Featured Interview – Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy

While his credentials are beyond impeccable, it appears that he may have been over-qualified.

That’s really about the only way to explain why it took the Blues Hall of Fame so long to enshrine Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy.

But, in the end, it’s better to be invited late to the party than to not be invited at all, and Murphy was finally inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame last May.

Reading his resume is akin to tracing the timeline of the modern electric blues, with Murphy involved in seemingly almost every step along the way, starting at A and going all the way to Z.

Not only did he spend time shoulder-to-shoulder with legends (such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf), his guitar style also influenced some of the best ever (including Freddie King) and he was also cast into a major role in one of the best Blues movies of all time (The Blues Brothers).

With a track record like that, it’s a no-brainer to call Murphy’s career a Hall of Fame one.

But as for Murphy himself, he pretty much just shrugs off the long delay as if it’s no big deal.

“It’s about time,” he laughed. “You know what that is … if I hadn’t done anything, they wouldn’t be after me. So I must have done something to earn it.”

That would be an understatement.

Now, with any luck, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will soon act according and let Murphy inside its doors, as well.

“Well, rock and roll …you know, I was playing it first,” he said. “I was with Memphis Slim and that’s what he said – ‘We’re gonna rock this house tonight.’ So I’ve been on that side of the fence, too.”

Murphy and Memphis Slim (the man who put the ‘Guitar’ between Matt and Murphy) enjoyed a fruitful working relationship in the 1950s and early 60s, even though there was a considerable age difference between the two.

“I didn’t learn very much from Slim, but Slim learned quite a bit from me,” Murphy laughed. “He was older than me, maybe 10 or 12 years or so, but he was a good piano player that had very good timing. And that’s what I liked about him. I like a musician that can play on time and there where quite a few out there that didn’t hardly know anything about playing with timing. I always wanted to know as much as I could about music and you can’t do that if you don’t have the right timing.”

As it turns out, Murphy and Slim shared more than just a musical bond.

Murphy, who was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, was raised in Memphis and would later relocate to Chicago, paths similar to the ones that Slim traveled.

As most blues lovers can attest to, both Memphis and Chicago are magical towns as far as the music is concerned, and as an up-and-coming guitarist, Murphy was fortunate to spend time playing in both.

Although to him, location really has had little or no bearing on the type of music that comes out of his guitar.

“As far as I’m concerned, if it twangs and has a nice sound, it’s the blues. Whether it’s from Timbuktu or West Memphis, Arkansas or Memphis, Tennessee or wherever … the blues is just the blues,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference if it’s got that twang.”

The one thing that has helped to set Murphy apart from his peers over the years is the natural emotion that he puts into his playing. It’s almost as if you body absorbs the music before your ears have a chance to hear it.

“To me, the blues is more a feeling than anything else. It’s a feeling that has to do with how you play and what you intend to do with it if you know what you’re doing. That’s all,” Murphy said. “Because you can have a blues that has an unlimited amount of bars – they can go on forever – and that’s what I call a chant. You can chant the blues. Some guys play 13 bars, 14 bars … they don’t know when they’ve reached 12. But me, I was particular about it and I knew when I reached four bars, eight bars or 16. But it’s all the blues.”

That preciseness – or crispness – has always earmarked Murphy’s works. But while his playing is technical and sophisticated, that doesn’t mean that the sounds he creates are cold and calculated; call it precision with passion.

In addition to Memphis Slim, Murphy also logged quality time on the road and in the studio with the likes of Robert Junior Lockwood, Sunnyland Slim, James Cotton, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Otis Rush and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Looking back on it, Murphy is rightfully proud of the part he played in helping to write the history and the story of those legends, although at the time he was involved with them, he really didn’t stop to think that he was playing with some of the all-time greats.

“No, no, that never entered my mind,” he said. “What I did was just play with gentlemen that played the blues. And most of them were great blues players, but at the time I never really thought about their place in history – or mine.”

When most folks think of the guitar sound behind Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin quickly comes to mind. And while Sumlin was The Wolf’s right-hand man for many years, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy was the first guitar player hired for Chester Burnett’s first band.

In kind of a low-key and unorganized manner, Murphy joined up with Howlin’ Wolf in 1948 in the wild and wooly environs of West Memphis, Arkansas and tough he was still a teenager and the Wolf was almost 40, the first edition of Howlin’ Wolf and the House Rockers was born.

“The Wolf was … ha, ha … I don’t know how to describe him,” Murphy laughed. “See, I was the first guy to play with The Wolf in West Memphis. At the time, he was just playing by himself. He found me and I started playing with him and I was also instrumental in getting Little Junior Parker into Wolf’s band to play harmonica. Me and Junior used to play together before that. So together, we helped to put some timing and structure in The Wolf’s music, because he wasn’t big on timing at that point. But I left him (Howlin’ Wolf) pretty early because I had other things to do.”

