Willie Murphy, longtime leader and pinnacle of the Twin Cities blues and R&B community has died at age 75. Willie is hailed as a Legend, and it certainly is true. I heard a fan once tell him that he was a legend and he replied, “yah, everyone knows who I am and I’m broke … ” But there was much more to Willie than just a “legend.”
I first met Willie in the late 1960s. We were both performing at the famed Triangle Bar on the West Bank (along with Dave Ray, John Koerner, Lazy Bill Lucas and others). I watched and listened to Willie in awe and amazement. Not just his playing, but his depth and knowledge of the music. I thought he was a musical genius with a deep understanding of the structure of complex music, its culture and history. That view of Willie never changed for me.
Widely known for his music, whether leading one of his bands or performing solo, he was highly revered wherever he went, including tours all over the world. Certainly part of that fame came from his work of producing Bonnie Raitt’s first album. She remained a lifelong friend of Willie’s and an admirer.
Willie was a multi-instrumentalist, performing on guitar, bass, piano, singing, amazing scatting. His voice could range from high falsetto to a low growl. All expressing the emotion of the song, the music and the Artist. Whatever the instrument, he used it to lead the band and reach the audience.
Through the years Willie led many jam sessions in clubs and bars. He was a task master and knew exactly what he wanted from his band. He was clearly in command, yet was always careful to provide a platform for the players and singers who sat in. He and the band gave support to whoever was joining them to lift them up to be the best they could be.
Willie was much more than his music and writer of many great songs. He wrote insightful blogs in his hipster way of talking (as in Harry “The Hipster”). Though sometimes irascible, he was a kind and generous person. Very well read and caring about the many problems in the world and our community.
It is always hard to lose someone who is such a big part of your life and that of your community. I will guide my thoughts to celebrating the life and music of a true musical genius and artist who put Minneapolis on the world musical map. I was lucky and honored to have known him and performed with him.
My thoughts and memories of him will always bring back the lead line of one of my favorite Willie songs, “I just want to live in a Fairy Tale.”
Photo by Ron Miles, permission granted