If you ask singer Shaun Murphy how she fell under the spell of blues music, she will give you a quick, heartfelt answer.
“It was at the legendary 1969 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. The band I was in was hired to play the first fest. There were so many wonderful acts there – Luther Allison, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, and so many others. I got to see Big Mama Thornton live on stage. My mouth was almost on the ground. I couldn’t believe it, I was so enthralled with her performance. To this day, there has never been a grouping of stars in one place for a festival like that. I stayed as long as I could as it was so amazing”.
“After that, I fell in love with the blues. In order to learn more, I started buying records, tracking down radio stations that catered to the blues, which was hard to do because I was moving around a lot. What drew me in was that blues is a first-person love, the first-person anger, the first-person feel-good music. It encompassed all of the feelings that I was going through at the time, sometimes in the same song. So it really clicked with me”.
Murphy was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska until age eleven, when her mother remarried and the family made a job-related relocation to Iowa. Right before her senior year of high school, another job transfer took the family to Detroit.
“It is always rough for a teenager to finish off their school years in a brand new place. I quickly got into to theater there, hoping to try out for one of the plays. Soon found out that I needed to join the school choir because their next production was the musical, Guys & Dolls. When tryouts came, I ended up landing the lead role as Adelaide. That really opened my eyes, and from then on, I thought I was going to be an actress. It taught me plenty about how to handle yourself on stage”.
After graduation, Murphy was doing duo shows with her boyfriend. One day, she received a call from a woman who wanted to know if the singer wanted to try out for an R&B band her daughters had put together. Murphy was with the band for eight months before leaving, putting in time with several other bands before opportunity came knocking.
“There was an audition for the musical Hair in downtown Detroit. The singer Meatloaf had been trying to get into the cast for the Los Angeles production. The producers recommended that he open the Detroit show. They also asked if he knew any great singers in the area. Meatloaf said he did, but had no idea as to how to get in touch with me. When I walked in for the audition, he spotted me, yelling out “That’s her – that’s the singer I was telling you about! Once again I got the lead part, but I ended up switching about three months in as I was pregnant at the time, so I became Jeanie the pregnant girl”.
In the audience on opening night were some people from Rare Earth Records, a division of the Motown label. They contacted Murphy and Meatloaf right away about signing a recording contract, wanting to bill the duo as Stoney & Meatloaf, with Stoney being Murphy’s nom de plume at the time. Their record came out in 1971, followed by a tour. Then the theater came knocking yet again,
“I was hired for a Broadway production in 1974 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road. We did the full run on Broadway, went on the road for several weeks, and then did a run at a theater in Washington D.C. that was down the street from the White House. Those were wild days, lots of protesting going on”.
When Motown reformed and moved the operation to Los Angeles, the label cut Meatloaf loose but asked Murphy to relocate to the West coast. After sitting around doing nothing for a stretch, she tired of not working.
“So I called Punch Andrews, Bob Seger’s manager. We were friends and he had been booking me with my band in some of his clubs. I asked him about what was shaking in Detroit. His response was that Seger was looking for a background singer. I thought, well, I have never done that before, but how hard can it be. So I bought 1971 Honda Civic with the engine that sat sideways so my daughter and I could drive to Detroit. I worked with Bob for a few years before going on to work with other artists like Bruce Hornsby”.
“In 1985, I got a call from my friend, Marcy Levy. She had been working with Seger when I started with him, then went on to Tulsa where she worked with Leon Russell. She also had been doing vocals with Eric Clapton (and co-wrote “Lay Down Sally”). Marcy called to let me know that Clapton was getting ready to do a record with Phil Collins and was searching for a singer with a strong voice. Marcy said she knew who to call. Next thing I knew I was down on the island of Montserrat. After hearing me on one song, Clapton asked me if I wanted to join the tour for his Behind The Sun record. I certainly didn’t say no”.
“Seger and I became good friends and the band turned into a big family. We are all very close and I love working with him. He is a down-to-earth guy, just as he portrays himself. He and Clapton are a lot the same, and yet very different. They both expect you to know all of your parts when you walk in the door. They don’t want to fool around teaching anybody anything. In this day and age, it drives me crazy when I see a musician has been given the information, with a month to prepare, and they show up at rehearsal not knowing anything. I remember working with Clapton in London for eight hours a day for six weeks to get ready for that first tour. Sometimes I would get tears in my eyes listening to Eric play. It came straight from the heart”.
