Time will show Murphy as one of the best songwriters America’s ever produced
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.
Musically, he knew it all. Chord structure, counterpoint, syncopation, arranging. Someone told me his music knowledge he showed at MacPhail broke all records at the time. That wouldn’t surprise me. His vision of harmony and chord structure was second to none. Take “Supermarket,” just that opening music line. He was showing it to us on piano and we were blown away. Very complex. He’d give us the notes, we’d put it all together, and oh, that was bad. So many of his charts were like that, really sophisticated.
And lyrically, he wrote amazing songs. Tender love songs, poignant songs, songs with bite. It could be about anything, but it would tell a real human story told from deep in some context and told from beginning to end. He’d set these in some unusual places, like a courtroom, or the zoo, or the White House, mud puddles, somewhere down the line, the neighborhood, all the territory of heart and soul, … and beyond.
If he wrote a bubblegum song it would be the best bubblegum song, like “Love Buzz.” His country songs, like “Hello Don’t Mean I Love You,” were real country. His songs of the heart, and there were many, like “Fairytale” and “Closer” make everyone tear up. Lots of spirituals – you could say his last album was full of angry spirituals, earlier ones were still hopeful. Like “Faith, Hope, and Solidarity,” which I sang with Melanie Rosales, you can hear the pain and the hope at the same time.
He wrote music all the time. He’d write songs over lunch. He’d write several songs a day. He wrote in lots of genres. He even wrote jingles, just to make some extra bread.
If he had gotten out of his own way, he’d have been rich, rich, rich. All he had to do was get one A–lister do one of his songs and the word would be out, they’d be throwing money at him. He coulda been like Toussaint, or Womack, or Kristofferson – they all were prolific and wrote lots of songs for the stars, songs that became big hits and made big money. Murphy wrote lots of songs of that same high quality.
Murphy could have gone that route, no doubt about that. But he was too much of a control freak, he was afraid the quality wouldn’t be there if he didn’t produce his songs himself. He wouldn’t sell anything to anyone, not even to make lots of money.
He was a complex man, full of contradictions, with his own demons that could make him act desperate. He took the weight of the world on his shoulders, cared so much, couldn’t stand the crap of the world. But at the same time – it’s hard to understand how someone who could write such beautiful love songs could also be so hard on people, but he could be brutal, and just about everyone has scars.
One time, after we got up in each other’s faces, he said, “Look, I can be an asshole, and you can be an asshole. But can’t we just make up?” That was his idea of an apology. But we loved each other. When he heard I was about to make a CD, he offered to give me a song to record – in fact he offered me my pick. “Pick a song you like and put it on your album,” he told me in that gruff voice of his. Totally bowled me over. I think I’d have picked, “Crazy Wit u Baby.”
So, like I said, he should be remembered as one of the best songwriters America’s ever produced. When his songs ultimately get better distribution, maybe recorded by others, they could become immortal. That would be fitting. Maybe this remembrance website will help do that.
From a July 2021 interview with Maurice Jacox, long-time friend of Willie and original Bumblebee.