Willie Murphy remembrance

Phil Heywood     June 4, 2021

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. I moved to the Twin Cities in the fall of 1983, a little late to experience Willie and the Bees’ dance band heyday. But one of the first things I did was head down to Cedar-Riverside in search of the legends that lurked there. It didn’t take long to find them. I soon landed a regular gig at the New Riverside Café every other Wednesday, the same night of the week that Willie Murphy held forth across the street at the 400 Bar. With just a piano and his voice he utterly rocked the place, night after night, week after week. I became a regular. I’d finish my gig at the vegetarian café early and head over to the 400 to catch Willie’s sweaty soul revival. In that cramped space, with the volume turned up just to the verge of distortion, Willie’s music would either nail you to the wall with your hair blowing back, or send you onto the dance floor in a loose-as-a-goose revelry. I’m not one who dances at the drop of a hat, but I loved cutting loose freestyle to Willie’s playing. You had the feeling that rhythm was his sacred calling. Many of us couldn’t resist it, and we returned time and again to let the spirit grab us.

There were people dancing to Willie at the 400 in the 80s who had danced to Willie and the Bees through the 70s, and who were still dancing to Willie in the 2010s. He had some very loyal fans. He knew I was one and took note of that bumpkin shaking loose on the dance floor. On his 74th birthday he and his band played a gig at Lee’s Liquor Lounge and I was among the diehards on the floor. He launched into that great dance number, “Land of 1,000 Dances,” where he calls out all the old moves, and that night it was: “Do the Alligator … the Mashed Potato … do the Phil Heywood …” I was tickled pink.

But back to the 400 days: As it turns out, Willie listened to me as well. He’d come into the Riv for a meal before his gig at the 400 and catch one of my sets. He liked what he heard and once dropped me a huge compliment by suggesting that “soul-fingers” would be a suitable moniker. He commented that my sound was similar to what you get when you put your ear right up to the body of the guitar. I must have been doing something right! Of course Willie was never one to mince words, and everything that came out of his mouth was unflinchingly honest. He could follow-up a compliment with an astute critical observation about your music, and though you may not have completely acknowledged it to yourself, it would usually ring true and leave you going “Yeah, I know.”

By the end of the 80s, in a stroke of synchronicity, I had a recording in the can and Willie had formed a little record label, Atomic Theory Records. I had no aptitude for pushing my product and shopping around for a label, but it was easy to hand Willie a copy of my recording during one of our meet-ups at the Riv. He listened, and agreed to release it on Atomic Theory. Looking back it makes me proud to contemplate that I was among Willie Murphy’s “stable” of artists, along with Becky Thompson, Larry Long, Boiled in Lead, The New International Trio and others. The fact that he respected my work has meant a lot to me.

Another anecdote of endearment: One night at the Riverside Café, Polly (my future wife) and I sat down with Willie as he was finishing his tempeh stir-fry. As we chatted he ran his forefinger around his plate and slurped up the remains of his meal, saying, “The sauce is the best part.” To this day Polly and I will quote Willie whenever our meal inspires us to abandon common etiquette.

In Willie’s later years we frequently ran into each other in Riverside Park walking with our dogs. It was a daily routine for both of us; late afternoon was when he was usually there. I’d see his white Volvo wagon parked on the street and know that he and his scruffy Clyde were roaming the park. When Willie found out I knew something about birds and trees he started asking me questions about them, describing bird calls or the shapes of leaves from trees he was curious about. Often I could tell him what it was he’d seen or heard. But there was a species of tree he’d seen in Fair Oaks Park, near the Minneapolis Institute of Art, that I couldn’t confidently identify from his description of the leaves, and I told him I’d have to check it out. Well I didn’t make it a high enough priority and then autumn came and then winter and then Willie got sick and died. The following summer, on my way home from a gig at the Icehouse, I stopped at Fair Oaks Park and searched the trees for leaves fitting Willie’s description. And it was obvious what the trees were and why they had made an impression on him. On the north end of that small park are several large, stately walnuts, including one particular granddaddy tree that you wouldn’t forget if you were someone who admired trees. I had a little communion with Willie there before I left.

Willie’s music will be with me to the end, I’m confident of that. A few years back I made a CD compilation of favorite Willie tracks, my “Top 10 Reasons to Love Willie.” I told him about it. I play that disc often. I don’t play it out of nostalgia, though it can bring back certain times and places very vividly. I play it for inspiration. I play it when I need a kick in the butt. The tunes still get my blood flowing and leave me shaking my head in gratitude and awe.

I’m grateful to Willie Murphy for devoting his life to his own particular musical genius and for staying intimate with the local scene. The path he took wasn’t easy, but I’m sure his soul can rest knowing that he was true to his gifts, true to who he was, true to what he was set here to do.

Phil Heywood