. R&B legend Willie Murphy.
Willie Murphy has rhythm and blues in his bones; he's got jazz leaping from his fingertips like electricity. A legendary blues and jazz man in Minnesota, Murphy is on his way to Winona to perform on Friday at the Mid West Music Fest (MWMF).
He started playing piano as a child, thinking it a hobby, but music soon enveloped Murphy's life. The headman in Willie and the Bumble Bees, Murphy and crew were the hottest band in Minnesota for years during the '70s, performing their last concert as a group in 1984. The iconic music man, Murphy hasn't stopped performing.
"I often say I do everything from folk to funk — the main emphasis is what I would call rhythm and blues. I don't know if that's an antiquated term now," he explains. "I suppose it is."
The music, he says, is a synthesis that combines his love of jazz and his roots in rhythm and blues, all accented by the brassy pop of a good set of horns. "I'm a beatnik and a hipster," he laughs. "I like to make people dance, I like it to be funky, and I can run the gamut from sensitive to screaming."
Fans who remember Murphy from his days with the Bees won't be disappointed with a sound that hasn't strayed far from what they remember. "Of course everything changes all the time, but I don't think I've changed much. I'm always trying to learn something I don't know, musically speaking, but it's not always something new necessarily," he explained. The consummate songwriter and storyteller is armed with new songs and tales, but the sound is what his fans have always yearned for: music you can't help but dance to.
While Murphy has remained a cornerstone of live music in Minnesota, the scene has changed; music itself has changed. It's not all for the better, but there are real opportunities for musicians and fans, he said, often found when music lovers unite for festivals like MWMF. "I love festivals because people are paying attention, which is actually scary in a way," he laughs. "I'm still shy like everybody else." Playing in front of a crowd filled with people who are real music lovers, he said, is his favorite place to be.
Murphy still worries about the way the music industry is changing around him."Kids today have an iPod in and they have 3,000 songs, and if you ever ask them what they're listening to, they don't know," he said. "The music scene today for live playing has gotten just like what the old guys said in the Depression — 'You can play anywhere, but you can't make any money.'"
Murphy prefers the live stage, prefers to have a connection with his audience; it's in his blood. "From a subjective perspective, there's nothing in my life like playing and singing; singing is my absolute favorite thing to do," he said. "It's just magic."
Before the Bees, before the fame, Murphy found himself as an 18-year-old working for a company that built parade floats, and part time at the post office. He made himself a promise, one he's kept for himself. "I made a conscious decision at that time: if I can make a living playing music, I'm not going to punch a time clock," he explained. "And I haven't."
Murphy has some advice for fledgling musicians who want to nurture their talent. "I learned everything mostly from listening to records, so my advice to young musicians is to listen to musicians and try to play what you like," he said. "You've got to get out there and do it; you need to put your whole life into it. And I really encourage everybody to sing; don't just play — learn to sing well because it's good for you. It's the most natural expression in music."
For the crowds revving up for the MWMF lineup, Murphy's got a recipe for the perfect show, too. It's pretty simple, as far as the ingredients provided by the fans: just get out there and dance. "One of my basic impulses is to make people dance. That's almost like a religion for me; I think it's important," he said. "My ideal concert is to come out, play some songs by myself and then bring out a trio — maybe a bassist and a drummer — and then bring the whole band out and make people dance. The festival is a good chance for that."
Murphy is a storyteller by nature, and he has some amazing stories. He's hung out with blues and country legends like Muddy Waters, Don Everly and Sleepy John Estes, played alongside James Brown, B.B. King, and Dr. John. In 1971 he produced and performed on Bonnie Raitt's first Warner Bros. recording in Dave "Snaker" Ray's studio.
Some of the memories have faded with time, hazy like the smoky clubs they were made in. But others are ingrained in his mind, details sharp, and in the telling, people feel like they were there with him. "Hound Dog Taylor told us the secret to success," he begins with a chuckle. "It was after much equivocation… he was going to tell us the secret of success and he never did. Finally, he led us to this huge parking lot with thousands of cars, and crouched down next to a dusty pickup truck. 'The secret of success is: never play for less than $1,000,'" Murphy's laugher builds.
"Those are some good memories."
MWMF ticket-holders can make some new memories April 18-20, when more than 100 local and regional musicians will perform in venues across the city. Murphy will perform Friday at 9:30 p.m. at the Masonic Temple. Find out more at www.midwestmusicfest.org.
The Winona Post has passes available for $35 — lowest price in town — while supplies last.