Cover photo © Marty Rickard
“I think I was 8. I used to go out on my swing set and stand there and sing whatever local, regular songs that came on the radio at the time. I’d just sing it in the loudest voice I could muster at that age. (laughs)”
Shaun Murphy is a lifer, a musician’s musician who has spent a lifetime singing with some of the biggest and most eclectic names in Roots, Rock, Blues and Pop music. Wielding a unique and distinct voice from an early age, Shaun has followed the music through theater productions, sound studios, barrel house and world stages. For this her 2nd interview with Blues Blast, Shaun talked about her process, her love for music and her foremothers and added detail and depth to some of her well documented collaborations with Meat Loaf, Bob Seger, and Eric Clapton.
That spark for singing that 8 year old Shaun felt ignited a raging inferno of a voice. Growing up in a few different midwestern towns, Shaun’s family settled in Detroit where she began her career in earnest. It was the legendary Ann Arbor Blues Festival that changed the course of Shaun’s music from Pop and Top 40 to Rhythm and Blues.
“It was the Ann Arbor Blues festival in 1969. My band, The Wilson Moore Pursuit, we played that. It was my first time seeing all these fabulous Blues artists in person. Of course once Big Mama Thornton got on stage and I was right there on side stage watching her, I was just overcome, just watching her. Just the power and the control and everything. This woman just got to everybody. Yeah it completely changed the trajectory of what I was thinking about singing. That was the start of my Blues thinking.”
Shaun Murphy’s voice is like no other. It is impossible to compare her to anyone else. She is loud and emotive, she has a blistering attack but she can also bring it way down. To be able to sing with such passion and power and still maintain her depth and dynamics singing her guts out since the mid 60’s is quite a feat. Shaun has been intentional about maintaining and protecting her voice ever since she had a rough experience in Sioux Saint Marie.
“When I first started singing I was in a number of top 40 bands. At first I was in a number of all girl bands. The first all girl band I was in was called The Lauralees. We got a job in Soo Saint Marie, Michigan. Little did we know that we had to play from 8 at night till 4 in the morning. The girl guitar player didn’t know a lot of leads. So we had to end up doing about 200 songs a night (chuckling). We had a 2 week thing there and I don’t think we finished it. I just got so horse and everything. Came back to Detroit and a friend of mine knew Stevie Wonder’s doctor. So I went in there and he looked at me and he said: well you don’t have nodes but it looks like you had a couple blisters, not too much damage. Don’t talk for 2 weeks, don’t whisper for 2 weeks, anything. So I absolutely followed his direction and I was fine after that.”
“Another friend said, here’s a vocal coach he does Tina Turner and all these major stars. So why don’t you go see him? Ray Taylor was his name. So I went down there, and we talked for a while. He said stand up and show me how you breathe. Okay. Now show me how you breathe when you sing. Which is totally different cause I breathe from my diaphragm. But I did that by accident because when I was signing in Soo Saint Marie that was the only way I could get any notes out by the end of the set (chuckling). He goes you know I don’t think you really need lessons, the whole crux of coaching anyone to sing starts in their breathing. You’ve already got that down.”
Now Shaun has developed her routine. She is thoughtful about the dynamics of singing and has employed her diaphragm ever since she had to belt it out till 4 in the morning.
“First of all, I warm up for a long time (chuckles), cause I have such a wide spectrum in my voice. There’s what they call your chest voice, your middle voice and your higher register voice. You have to really get in there and really get those areas relaxed so you can easily transcend between those areas. Once I’ve done that, I don’t know, I just enter another plan it seems like. It just takes over. I love every song that I do and I just go for it. Each one I want to be a set piece and really emote to the crowd. And that’s my main thing, I just want to talk to the crowd through my music.”
So often women who sing are unfairly categorized against some of the highly unique legends such as Aretha, Janice or Bonnie. Shaun can’t be easily pigeonholed. This is in part because her influences go farther back in history and are more eclectic. As a little girl it was “pretty much top 40, I don’t even think they had top 40 back then,” she jokes. “It was actually Teresa Brewer was one of my favorites at the time.”
Her family had a major influence: “My dad loved to sing. He bought a little tiny record player and he bought a bunch of Elvis 45’s that we weren’t allowed to touch, noooo. We could only hear ‘em when he was playing ‘em. He brought Elvis into our lives. And my mom was trying to teach me piano, I was (in a whiny little kid voice) ‘oh I don’t want to do this, I’m not gonna need it.’ That was probably one of (laughing) the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. (hahah) I’d love to play piano now but it’s a little late.”
Then after Ann Arbor in 1969 the Blues and R&B dominated:
“Of course Big Mama Thornton, I love Big Maybelle as well. Along the same lines of Big Mama Thornton, but she did a little more Jazz in her repertoire then Big Mama did. Of course Koko Taylor was right up there, maybe #2. I got to see her live a couple of times, I was very very fortunate in that regard. I love Denise LaSalle and I all ready to do a Denise LaSalle song on my records. She was just marvelous. All the older heroes, Bessie Smith. Just everybody back then were so sadly not brought forward as well as they are brought forward now. It was just some sad times for some of the absolute great singers and musicians.”
Shaun started her solo career in earnest in 2009 and since has put the “pro” in prolific. “I met my manager T.C. Davis in 2009 and everything just came together.” She gratefully recounts, “he was so focused and got us goin’. We went in and did this record Living The Blues, my first record, in gosh lighting speed. It got a great reception. So we basically did an album a year for the next 10 years, it’s just been a wonderful wonderful journey with my solo career. I wouldn’t of changed anything.”
