Tribute from Joe Demko

Joe Demko     June 30, 2021

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.

My next encounter with Willie was outside the old KFAI studio at Walker church. I’d won a Charlie Parker poster on a call in and I was there to collect. I got the poster and I got an audition for the new version of the Bees. 1978. It was then my education in rhythm and blues began. I knew I was in heavy company. I called up a couple of guys and we auditioned together. Mark Bryn on keyboard and Dave Sletten on tenor sax. He hired us all. Then we got down to learning the book which was all head charts, no paper. Maybe 250 songs. Covers and Bees originals, Blues and Jazz. The first gig was in Ely. I got stung by a bumblebee.

Willie was a masterful arranger and songwriter. He played guitar, bass, piano, synthesizer. Sang and screamed his ass off. Incredible vocal range. He knew what he wanted to hear. My favorite work of his was always his ballads. Tear your heart out storytelling and melodies. “Fairytale” was one of many.
But the most important thing about my time with Willie and the Bees was at Willie’s house. It was a place where there was mental shelter from the crazy moneyed world. Where a musician could listen and explore ideas. Where I could learn from a genius. It was a safe space.

The Bees did a ton of gigs at the Cabooze, the Union Bar, Duffy’s, on the road to Chicago, Fargo, Duluth. Played with Dr John, did a movie. Bonnie would stop by and sit in, notably at Moby Dick’s. By 1984 it was the end of the run. On the last day of being a Bee, I was stung by a bumblebee.

Willie was a mentor, a friend, a bandmate, a teacher of music and morals. He led by example. He was smart and well read. He has cool friends, He taught me how to eat with chopsticks. So many things. After the Bees, he went on to doing the solo piano thing and then the Angel Headed Hipsters. I got to sub into the band as a utility musician. I was a spare guitar player in the Willie Murphy Blues Band. I got to play and watch this guy carry the show, gig after gig to new musical places that were challenging, funky and beautiful. The explosiveness of Willie in performance was amazing to watch. It was hard to tell where he got all the energy to go that deep, that long, that real. At the end of the run, we did one reunion at the Cabooze. It was a time warp. Willie never sold out to the mass audience. He stayed himself. He was a community musician. His records were truth telling and awakenings for anybody who dared to dig in. His last record, “Dirtball” was even more edgy and real than any of the previous albums. I was glad I got to go along for the ride. Willie is still in my mind, and I can hear him sing and play in my head. He was my friend. And I love him.