The following is based on the book This is Hip: the Life of Mark Murphy by Peter Jones (Equinox Publishing, 2018). All rights reserved.
In the opinion of many, Mark Murphy was the greatest jazz singer who ever lived.
Quite a statement, but one that can be made to stand up pretty well in court. There have, of course, been more successful jazz singers; certainly more popular jazz singers. But not one of them has possessed the sheer range of abilities that Murphy was blessed with. He had a natural “instrument” at his disposal, a rich, masculine tone that could shape any jazz standard as beautifully as you were ever likely to hear it. When that great arbiter of musical taste Alec Wilder, author of American Popular Song, heard Murphy for the first time, he declared him to be “one of the very few great singers I have ever heard.”
Murphy perfected all the important styles of jazz. Early in his career, he learned how to swing, as you can hear on his version of "Fascinating Rhythm", the opening track on his first album Meet Mark Murphy (Decca, 1956). As the tune fades out, he launches into a scat solo: that’s another skill he mastered (although he often overdid it later in his career). With That’s How I Love The Blues! (Riverside, 1963) he revealed his natural affinity for the kind of material popularised by Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams, treating the blues with a relaxed familiarity far removed from the efforts of those white performers through the decades who have tried a little too hard to emulate their black progenitors. That feeling was just as strong 40 years later on his Joe Williams tribute album Memories of You (HighNote, 2003). Discovering Brazilian music in the late 1950s, Mark Murphy proved himself just as adept at latin styles, recording many tracks during his career, from a couple of excellent contributions to the compilation album Everybody’s Doin’ the Bossa Nova (Riverside, 1962), to Brazil Song (Muse, 1983) to The Latin Porter (GoJazz, 2000). He was also a peerless interpreter of ballads. As he grew older, the ballads grew deeper and darker, until on the late Verve masterpieces Once to Every Heart (2005) and Love is What Stays (2007), which he recorded in his seventies, he almost seems to be singing from beyond the grave. One such tune - the haunting, crepuscular "Our Game" - was played repeatedly on London’s Jazz FM in the days following Mark’s death in 2015.
Extraordinary as his recordings are - and he made nearly 50 albums during his lifetime - those who witnessed his live performances always maintained that these were his true metier. “He’s a hundred times as good as any record that he’s ever done” said Cleo Laine. The presence of an audience certainly galvanised him, but the true magic came from improvisation. The very best jazz singers are those who are able to react spontaneously, like instrumentalists, to whatever is going on around them. Murphy not only excelled at vocal improvisation, but loved to create space for band members to seize the moment during a tune, often stopping the piano, bass or drums, and setting up a musical dialogue with an individual musician. With a sonorous voice that sounded like a trombone or French horn, he saw the band not as his backing group, but as fellow musicians. On recordings like "On the Red Clay" (from Mark Murphy Sings, Muse 1975), he joins the horn players, singing long, wordless lines along with them. At gigs he was a joker and a clown, an all-round performer who would sometimes recite poetry to his audience.
When Ella Fitzgerald came to hear him at Ronnie Scott’s in 1968, he cajoled her into coming up on stage, and the two of them ended up trading fours and eights in what one observer termed “the most mind-blowing scat duet that had ever been heard.” At the end of the evening, Murphy asked her to sign a picture for him, but she refused, saying as she left the club, “How can I give him my autograph? He’s as good as I am.”
Mark Murphy was born in Syracuse, NY, in 1932, into a prosperous middle-class family. After a difficult childhood and adolescence, complicated by a growing awareness of his homosexuality, Murphy decamped to New York City, where he was signed by Decca Records’ Milt Gabler. His two albums made little impact, so Decca dropped him, and Mark decided to try again on the west coast. There he was picked up by Capitol, and made three more albums. Apart from a minor success with the single "This Could Be the Start of Something", his releases failed to trouble the record charts, and by early 1961 he was once again without a label. Back in New York he found a more congenial home with Riverside, a specialist jazz label, and made two albums with them, the still-popular Rah, and the less well- known but superior That’s How I Love the Blues! The label went bankrupt in 1963, after the sudden death of co-founder Bill Grauer, but by then Murphy had already taken the decision to move to Europe, ending up in London earlier that year. Arriving there just as the Sixties began to swing, he quickly found acceptance, getting regular bookings at Ronnie Scott’s, appearing regularly on BBC Radio, and recording four more albums, of which the best were This Must Be Earth (Phoenix, 1969) and the excellent Midnight Mood (Saba, 1968), the latter recorded in the German city of Köln with members of the Clarke-Boland Big Band.
After nine years he moved back to the USA, where he struggled to rebuild his career, meanwhile living in a camper van. For the next two decades he recorded for Joe Fields’ Muse label, where he received a set fee for each recording but no royalties. This apparently one-sided deal suited the unmaterialistic Murphy, since it allowed him to record whatever he liked, and meanwhile he toured almost continually in the USA, with regular visits throughout Europe and further afield, as far as Japan, Indonesia and Australia. During the Muse years he worked with Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Tom Harrell, Richie Cole, Ron Carter, Gerry Niewood, Grady Tate, Bill Mays, and many other jazz stars of the period. In 1989 Murphy’s long-term English partner Eddie O’Sullivan died of an AIDS- related illness. Crushed by this loss, Murphy declined both personally and professionally. His output was patchy during the Nineties, but it included the interesting failure Song for the Geese (RCA Victor, 1997).
When Joe Fields sold Muse and launched HighNote Records, Murphy joined up again, making another four albums for the new label. It was in the 21st century that he made some of his most satisfying recordings, including Memories of You. In 2002, German trumpeter Till Bronner persuaded him to make the all-ballad album Once to Every Heart (which was finally released three years later). Recorded in Brönner’s Berlin home studio, close-miked, with only the trumpeter and pianist Frank Chastenier present, the songs were then fully orchestrated by Johnny Mandel protegée Nan Schwartz, to exquisite effect. The same team reunited in 2006 for the serene, valedictory Love is What Stays.
Wrongly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009, when he was 77, Murphy was rescued by his lifelong friend Sheila Jordan and Canadian artist manager Jean-Pierre Leduc, who had his medical condition reassessed. Once on the correct drugs, Murphy revived sufficiently to play a few more years of gigs and make some final recordings, perhaps the best of these being his tribute to Shirley Horn, the EP A Beautiful Friendship (Gearbox, 2012), and a four-track contribution to The Royal Bopsters Project (Motéma, 2012).
Murphy’s mastery of jazz and jazz singing had a profound effect on the singers who came after him, notably Kurt Elling and Curtis Stigers. He conducted singing workshops all over the world. So often chaotic in his everyday life, when it came to singing, Murphy had no equal. “It isn’t a music you can fool around with,” he said, “You can’t go into a song with no preparation and think you’re going to get away with it.” Show less