A Celebration of Willie Murphy’s life was held on February 16, 2019 at Hoversten Chapel, Augsburg University ~ on the West Bank of Minneapolis.
February 17, 2019 · The Cabooze, Minneapolis
The Fairytales tribute at the Cabooze was an amazing night of love and music, more than seven hours of acts Willie would have loved. The Cabooze was packed. At the height of the evening emcee Bobby Vandell read the following tribute from Willie’s friend Bonnie Raitt:
“Hello from Tulsa, here out on tour. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there with you to celebrate Willie in person, but I’m there with you in spirit. What an incredible lineup and how perfect that you’re right there at the Cabooze.”
[Presented at the Celebration of Life for William J. Murphy at Augsburg University’s Hoversten Chapel, Minneapolis.]
I don’t usually listen to lyrics, don’t even hear them. When I try to sing along, the lyrics are all the same. Babadabadabum… Maybe with better melody – maybe, on a good day.
But with Willie’s songs I do hear the lyrics. I’m talking about his own songs, not the covers, but his own, which I confess I didn’t used to like so much, because what I really wanted was to move and groove to his covers.
With the fantastic sophisticated charts he wrote for his fantastic sophisticated bandmates, the Angel-Headed Hipsters, or The Bees, I liked those covers better than the originals!
Bill and I go back a long way. “Willie” didn’t come along until 1968 or so, but anyone who knew him in high school, and I did, still knows him as Bill.
How do I hope Murphy will be remembered? As a songwriter. Murphy was a great songwriter. I think time will tell he was one of the best songwriters America’s ever produced.
Along with producing my first album in 1971, he was one of the most brilliant, unique and prolific musicians I’ve ever known. 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 and and the Bees, will be treasured by all of us who can appreciate the incredible breadth, soul and inventiveness of the music he made.
I could tell a thousand episodes, intense, exciting, ironic, sad, moving and many incredible adventures together on-the-road, of what he taught me and what I taught him (yes, because beyond the rude character, he could also be humble and above all curious)… But I want to talk about his heritage, his legacy. I believe that Willie was a great musician, his great intellectual preparation led him to dig deep into the American cultural and musical tradition. He was not just a musician, he had “spessore” , as we say in Italy (thickness?). I have never seen so many different qualities in a musician.
You hear Murphy before you see him. His gravel-throated singing and the rumbling beat of his piano pounding drift out of the bar and over Cedar Avenue. The sound inside reverberates in the crowded room as Murphy’s melismatic growl bends and twists the lyrics of Roy Brown’s 1948 rhythm-and-blues hit: “Heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight…”
Like anyone else who heard him perform over the years, I always found that Willie Murphy’s soul passion, his rocking energy, blew away my mental cobwebs. The flame of his charismatic talent drew me to the Caboose, to the Viking, to the Cedar Cultural Center. But I got to know him personally not as the local star of the West Bank music scene, but as a somewhat shy movie-lover who was a regular at screenings at the Oak Street Cinema and Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Like me, and many other inveterate cinema lovers, he was an acolyte of the dark.
On the best nights at the Triangle Bar—when oxygen and elbow room were scarce and a tall black man dressed in a Harlem Globetrotter’s uniform played his big sax while walking atop the length of the bar where patrons drank and bopped in place—you could feel like there was no better place to be. As the rest of the band wailed, shoved into an impossible angle inside a tight corner, their funky originals, R&B covers, and rock ’n’ roll blasts made you believe you had achieved something like a West Bank nirvana. Only the occasional soulful ballad would slow the spinning rotation of the Triangle so that it would not fly off into space.
My first encounter with Willie Murphy was in front of the Marigold Ballroom in 1973. I was trying to get into the Bonnie Raitt show. Only problem was I didn’t have any money. Willie comes down the sidewalk with Sylvia Ray and said “hey man, you need a ticket? Hands me one. Must have saw the hangdog look on my face.
A gallery of photos of Willie Murphy and friends through the years, by Eve MacLeish
A serendipitous meeting and playing with Rex Beach got me in the Explodo Boys with his son, ex Bees John Beach, and Jerome Broughton. I found out about the Bees auditioning for a new trumpet player, and got the gig in late ‘79’ I think. They were just releasing “Out of the Woods”, and that album was a killer, man. Every song was great.The whole book, originals and covers, was unbelievably good and fun to play.
At first I thought Willie was a grump, but his genius outweighed that, and I quickly learned how to at least duck, when the shit hit the fan. If he ever felt he lit into you and then realized he was wrong, he always apologized later for it. His passion for the music and the performance was huge.
It was always a love fest wherever we played.
