 -- right after he produced Bonnie Raitt's first album and right before he formed the greatest party band this town has ever seen -- when Willie Murphy made the decision that would keep him in Minneapolis forever. No wonder it still haunts him.
The singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, filmmaker and all-around argonaut had an offer to become a house producer for Elektra Records, which issued his influential 1967 album with John Koerner, "Running, Jumping, Standing Still." He would have made more money than he has ever seen. And he could have moved to Los Angeles or New York. ("Easy: New York's a real city," he said.)
After five years of vagabondish touring with Koerner, though, he wanted to have fun closer to home. That's why he formed Willie & the Bees and said no to Elektra.
"That's the one thing I still think about now and then," Murphy said, puffing from a cigar that looked long since burnt-out.
With the bluntness that one friend described as "equally charming and brutal," he added, "I'd probably be dead if I had done it. I was quite an addict at the time, so going to New York and having money wouldn't have been a good combination."
However, Murphy didn't hide his remorse: "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."
In a music scene rife with musicians famous for not being more famous, Murphy might be the godfather. His career highs are well known among older Twin Cities music fans: things like that classic album with Koerner, any one of the thousands of sweltering gigs during the Bees' off-and-on 23-year run, and the Minnesota Music Academy's decision to make him an inaugural member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame alongside Prince and Bob Dylan in 1990.
Murphy's lows are the stuff of local lore, too. Things like causing the White Bear Lake City Council to ban him from town during his wildest drinking days, and having countless fellow musicians want to strangle him over four decades, and watching album after album fail to rekindle his star status.
It seemed sadly fitting, then, that just as he was about to release his new double disc in October on Red House Records -- his most ambitious and widely distributed record in more than a decade -- he slipped on a piece of fencing in his back yard and broke his arm.
Murphy is finally getting around to a CD-release concert Friday at the Bedlam Theater, near his old haunts on Minneapolis' West Bank. The show will feature his R&B-flavored eight-member-plus big band, which doesn't perform a whole lot these days because he can't get gigs that pay well enough for it.
"I only like to play with real musicians, and real musicians need to get paid," he harrumphed.
Murphy, 65, has been relegated to weekly "blues jam" gigs for most of the past decade. His Blue Monday shows were a mainstay until the Viking Bar closed in 2006. He now plays every Monday at the reopened Wilebski's Blues Saloon in St. Paul and every Wednesday at the Driftwood Char Bar in south Minneapolis.
"I love to play blues, but don't cast me strictly as a blues guy," he griped. "I know I'm better at it than most people around here, but that doesn't mean it's what I do best."
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There is no blues on Murphy's new album. At least, not the 12-bar kind that 16-year-old guitar prodigies are famous for making. Instead, the two discs are split between two other distinct styles.
"A Shot of Love in a Time of Need" features the horn-blown, funky R&B sound that Murphy honed all those years with the Bees, played here with the likes of drummer Gordy Knudtson and veteran horn players Irv Williams, Max Ray and Scott Snyder (all booked for the Bedlam gig). They grind it out together on such covers as the doo-wop classic "Life Is But a Dream" and Allen Toussaint's "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky," plus five original firestarters such as "Actions Speak Louder Than Words," which taps Murphy's political streak (his last record was titled "Devil in the White House").
The other CD, "Autobiographical Notes," is a mellower, contemplative collection of soul ballads that Murphy recorded mostly on his own, playing piano or guitar. It showcases his relatively unsung talent as songwriter along with his still-vibrant voice, gravelly like Dr. John or John Hiatt but with a hint of jazz-buff smoothness.
Only in a lyrical sense is there any blues in songs like "Voice in the Night," "Fairy Tale" and "Story of My Love Life" -- not-so-veiled tales of a guy looking back with equal parts regret and gratitude (although, ironically, he started writing "Fairy Tale" in 1967, when he and Koerner spent the Summer of Love in San Francisco).
"Voice in the Night" sets the autobiographical tone. Speaking to kids he sees hanging out at West Bank bars today, Murphy sings, "I stood just like you/ Owned my own destiny too/ I knew the right way, knew the wrong/ But in the tremble of an eye 20 years can ramble by."