Always an in-demand guitarist, Murphy never had to wait very long or search very hard to find work at any time over the course of his six decades in the music business. But it wasn’t until the early 80s that he formed his real first band, with his name up in lights on the marquee.

Last Call – Live at the 40 Watt Club (Bluzpik Media Group) is a smoking testament to just the kind of command that Murphy has over his six-stringed instrument. Recorded live in Athens, Georgia in 1986, Last Call boasts an incredible run-through of “Sissy Strut” along with a near 12-minute instrumental jam that’s guaranteed to peel the paint back off any wall.

And like any good live show, the connection between the artist and the audience is a strong one on Last Call.

“What happens is this – you have to follow a plan where you’re going and other times, you’re already settled into what you’re doing. But it all winds up going to the same place if it’s good music,” he said. “And sometimes the energy from the crowd will take you in a place that you might not have thought you’d go.”

Another of Murphy’s red-hot live performances – this one some 23 years before the recording of Last Call – played a pivotal role in the development of another famous six-string gunslinger.

While on tour overseas as part of The American Folk Blues Festival in 1963, Murphy was given a solo spot, backed by Memphis Slim on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Bill Stepney on drums. With the muscle of those cats pushing him, Murphy cut loose with the pure guitar bliss of a tune fittingly called “Murphy’s Boogie” (Aka “Matt’s Guitar Boogie”).

While that instrumental certainly held the European audience in total rapture, it’s also long been said that Freddie King was so inspired and uplifted by that performance, that his classic “Hide Away” was born out of its embers (“Oh, yeah. I’ve definitely heard that many, many times,” Murphy said).

A tour de force of everything that makes Murphy tick, that tune is one that he holds near and dear to his heart, too.

“For sure, that’s one of my favorites. A lot of people didn’t know that I was into all kinds of music. Stuff like country and western, blues, jazz … everything. And on that tune, I kind of put a conglomerate of those styles into it,” he said. “But all those styles go together good in that tune … they all go together in the same direction. It’s like a journey.”

Helping Murphy on his musical journey these days is his signature Delaney guitar (www.delaneyguitars.com).

“It’s a good guitar – I’ve got two or three of them (Delaneys) that I play,” he said. “They’re very good guitars – very good. I like the design and the way the frets feel, it’s just got everything.”

Even people that might not consider themselves as fans of blues music are probably familiar with the 1980 feature film, The Blues Brothers.

At a time when the last remnants of the horrible disco age were still trying to cling on, and before the electronic new wave era found its legs, The Blues Brothers helped to put the spotlight firmly on rhythm and blues music, which seemed to be forgotten, or largely ignored, at the time.

While it brought to life the mythical careers of Jake and Elwood Blues, it also helped to rekindle the real-life careers of James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway, among others.

And as the semi-henpecked husband of Aretha Franklin in the movie, it helped to make a celluloid star of Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy.

“Actually it was a boost to my career. John Belushi was the one that really liked me. Before we got to do the movie, every time I would run into him, he’d say, ‘Matt I want you to do this movie. I’m going to have your face on that screen – have a great, big shot of you.’ And he did it,” Murphy said. “And that movie certainly came out at the right time, because the music industry was really in the dumps at the time.”

According to Murphy, Belushi’s crazy antics and well-documented wild lifestyle had little bearing on most of the people on the set of the movie.

“He was dealing with a few issues and things, but that didn’t interfere with me at all. First of all, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke and I didn’t do drugs,” he said. “And the things that he was dealing with and doing – that was all him. I wasn’t concerned about anyone else’s situation except for my own.”

In the movie – and also on the subsequent tours that followed after the film, Murphy was part of one of the greatest musical lineups ever assembled – The Blues Brothers’ Show Band and Revue. As Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn famously quipped in the flick, “A band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.”

“Oh yeah, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn … those guys were definitely fun to play with. It was a dream band, really,” said Murphy. “Everybody talked about that band. Willie Hall, Paul Shaffer and everybody … I just loved that band.”

Murphy later appeared in the sequel film, Blues Brothers 2000. A stroke he suffered while on stage in Nashville in 2003 may have slowed him down for a bit, but as of late, the world famous guitarist who now calls Miami, Florida home, has begun efforts to ramp up his performance schedule.

“I’m feeling pretty good these days,” he said. “I’m just enjoying playing whenever I can.”

No doubt playing with that infectious Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy ear-to-ear grin on full display, too.

Any plans for another big-screen go-round with Elwood or any of the other Brothers?

“No. No plans for that,” he laughed. “I’m just gonna play my guitar.”

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine

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