Shaun has developed her songwriting abilities over the years, something that has helped propel her solo career. In 1995 she moved from LA to Nashville to tap into the City’s thriving songwriting scene. “I just figured I needed to go to another music town,” she resonated. “So I had picked out either Atlanta or Nashville and I just felt like Nashville was more a concentrated songwriting town as well as live music.”
“I started writing just for myself many years ago and I sort of got out off on it for a while. Once T.C. got me into recording I got with a bunch of people here in town and just started writing. It’s been so fruitful for me. I’ve gained so much in writing with my friends here in town. I hope it just keeps on growing.”
Shaun’s earlier career centered on collaboration and background singing. One of her early touchstone collaborators was Meat Loaf. Their 1971 Motown album Stoney and Meatloaf is a classic and the result of the duo being castmates in the Detroit run of Hair.
“The first day of the Detroit release (of Hair), Motown and Rare Earth and all those people had come down for opening night. They called us up almost immediately and said: hey, would you like to come down and take a meeting? So we went down there and they said we’d like to sign you up as a duo Stoney and Meat Loaf. (Hahah) We sort of looked at each other and said well okay. So they threw us into the studio and we did the record very quickly. And then went on to do the rest of the Hair stints that we had booked. The album came out early in ‘71 I believe. We toured a little bit with that, some local bands backing us up at the time. Eventually Motown was in the flux so they were in the process of moving out to LA. They let Meat Loaf go out of his contract and they took me out to LA at that point. So that’s how we split up. The rest is history for Meat, he just skyrocketed, I was just so so happy for him.”
Meat and Shaun reconnected right before his untimely death. Meat Loaf moved to Nashville and rekindle their friendship.
“He moved to Nashville a couple years ago so we reconnected and we went out to dinner, all that kind of stuff. He wanted to do a new record. He said let’s do a Stoney and Meatloaf tribute song on the record. I was helping him find some Nashville players as well as producers for this record cause he didn’t really know anybody in town. I was holding a pro jam at the time as well so he came out to that. It was maybe 2 weeks before he passed. He was so excited about meeting all the players there. He was just really excited about my sound and ‘you’ve come a long way, I’m so happy for you,’ all that. But he didn’t stay very long because he had such back issues. Just a couple weeks later he was gone.”
After Stoney and Meat Loaf, Shaun had an illustrious career working as a backup singer. Her unique voice lending layers to many important records. She notably worked with Eric Clapton on his Behind the Sun album and tour which took the band to Live Aid, a once in a lifetime experience she still marvels at today.
“I first joined Eric in ‘85, Live Aide was July 13th 1985 as a matter of fact. One hot day I’ll tell yah, I think it was 99 temperature and 99 humidity, it was just awful. But, we did the show, we were right between the Thompson twins and Phil Collins was coming back up to do another set. He had flown over from the UK to play with us. Of course he was the producer on Eric’s Behind the Sun album, which we were touring on at the time. I remember we did a 3 song set as a matter of fact. We came out and the audience was kinda cheering. Then Eric hit the chords for Layla and I have to tell you it was the most incredible feeling, it was absolutely physical. The shouting and the clapping pushed us all backwards about 3 steps. We just kinda looked at each other (chuckling) and continued on. But, I’d never felt like that before or since, it was an amazing experience.”
Shaun’s other major background singing gig, which continues to the present, is in the Silver Bullet Band supporting the Roots Rock legend Bob Seger.
“It started back in ‘73 as a matter of fact, when I recorded backgrounds on Katmandu. Of course Bob’s manager Punch was booking my bands at the time. So we got a chance to meet Bob and that’s how I got into the studio thing. Then later I went to pick up a check for my band at one of Punch’s clubs where he was at and Bob was there and who should be playing at the club was Cream, so I got to meet Bob and Eric on the same night, it was pretty cool.”
“So we started working in the studio a little bit. ‘74 we did this kind of clandestine record at some place over in Columbus called The Borneo Band at the time (chuckles). That lasted about another year and then of course Bob went over and got the guys for the Silver Bullet Band. Then I rejoined them in ‘78 and have been with him ever since.”
Today Shaun’s band is a great institution in professional Blues and Roots music. An on going cast of absolute killers, Shaun demands the best out of her crew and treats them with respect and dignity. “I just tell everybody just take it easy, we work together. I want everybody’s ideas to come forward. They’ve been so helpful, all of the guys.”
She rhapsodizes, “I have the best bunch of guys right now that I’ve ever had. I have Tom DelRossi on drums. I have John Marcus on bass, who was with Tim McGraw for 22 years, I’m so lucky to have him. I have Kenny Kramer on guitar, he was with Lee Roy Parnell, Dr. Hook, just a whole bunch of people. Then I have Tommy Stilwell on guitar as well, he was with the Beat Daddy’s for many many years. Then I have a new keyboard player, he just sort of moved into town about 6 months ago named Anthony Sadic. I have to say he’s very young, but he’s classically trained, he’s just a virtuoso on piano. He’s just fit in like a glove, which is one of the things you look for.”
Shaun Murphy is a devastating singer. She brings her whole self, her long history, and her deep well of emotions to her voice. She is a moving artist with a tremendous body of work. She continues to produce stellar records full of fire and power.
“Workin’ on the 11th record right now. We’re in the process of hunting and gathering at the moment. We’re expanding a little bit on this next record. We’re gonna do some more hard edged Blues Rock. To augment my live voice as opposed to being a little more contained in the studio. We’re just gonna go for it. (Hahaha)”
Check out Shaun’s music at https://shaunmurphyband.com/