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Minneapolis blues great Willie Murphy dies at 75

Willie Murphy 1943-2019

Willie Murphy 1943-2019 Jim Walsh

Minneapolis blues legend Willie Murphy died of complications due to pneumonia Sunday morning. He was 75.

A charter member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame who learned his trade playing in north Minneapolis soul bands like Dave Brady and the Stars, Murphy had been battling a blood infection and stomach flu since last September. His health rebounded enough to celebrate his birthday in November and the release of Dirtball: Every Man for Himself and God Against Us All, his final album, recorded with his band, the Angel Headed Hipsters.

“I still believe in love. I’m still a hippie, I suppose,” Murphy told City Pages in December. “I’ve always kind of been a political lefty, or in some people’s views a radical. I don’t use a cell phone. I don’t watch television. Those are sort of radical ideas, you know? A musician has always been a marginal person in society, I think, which is why I don’t get any Social Security. I’ve never had a job.”

Murphy spent the last three weeks of his life in an intensive care unit. In a statement to friends and family Sunday, Murphy’s bandmate Max Ray wrote, “We’re very sad to tell you that Willie departed from all of us at 5:24 a.m. today, Sunday, January 13. He put up quite a fight against pneumonia. Twice this week he had periods of lucidity and we all believed that he would be allowed to leave the ICU to go to a regular hospital room. Instead, his lungs began to collect fluid and breathing became increasingly difficult. He died peacefully in the place he had spent the last three weeks. Thank you for all your prayers and support.”

Murphy’s bands and joyful songs were part of the Minnesota music fabric for six decades. His music career started at Minneapolis Central High School and coincided with the rise of the ’60s and ’70s folk-blues scene in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis. An ace piano player and songwriter, Murphy produced Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled debut record and recorded albums for Elektra and Red House Records, including the landmark 1969 folk blues classic (with “Spider” John Koerner) Running, Jumping, Standing Still. His first band, Willie and the Bees, was a staple of the Minneapolis club scene; they reunited at the Cabooze in 2014.

“I still to this day believe that Willie Murphy is one of the best living songwriters in America,” Bees singer and local soul legend Maurice Jacox told the Current at the time of the band’s reunion shows. “His lyrics and music are absolutely astounding.”

“Willie was one of a kind. One of the best. One for the ages,” Curtiss A wrote on Facebook.

“The Triangle. The Union. The 400. The Viking. Thanks for the memories Willie. You outlasted them all,” veteran local music fan Gregory Ide posted on Facebook.

Sad though his passing may be, Murphy’s fans got to say an unintended goodbye—at a listening party for Dirtball at the Minneapolis Eagles Club #34 in November. “It was a great success, there were a lot of people there,” Murphy told City Pages in December. “Remarkably, I felt pretty good that night. Tons of people. No band playing, we just played Dirtball and in between we played some of my older records. There was just so much love.”

Read Jim Walsh's recent extended interview with Willie Murphy for City Pages here.