When I was a kid in south Minneapolis, my brother had a 45 of “Magazine Lady,” from Willie’s album with John Koerner, “Running Jumping Standing Still.” I loved the way the song moved, and that Elektra disc was in heavy rotation whenever I racked up singles on our old Garrard changer — Willie and Koerner right in there with Elvis, the Stones and James Brown.
But I didn’t really hear Willie until I was of drinking age, in what turned out to be the final days of the Bees, holding court for a passel of reprobates at Moby’s like the Mos Eisley cantina band in “Star Wars.” It was a messy time, and I didn’t realize how how fleeting that moment would be. Soon Moby’s was gone, and the Bees too.
In the early 1970s I was a teenager who had just discovered the country blues and was staying up late learning to play some of that music on guitar. I’d become a fan and student of the recordings of Koerner, Ray and Glover, and while perusing their vinyl in a record store in Iowa City I came across Running, Jumping, Standing Still, featuring a burly (at the time), bearded, cigar-smoking guy named Willie Murphy on the cover with the young, lanky Spider John Koerner. So now there were not three but four guys responsible for my earliest intimations of a Minneapolis West Bank music scene – a scene I would come to know firsthand a decade later.
Photos from Willie Murphy’s “Blue Monday” Jam Sessions at the Viking Bar, by Anthony Markunas
A conversation with Willie Murphy by Cyn Collins, from the book West Bank Boogie. For more than 30 years Willie Murphy has been fashioning a blues and R&B legacy in the Twin Cities and beyond…
A conversation with Cyn Collins, from the book West Bank Boogie. Willie and the Bumblebees performed all over the Midwest between 1970 and 1984. I called together some of the Bees from the first and second versions of the band for an interview session at the Viking Bar on Labor Day, 2005.
Sad though his passing may be, Murphy’s fans got to say an unintended goodbye at a listening party for Dirtball at the Minneapolis Eagles Club #34 in November. “It was a great success, there were a lot of people there,” Murphy told City Pages in December. “Remarkably, I felt pretty good that night. Tons of people. No band playing, we just played Dirtball and in between we played some of my older records. There was just so much love.”
[Note: We’re pretty sure this is the last interview Willie conducted.]
“I still believe in love. I’m still a hippie, I suppose. Although it’s hard when you’re depressed, but that’s the kind of thing you have to keep remembering. You might think you believe something, but you don’t act on it. For instance, if I see somebody with a cardboard sign on the side of the road, I always give them money. The thing is, I believe in compassion, so I gotta act on it – at least in that minimal way. And other ways, too.”
By far the most successful fundraiser we had back then was a boogie featuring Willie and the Bumblebees playing at the old Firehouse (Mixed Blood Theater for you newbies). The Tenants’ Union fronted from its meager funds the Firehouse rental and beer kegs from Zipps. We charged $5 a head (get it?) and a buck for a beer. Since the rent strike was a south Minneapolis liberal cause celeb the place was packed to the rafters. The Bees were paid about $10 each and free beer, but they got the Union funded for two or three months!
I first met Willie in the late 1960s. We were both performing at the famed Triangle Bar on the West Bank (along with Dave Ray, John Koerner, Lazy Bill Lucas and others). I watched and listened to Willie in awe and amazement. Not just his playing, but his depth and knowledge of the music. I thought he was a musical genius with a deep understanding of the structure of complex music, its culture and history. That view of Willie never changed for me.
Includes videos and interview with Joe Demko. A force to be reckoned with in the Minnesota music scene, Willie Murphy’s songs were political, bombastic, loud, edgy – but he could also write a memorable love song. Murphy learned to play piano by banging on the one at St. Stevens Church in Minneapolis. He admired Little Richard; he was inspired by the early days of rock ‘n’ roll; and the sacred noise he produced as a musician morphed with the times, moving from sinuous blues songs to the folksier sounds of the West Bank in the 1960s and back again.
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. “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.
He was a hipster and a hippie, opinionated and open-minded musically, a leader and a loner, knowledgeable and cranky. Willie Murphy was the kingpin of Minneapolis music scene before Prince. The West Bank was the hub. Dylan had gone to New York City. Koerner, Ray & Glover were off playing folk festivals.
Bill and I were spawned in the Phillps ‘hood, and for a brief moment, we both attended Minneapolis Central High. I was aware of his prowess on the bass, but try as I might, I can’t conjure up his image with “Dave Brady and the Stars,” probably because he hadn’t yet developed his trademark beard. I tried to catch as many of his gigs as I could over a half century of opportunities and was never disappointed.
Real heroes are in short supply these days, and Murphy always remained one of mine. Willie the man was complex, inquisitive, well read, a huge fan of foreign films, a jazz buff, a contrarian, obstinate, and on a good day, a total sweetheart.