Music

Minneapolis' Greatest Unsung Talent Returns: An Interview with Willie Murphy

Chris Riemenschneider
(Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

In a music scene rife with musicians famous for not being more famous, Murphy might be the godfather.


Willie Murphy
Label: Red House
Title: A Shot of Love in a Time of Need

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.

THE MANY PHASES OF WILLIE MURPHY

He dishes on his various -- and very different -- musical incarnations:

THE VAL-DONS, NOBLES AND MORE (early 1960s R&B bands)


"When I grew up, blues was just a part of rock 'n' roll. We always played a few blues songs, but we didn't call them that. It was just a part of the repertoire. There was a lot of R&B that was bluesy."

WITH JOHN KOERNER (1966-1971)


"At first, it was just him and me flying around with a wad of bills in our pockets, running through the airport, stopping at the bar to get a few drinks in us, and running out on the tarmac just in time to catch the plane. But after we made the record, we had to have a van and a bunch of stuff, and a bass player and drummer. That's what disenchanted Koerner. Elektra wanted us to do a second album, but he didn't want to do it. I was OK with that, because I had it in my mind to come back here and put together a big band."

WILLIE & THE BEES (1971-2004)


"The whole ethos of the Bees was, 'Drink, be wild, (expletive) success.' We had record people coming after us. I wouldn't talk to them, I was so arrogant."

PRODUCING BONNIE RAITT'S DEBUT (1971)


"Warner Bros. didn't like the idea of her coming out here and working with us, a bunch of fly-by-nights. The Hollywood record business is so nepotistic and stupid. Dave Ray had the studio equipment, and we finally found the place, Enchanted Isle, an old summer camp out on Lake Minnetonka.

"We just had a great time. We played every day for a week or two, just fooling around. Finally, Bonnie said, 'Don't you think we should start working?' It just came together after that.

"I made money off that album for years. Most of it went right up my nose."

SOLO PIANO (1990s)


"I decided I couldn't do the Bees anymore, I was tired of it. That's when I started playing solo piano and singing, which was more like a hobby to me, doing old rock 'n' roll and blues that way. That became my identity for a lot of people, and some of my best songs grew out of it."

BLUES JAMS ('00s-)


"I still love doing the blues jam session every week. We just play. We don't think about what we're doing, hardly. There's never been a rehearsal."

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."

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. 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 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. 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 up 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."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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