A move back to Los Angeles set the stage for the next phase of the singer’s star-studded career.
“I was going out meeting people, including drummer Richie Hayward and Paul Barrere, who was playing guitar in a band with my friend Catfish Hodge. Richie and Paul were both members of Little Feat, which had disbanded in 1979 after the death of Lowell George. They were working on a record and asked me to do a few backing vocals. When they reformed the band, I appeared on three other albums. Craig Fuller, formerly of Pure Prairie League, was the lead singer for six years. When Craig got tired of touring, the guys called me up to ask me how I would feel about being on a bus with seven guys in the middle of nowhere! That was how they asked me to join the band. I really enjoyed spending fifteen years surrounded by all of that amazing talent”.
“But I did have to learn how to get small. In a situation like that, you can’t have a big personality or be wide-open on the bus. That was also a period when I started writing songs again. I have always liked “Bed Of Roses,” written with Bill Payne, which I re-recorded on one of my records in a swampy soul blues style. I am also partial to “Heaven’s Where You Find It”. The guys were amenable to me writing and that helped me develop those skills. Some things come to me when I’m alone, they just manifest themselves. Other times, when I am writing with someone, we craft a song over several sessions. Then it becomes a give-and-take on all levels. When it comes to recording, we like to do a lot of pre-production to prepare, then go into the studio and tear it up for a couple of days”.
Murphy also worked with Alice Cooper on his Hey Stoopid recording, the 19th release in the rocker’s long career. It was a different kind of studio experience.
“They gathered up some of the top singers in Los Angeles and we went into the studio for one day to sing for thirteen hours at the top of our voices. Alice was a great guy. We had one forty-five minute break – for snakes! Someone brought a big box of rattlesnakes into the control room. Fortunately we did not have to go in there.”
“My vocal style was always that of a screamer and shouter, especially if I was nervous! Then nobody is louder than me. And in some ways, I still am today. But I like to whisper a little bit now and again. You can’t do your whole shtick always screaming. There has to be a give and take, which allows you to draw listeners in. I take each song as a set piece, attempting to create a whole little world inside the song. It is thrilling that I am able to touch people in certain ways. My focus is on the meaning of the lyrics, so there is something for everyone. Some of that focus goes back to my theater training, which has all manner of emotional depths on the stage”.
In 2009, Murphy made the decision to leave Little Feat to start a career as a solo artist and return to her blues roots. With the help of her manager, T.C. Davis, she has been quite prolific with eight releases in as many years. The members of her band are consummate musicians and session players, who know exactly what Murphy is looking for due the length of time they have been together.
“I really want my band on the records, so that when we tour, that sound is what my fans will hear live. They really bring it – I just love these guys”.
“Tom DelRossi is our drummer. On bass is John Marcus, who played with Tim McGraw for over twenty years. Tommy Stillwell is one of the guitar players. Tommy has had a lengthy career under his name and with the Beat Daddys. The other guitar player is Kenne Cramer, who probably has been in the band longer than anyone. He works out with Dr. Hook and Lee Roy Parnell in addition to being one of my songwriting partners. And on keyboards is Kevin McKendree, who is Delbert McClinton’s musical director and currently is touring with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. In addition to playing keys, he produced the sessions and mixed the tracks on my latest release, Mighty Gates. Kevin’s son, Yates, did the engineering, so it was quite a family affair”.
Anyone who has heard Murphy sing live is immediately struck by her powerful voice, but also by the wide tonal range that she employs so effortlessly. She never fails to grab the heartstrings when wrapping her voice around songs like John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain”.
“I love, love, love to work with the audience and I always try to bring them as much feeling for each song as I feel when I am singing it. The band spurs me on. When I hear the solos, or the comping taking place, it feels real electric and I start vibrating. What a great feeling!”
Murphy received two 2013 Blues Blast Music Awards, one for Female Blues Artist, and the other for Contemporary Blues Album for her Ask For the Moon release.
In February, Murphy will hit the road on another Seger tour, covering some dates that were canceled when Seger needed back surgery. She is also hoping to book some festival dates to support the new recording and show off her talented band.
“There will always be more songs to write, more CDs to sell, more tours to do. Certainly wish I could have worked with some of my heroes like Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor or Big Mama Thornton. I am so loving this solo career. Don’t think I will be done until I’m buried in the ground. You make plans, and then life just happens”.
Check out Shaun’s website at: www.shaunmurphyband.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!