Second Ward, Minneapolis

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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Willie Murphy

I was sorry to learn that Minneapolis Music legend and longtime West Bank and Seward resident, Willie Murphy, passed away in January. In the late 70s and early 80s Willie and I were neighbors on what was called the "Trinity Block." He lived on the Riverside face and i was on South 6th do our back yards were connected.  As some one just trying to break into the music scene with my brothers and our bank the New Psychenauts, I was pretty in awe of him.  He was already a legend. 

 The following paragraphs are taken from the recently completed, Minneapolis Music History, 1850-2000: A ContextMinneapolis Music History, 1850- 2000: A Context

One of the “Homegrown” performers, Willie Murphy, provides an interesting case study of a local musician, typically labeled as a bluesman, whose long legacy extends beyond the blues. Murphy has been described by music critic Chris Riemenschneider as a “singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, filmmaker, and all-around argonaut.” While he developed a strong fan base in the Twin Cities, his popularity had a limited range, a common problem for local artists. As Riemenschneider observed, “In a music scene rife with musicians famous for not being more famous, Murphy might be the godfather.” 85

Born in the mid-1940s, he was raised in the Whittier neighborhood in South Minneapolis and started taking piano lessons at the age of four. He claimed that the area around Nicollet Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street “was the bohemian district way before the West Bank.” He started playing house parties in the area with Dave Ray, “and gigged steadily with R&B bands in such Lake St. clubs as Mr. Lucky’s and Magoo’s,” both near Nicollet and Twenty-ninth Street.86 Minneapolis Music History, 1850-2000: A Context—Page 35

In 1969, Murphy teamed up with “Spider” John Koerner to record an album, “Blues, Rags and Hollers,” for a national label, Elektra. The album became a classic and was reissued by Red House Records in 1994. Murphy’s next success came in 1971 when an emerging talent, Bonnie Raitt, came to town and he produced her first album with her engineer-producer brother, Steve Raitt. (Raitt made her Minneapolis performing debut that year at the Whole Coffeehouse in at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union.) Murphy’s skills were challenged by the primitive “recording studio,” pulled together by Dave Ray in a barn on an island in Lake Minnetonka.87  
Elektra offered Murphy a job as a house producer, requiring a move to New York or Los Angeles, but he decided to hunker down in Minnesota and start a band, Willie and the Bees. The band, which Riemenschneider christened “the greatest party band this town has ever seen,” played off and on for twenty-three years.88

Murphy founded a record company, Atomic Theory, in 1985, claiming “I don’t want to be a folk label.” In addition to releasing an album of his own music, “Piano Hits Willie Murphy/Willie Murphy Hits Piano,” he produced records for “veteran country singer Becky Thompson, world-beat rockers Boiled in Lead, and the New International Trio, which mixes Cambodian sounds with elements of classical and folk music.”89

In the 1990s, he began summer tours in Europe, playing festivals throughout the continent. This is a common pattern for Minneapolis musicians, who enjoy the money and relative fame they achieve abroad that is more elusive in the United States.90

Murphy’s talents, however, did not go unrecognized at home. In 1990, when the Minnesota Music Academy launched the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Murphy joined Prince and Bob Dylan as the inaugural inductees. In the first year of the Mill City Music Festival in 1996, he was proclaimed “Mayor of Mill City.” A Minneapolis Star Tribune poll in 1997 listed Willie and the Bees in the Top 10 of “the best local live bands of all time.”91

Curt Obeda, vocalist and guitar player for the Butanes, a popular local blues group, called Murphy “probably my favorite white soul/blues singer.” In a 2010 interview, though, Murphy cautioned, “I love to play blues, but don’t cast me strictly as a blues guy. . . . I know I’m better at it than most people around here, but that doesn’t mean it’s what I do best.”92 This had been his refrain for decades as he continually pushed musical boundaries. A preview for a 1989 show at the Guthrie warned: “Don’t expect solo blues-styled piano like the music Murphy offers weekly at the 400 Bar on the West Bank. Don’t expect the kind of jazz R&B he plied with Willie and the Bees, his top-notch dance-oriented band that broke up four years ago.” Instead, Murphy was showcasing a new album, “Mr. Mature,” that he had recently released on his Atomic Theory label. A reviewer noted that “the recording is about as eclectic and intriguing as an hour of music on the alternative-music radio station Cities 97.” For the Guthrie show, he sang, played guitar and keyboard, and was backed by talent from a variety of groups: “Vocalists Melanie Rosales and Margaret Cox, both members of Dr. Mambo’s Combo; keyboardist Lisa Krieger of Ipso Facto; drummer Michael Bland, who plays with Mambo’s Combo, Mubbla Buggs, and others; bassist Jim Anton of Beat the Clock; percussionist Jose James, formerly of Willie and the Bees; guitarist Billy Franze of Mambo’s Combo, and violinist Wendy Ultan, who freelances.”93

Starting shortly after the station’s first broadcast, Willie Murphy hosted the first blues show on KFAI. The show ran for eight years.393

The Viking Bar closed in August 2006, “a victim of the city’s smoking ban, according to the owner Mike Nelson.” Live music was played at the Viking starting in the late 1970s, and performers “played in a booth until the stage was built in the early ’80s.” 431  

The last performer at the Viking was Willie Murphy. Cyn Collins quoted Murphy in her book, West Bank Boogie, about the closing. He said, “It was sort of the last stand of the West Bank that had music like there was so much of in the old days. . . . It’s a real icon in the neighborhood. . . . It’s really sad. The real soul of the West Bank was youth counterculture, and its disappearing.”433

After ten years of sitting vacant, the Viking opened again in May 2016. Willie Murphy was not the first performer in the newly renovated bar, but he was the first Saturday night performer in the “Legend Series.”434

 Willie was a talented, respected, inspirational and prolific composer and performer who will be missed by many. There will be a celebration of his life on Sunday, February 17th at The Cabooze at 913 Cedar Ave.

Keep On Rocking The Boat
by Willie Murphy

A man on the street asked for some money for somethin' to eat
As I gave him all of my coin I say brother how do you keep goin'?
He said I know my life is rough but I believe I'm tough enough
'Cause every mornin' I wake up mad at the powers that treat me bad
I got to keep on walkin'
Keep on talkin'

Keep on rockin'
Keep on rockin' that boat
Keep on rockin'
Keep on rockin' that boat

Down in my neighborhood the folks ain't doin' too good
They can't live the way they want to
They got to live the way they got to
In stone cold poverty tryin' to hold on to dignity
It's the same sad situation in every city in our nation
We got to keep on walkin'
Keep on talkin'

Keep on rockin'
Keep on rockin' that boat
Can you hear me?
Keep on rockin'
Keep on rockin' that boat

Politicians and corporations
Run our neighborhoods and rule our nations
They're captains of the ship that we call earth
Now the ship is sinkin'
Tell me, what is it worth?

Let's throw away our lives to the powers of greed
Let's let the planet die while we watch it on TV

Here's to the people who stand up and say no
Here's to the people who keep on rockin' the boat

I don't know a lot but there's one thing I know
Capitalismo -it don't have no soul
Compassion and justice won't never be done
By no board of directors or no barrel of a gun

But people say Willie, man, but what can we do?
I just speak for myself
I can't speak for you
I got a voice
I'm gonna holler
I'm gonna fight
Fight the power

I got to keep on walkin'
Keep on talkin'
Keep on rockin'....

Keep on rockin'
Keep on rockin' that boat
Keep on rockin'
Keep on rockin' that boat

From the Album - Monkey in the Zoo
Copyright 2003 by Willie Murphy


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