Songs like that fit the Red House mold of soul-baring singer/songwriters (i.e., Greg Brown, John Gorka), but the St. Paul label's new president, Eric Peltoniemi, said he was attracted equally to both of the new albums.
It was Murphy's idea to combine them. "The truth is it'd be more profitable for him to sell the records individually, but there's some kind of cosmic wholeness to them being presented as flip sides," said Peltoniemi, who took over at Red House after founder Bob Feldman passed away in 2006. Despite the label's folkie reputation, he said, "the music Bob probably loved most was classic soul and R&B, the kind of stuff that Willie does so well. He's an incredible artist, and incredibly overlooked."
Even musicians who've been put off by Murphy's behavior over the years don't dispute that the guy deserves more respect.
"He's probably my favorite white soul/blues singer, and just an amazing producer, too," said Butanes frontman Curt Obeda, who noted the irony of Murphy having hearing problems (he suffered an ear infection a few years ago), "and yet when he's recording he can hear the tiniest little thing that no one else can hear."
"If Willie were from New Orleans or Texas, places where they revere their older musicians better, he'd probably be better off," Obeda added. "But I don't think Willie regrets much. He made decisions along the way where he actively chose to be less famous."
• • •
Both albums were recorded in Murphy's studio, dubbed Cockroach Park, which is located right behind the big picture window at the front of his disheveled but resilient-looking house in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood. The house is just about a mile from where Murphy grew up in south Minneapolis in an Irish Catholic family -- mostly without a father, with the nuns at St. Stephen's School doing their best to keep him out of trouble.
Murphy now shares his home with a male roommate and his lap dog Clyde, who has a fluffy mound of white hair peaking over his eyes and is slow to warm to newcomers ("He'll stop barking after a while," Willie promised). Score one for dogs resembling their masters, in other words.
Last week, the wide array of Murphy's nonmusical interests were on display on the round coffee table next to his studio, laden with cigar butts and assorted papers. Among the many books was a Dostoyevsky collection and Jackie Chan's autobiography. Murphy is a literary buff ("at least for a musician," he cracks) and a huge nut for foreign cinema, from Fellini and everything Italian to Hong Kong kung fu movies. He even went to see Chan's latest flick, "The Spy Next Door," at a theater.
"I knew it was going to be bad, and I wasn't wrong," he deadpanned.
Having first sobered up in 1979 (it took a few more tries for it to stick), Murphy wound in a steady relationship for more than a decade, but that ended a few years ago. He said he "got entangled in a couple romantic affairs" and then suffered a severe depression for almost two years in the late '00s.
"When I was in my 40s, I realized that midlife crisis isn't something you get over, you just get used to it," he said.
The depression is partly why Murphy hasn't gone on any European tours for the past four years, something he did every summer going back to the early '90s. He found a base of friends to stay with around Italy, and from there he would play festivals all over the continent for weeks on end.
The European treks have been some of the brightest spots of his career, he said, both financially and personally.
"When you go as a musician, you realize how rich Europe is, since they've been raping the rest of the world for so many years," he said (bluntly). "But, of course, there's so much beauty over there, too. I've run in with a really wonderful community of people over there."
Murphy hopes Red House's promotion of his new dual collection will help him relaunch his European adventures, but either way he's proud of it.
"It's the closest I've ever come to making an album that I actually realized what I was trying to do, and I did it."
As he talked about the CD, it became clear just how autobiographical some of its songs are.
"Every once in a while I try to settle down," he sings in "Story of My Love Life," "Then one dark night I'll awake to the sound of a train flashing by/ It makes me want to cry, 'cuz I know I'll be gone again."
"You know, I don't have kids," he said. "I've really given my whole life to this [expletive] music thing, which is kind of an easy way out, but it takes a great level of dedication.
"I knew a sociologist who used to talk about the pinball theory, where most people bounce into the first hole they land in, and stay there the rest of their lives. I'm certainly a pinball kind of guy in that sense, although my hole turns out to be a pretty nice one from my perspective. Really, I've had a pretty great time."
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