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As inextricably tied to the Twin Cities scene as any musician in modern times, Willie Murphy has just about done and seen it all in a career that threads back to the era when the Beats were morphing into the hippies. He flirted with the big time, turned down a chance to be a producer in L.A. or New York, but ultimately reigned where it counted most, in front of exuberant audiences. Now Murphy shows few signs of slowing down, despite reaching that age made infamous by the Beatles—64—and collecting Social Security.
"Which isn't very much. I never worked, ya know," he says with a characteristic cackle. Although Murphy never did punch a time clock, his lengthy résumé is riddled with scores of encounters with music giants: He's run his own label, is a renowned producer responsible for Bonnie Raitt's debut album, is a formidable songwriter and arranger, is as close to being a New Orleans-style piano professor as any native Minnesotan could be, also shines on guitar and bass, and even once challenged the Rolling Stones to a pool tournament.
Around here, Murphy is most prominently known for leading Willie and the Bees, a classic, swaggering, horn-heavy outfit that regaled sweaty hordes on the Midwest bar circuit with smoking R&B, jazz, blues, and rock throughout the 1970s and early '80s. He subsequently solidified a cult following with solo piano gigs at places like the Viking Bar and formed another big band, the Angel Headed Hipsters, named for a line in Allen Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl." When the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame inducted its charter class in 1990, its three initial members were Bob Dylan, Prince, and Willie Murphy.
Not bad for a guy who "never worked."
"I always say it beats workin'," Murphy says, reflecting on his 40-something-year career. "But it isn't always easy, and it is work. You have to learn how to be poor. I've had a pretty blessed life, but part of it's because I know how to do all of that stuff."
Murphy's latest stuff is a fabulous double CD, A Shot of Love in a Time of Need, released in November by St. Paul's Red House Records, which is known as a folk label. Of course, Murphy has a folkie connection too, not only in the material that sometimes touches the genre but also because of his ties to the potent Minneapolis West Bank scene, a folkie haven that produced the likes of Koerner, Ray, and Glover.
Perversely, just before the album's release, Murphy broke his elbow. It was "something stupid," he says. "I was running in the rain, in the dark, in my backyard, and something had gotten across the path that I didn't know about. I didn't see it. Bam!" Although several events had to be canceled, Murphy has now recovered, and the big release party is set for Friday at the West Bank's Bedlam Theatre, coincidentally an old Bees rehearsal space. Backing Murphy will be a big band with three or four horns, former Bees guitarist Joey Demko, jazz saxophonist Irv Williams (who's on two album cuts), and "possibly a couple of chick singers, as we call 'em."
Murphy was going to put out Shot of Love himself, but he gave some rough mixes to Red House as an afterthought and the label "went nuts over it," he says. "They even liked the idea of putting the two things together, which did surprise me."
Disc one is dominated by Murphy's patented bristling R&B, a mix of covers and originals. "I had a couple of old tunes that I really liked that I wanted to do," he says. "I started workin' on [Allen Toussaint's] 'Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky,' [Chris Kenner's] 'Land of 1000 Dances' with my own personal touches. And 'Life Is But a Dream'—a doo-wop song by the Harptones—has such lovely words. But of course those old things are a little bit boring if you don't do something to them. So I rearranged them, put the beautiful part in the middle, played by Irv Williams."
The second disc, dubbed Autobiographical Notes, is "all basically things that I liked that I've written but never got on an album," he said. "Quite a few of them I play when I do my piano thing." Some were written years ago for an ill-fated movie project, including a rippling honky-tonk tune, "Hello Don't Mean I Love You." Others are favorites that go back to the Bees' days, like the achingly nostalgic "Fairy Tale." Most share a sense of wistful reflection.
"The basic feeling is still there but it means an awful lot more by now. Of course memories lose their charm, too. If I'm talking about how we had a wonderful life drinking and smoking pot, well, I went through hell with the drug thing later. So that charm doesn't really affect me as much. You outgrow the notion of lost past. It becomes so much it's kind of moot as you get older."
Around the time he wrote the tune, Murphy was on the brink of what some would call a fairy-tale existence. He and John Koerner were touring the country after Elektra released their still-acclaimed album Running Jumping Standing Still. Elektra wanted a second album, but Koerner was interested in making films. Murphy wanted to get back to R&B and was forming the Bees when the label offered him a job as an in-house producer. Murphy famously turned them down.
"I don't think I actually have ever regretted it. I had just started my band, and I thought, do I really want to do this? And I didn't. I've asked myself countless times, was I just afraid? On the other hand, I was into drugs so bad I probably would have killed myself if I was in New York and making money."
So the Minneapolis kid weaned on Little Richard records stayed home, ensconced on the West Bank, the local epicenter of the counterculture, dodging regret but adding perspective.
"For years I've shunned the notion that I'm this West Bank guy. But then I realized, well, I know all these people, I have all these connections, I've been here with them. I guess it is my family after all. And the thing is the music is still fun—really fun. One does wonder whether one might have done something else with your life. But I don't wonder too much."
WILLIE MURPHY plays a CD-release show on FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5, at the BEDLAM THEATRE; 612.341.1038