March 14, 1932 – Mark Murphy
Male Jazz singers are much rarer than female singers. Jazz has historically been dominated by straight men and at times has been a rather macho affair. There are, of course, some significant women in Jazz, but even fewer LGBTQ Jazz musicians. There is the great Billy Strayhorn, but he spent much of his career in the shadow of his collaborator, Duke Ellington. There are instrumentalists Gary Burton, Fred Hersch, and Cecil Taylor, plus all those lingering rumors of Miles Davis‘s bisexuality.
But, out and proud gay male singers are rare. I think of Jimmy Scott, Ian Shaw and Mark Murphy. Murphy, the long-haired, eternal beatnik of jazz, recorded 50 albums starting in 1957, plus dueting on other artists’ albums. He was never a household name, even for Jazz fans, but he had devoted cult audience. Still, he was the recipient of the 1996, 1997, 2000, and 2001 Down Beat Magazine readers poll for Best Male Vocalist and also the recipient of six Grammy Award nominations for Best Vocal Jazz Performance.
At the start of his career, Murphy was being groomed to be the next Frank Sinatra, but he was just too far out, and being gay didn’t help. Murphy fought for gay jazz singers and performers from being culturally exiled.
Murphy spent most of his career sticking to the standards, but in radically reworked versions. Marketed as a teen idol by Capitol Records during the 1950s, Murphy deserted commercial pop for a series of independent labels that featured the singer investigating his wide interests: Jack Kerouac, Brazilian music, songbook recordings, Vocalize, and Blues.
I can’t help but think that Murphy’s neglect among Jazz critics and historians has everything to do with his gayness). Another of Murphy’s gay contemporaries, the exquisite singer-pianist Andy Bey, had a terrible time dealing with his sexual orientation in his career.
Murphy’s took big artistic and personal risks. During a career of more than 50 years, Murphy gained a devoted following for performances that were an eclectic mix of edgy vocal fireworks and dark dramatic recitations. He reshaped familiar tunes with his rich, flexible baritone and restlessly explored new musical terrain.
He was never afraid to let his resonant baritone turn harsh when he wanted to bring some dreamy ballad down to earth. On my favorite of his albums Sometime Ago (1999), he interweaves two of the most hopeless torch songs ever written, Why Was I Born? and I’m A Fool To Want You, in a voice thick with doom.
He seemed to have resigned himself to the idea that he would never be famous, yet he had a consistently prolific and rewarding career. Many of Murphy’s most ardent supporters were other musicians and singers: Ella Fitzgerald called him “my equal”.
Murphy brought an impishness to his performances, which included the music of Ellington and Cole Porter, Bossa Nova music and bebop stream-of-consciousness. He could hold a single note for 12 bars, or suddenly soar from a deep, dark-hued tone to an anguished falsetto cry.
Murphy had minor hits, in 1959 with This Could Be the Start Of Something Big and Fly Me To The Moon in 1963. But, just as his career seemed ready to really take off, The Beatles dominated the charts, and popular music was forever changed.
From 1963 to 1972, Murphy chose to live in London, singing in nightclubs and working as an actor. Murphy later said:
“It was a bad time for all the boppers. All the undergrounders had surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s; then we had to scatter again and wait.”
When he returned to the USA, Murphy signed with the Muse label, making a series of albums that showed his wide range of musical interests. He recorded ballads, Brazilian music and songs associated with Nat “King” Cole. He wrote lyrics for instrumental tunes, including Freddie Hubbard‘s Red Clay, which were recorded by others.
His version of The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men, Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s mournful gay ballad of dying hope and fading youth is something of a tour de force. There was no one better at taking a familiar song and turning it inside out, spilling its guts and finding the feeling underneath.
Murphy grew up in a musical family, singing in church choirs and he began studying piano at seven-years old. He sang in his brother’s dance band as a teenager and modeled his early vocal style after Peggy Lee.
According to James Gavin’s excellent biography Is That All There Is? The Strange Life Of Peggy Lee, in 1959, Murphy and Lee shared the same label, Capitol Records and he tried to get close to Lee. She invited him to her house, and she put the moves on him by the pool, and he was terrified and fled. Later, Lee was asked to write the liner notes for a Murphy album. She did. It read:
”As the expression goes, you might say he blows…and he’s attractive single.”
Murphy was humiliated. He sent Lee a box of long-stem roses with the buds cut off and a note that read: ”Dear Peggy, I think you know what to do with these…”
He studied music and theatre at Syracuse University, graduating in 1953. That year, Sammy Davis Jr. heard Murphy at a jam session and invited the singer to join him onstage.
After his first album was released in 1957, Murphy appeared several times on The Steve Allen Show. He moved to Los Angeles, and briefly worked as a pianist for the comic Don Rickles.
Murphy was sort of rediscovered in the 1990s and his supple voice never seemed to age. He taught master classes and singing and came to be recognized as one of the most innovative jazz singers of his generation.
Murphy made some of his most heartfelt albums late in his career, including Once To Every Heart (2005) and Love Is What Stays (2007).
Although he rarely spoke about his private life. He grew used to the snide whispers and disapproving stares because he was gay. By the late 1970s he and his partner Eddie O’Sullivan, whom he had met in London, had settled in San Francisco, where they could feel comfortably out-of-the-closet. In his curly brown toupee, mustache, bell-bottoms, and tee-shirt, Murphy sang at clubs in the Bay Area. He had an RV that he drove to out-of-town gigs. O’Sullivan was taken by the plague in 1990.
Listening to him while composing this post, he sings some of my favorite songs: It Might As Well Be Spring, with the cautiousness of a man who couldn’t quite trust happiness; a chilling downward take on a much darker view of the season with Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most; his voice full of surprises with ghostly wails, falsetto highs, and descents into bass territory. He does I’ve Got You Under My Skin at an incredibly slow tempo that is almost like a meditation.
Murphy took that final curtain call in 2015, after years of being a resident the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, NJ. He was 83-years old, taken by pneumonia.