A Portrait of Mark Murphy’s Brilliant Genius and Bittersweet Life

This Is Hip

THIS IS HIP: THE LIFE OF MARK MURPHY / Peter Jones. Equinox Publishing, London, 262 pp. $29.95/₤25.00

About a decade ago, my partner was reading through Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz and ran across the entry on Mark Murphy. “Have you ever heard him?” she asked. “It says here he was one of the greatest jazz singers ever.” I ran through my memory banks, at that age already a bit foggy when it came to things long ago. “I think I did, but I don’t remember him. I guess he didn’t impress me much.” “Well,” she countered, “maybe you should check him out again.” So I did, and was completely blown away.

After doing some digging into his recordings, I learned that there were really two Mark Murphys: the singer who tried hard (too hard, in fact) to compete with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett doing energetic but somewhat kitschy versions of pop tunes, and the jazz singer who took the art form to an entirely new level. But although the latter Mark Murphy made a brief appearance on two Riverside albums in 1962, he then moved to London where he started recording kitschy pop arrangements all over again. It wasn’t until he was about 40 years old, in the early 1970s, that the “real” Mark Murphy emerged once and for all—out of sight and out of mind of an American jazz public who had come to love Mel Tormé, Jon Hendricks and, a few years later, Al Jarreau.

And it wasn’t just me who overlooked him. He purposely flew under the radar because, due to his sensitive nature; he really couldn’t handle fame. One commentator wrote this on the YouTube posting of “Mark Murphy’s Greatest Hits”: “Mark Murphy’s virtuosity matches that of Old Blue Eyes himself! And to think that I never got into him until recently (I’m seventy-one years old for heaven’s sake!): this is incredulous to me because I long considered myself an authority on all things music related.”

Peter Jones has done yeoman’s work in piecing together Murphy’s life, which wasn’t easy because his subject didn’t give that many autobiographical interviews during his life and tended to fudge the truth or, at times, misremember things. The portrait that emerges reveals many fascinating and painful details. A shy, hypersensitive boy given to crying fits in school and a complete lack of interest in his father’s favorite hobbies of hunting and fishing, he grew up a duck out of water. It was only through his discovery of jazz that he really came alive, but he had a hard time establishing himself because every time he was given an opportunity to establish himself on records he tried to pull a Sinatra-Bennett act by including as many if not more pop tunes sung in a pop style that was too much over-the-top. And, because of his hypersensitive nature, you couldn’t talk him out of it. The smallest thing would set him off emotionally and he would either blow up or withdraw. He went through several agents, firing them left and right when things didn’t pan out, and even fought with such outstanding arrangers as Ralph Burns and Bill Holman because everything had to be his way or the highway. In short, in terms of both career management and artistic direction, Murphy partly sabotaged his own fame. He was never as well-balanced emotionally as his fellow iconoclast, the great Sheila Jordan, who took defeats in stride and worked a full-time job as a secretary in order to sing where and when she wanted. Murphy insisted on living off his meager earnings as a jazz singer, and thus spent most of his life in trailers, seedy hotels, and sometimes (for weeks, not days) on the couches of friends and supporters. One friend of his, Roger Treece, is quotes as saying, “Mark was probably the least [well] adapted human being that I’ve ever met to living in this world. Getting along in the everyday practical world was something that he seems to have a singular inability for.”

It also didn’t help that, as he reached maturity, he realized he was gay. The 1950s and ‘60s was not a time to be out of the closet, particularly in the jazz world where being macho was considered the only sexual orientation. Not only Murphy, but also Jimmy MacPartland, Billy Strayhorn, Ralph Burns and Cecil Taylor had to hide their sexual proclivities, and this, too, affected his personal interactions and career.

Put it all together, and you have a portrait of a man who came of age during the Beat Generation, idolized writer and poet Jack Kerouac (he often said that Kerouac’s prose sometimes doesn’t make sense as literature because he wasn’t trying to write coherent sentences, he was riffing on words the way a jazz musician riffs on a tune), and lived his life accordingly. In short, his mistrust of almost everyone in a position of power to help him—the Beat resentment of “The Man”—was his own personal mantra. In a sense, however, this mindset was crucial to who he was as an artist. He sang spontaneously because he lived spontaneously; his entire life was a riff. Having lost his hair in his late 20s, he wore wigs for the rest of his life, which his friends and colleagues described as awful. One time, friends of his got together and made him buy a really great-looking wig that suited his perfectly and naturally. Within a couple of weeks, it looked like a ratty dust rag; no one knows how he made it look so awful. But Mark didn’t care; he went back to his plastic-looking cheapo wigs, and was happy.

After the death of his partner Eddie O’Sullivan from AIDS in the mid-1980s, Murphy was often adrift emotionally and in a practical sense. He felt more alienated and alone in the world. Happily, Sheila Jordan always seemed to pop up when he needed her most, bless her, and he was extremely fortunate to have Cindy Bitterman, a former model who had dated Frank Sinatra in the early ‘50s, discover him, completely understand him and his style, and be there to offer him emotional and professional support, sometimes in person but just as often in long, late-night phone calls.

Considering the fact that Murphy was a perennial nomad for whom his work (both singing and teaching) was pretty much his entire life, this could have been a dull recitation of “and then he sang, and then he recorded,” which of course it is to a certain extent, but Jones dug as deeply into the man and his mission as he possibly could to produce a book as fascinating and diverse as a Mark Murphy performance. We get detailed descriptions of his jazz vocal classes, for instance, in which he went against the academic grain of trying to turn everyone out the same and instead focused on each individual singer. Murphy could analyze a young singer’s strengths and weaknesses in seconds, like a brilliant doctor who could diagnose a patient after just one office visit. The suggestions and corrections he gave to them were always positive; he never tore anyone down except, as he said, those who “weren’t serious about it.” That he could not abide. He could loosen up their stage demeanor, prod them to go out on a limb when singing, and stress the need for perfect voice placement and diction, because they would “need everything they had to sing jazz.” Murphy often told the press that he was self-taught, but that wasn’t true. He studied both voice and drama in college before embarking on his 50-plus-year career.

The book is full of great black and white photos, some unfortunately not as clearly reproduced as others, but all giving the reader a good indication of Murphy through the years. I really appreciated the fact that the hard cover is laminated and doesn’t have one of those crummy “dust covers” that always fray over time. There are also two outstanding appendices in which Jones analyzes Murphy’s style and approach to singing and teaching in great detail without going too deeply into technical musical analysis, a full discography, end notes and, yes, an index of names. Considering its modest price, this is an incredible bargain, and hopefully it will make new fans of those who have never heard Murphy sing. There is no question in my mind that he, along with Louis Armstrong, Dave Lambert, Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks and Mel Tormé (who Murphy often feuded with because he thought Mel emotionally shallow as an interpreter), was one of the most important, outstanding and original male jazz singers in the history of the music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “A Portrait of Mark Murphy’s Brilliant Genius and Bittersweet Life

  1. Peter Whitford says:

    Thank you for the review. Mark Murphy was indeed a unique singer. ” a musician’s singer! I heard him in Australia about 1981. During one of his sets he generously invited Vince Jones an Australian jazz vocalist to the stage and the two sung a duet, which could have been Oleo or Farmers Market. Vince was a twenty something and Mark was probably in his fifties. It was a beautiful moment. I reckon that his release of The Ballad of the Sad Young Men, where he quotes Kerouac occurred coincidental to this tour. I will be looking for the book.

    Like

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