March 14, 1932-October 22, 2015)
No household name was Mark Murphy. He was nonetheless a tremendously influential American jazz singer with a free-wheeling, daringly original approach to his art.
Born into a musical family in Syracuse, New York, Murphy grew up singing in church choirs and took his first piano lessons at the age of seven. As a teenager, he sang in his brother’s dance band, modeling his early vocal style after Nat “King” Cole and Peggy Lee. He studied music and theater at Syracuse University.
In the late ’fifties, Murphy’s career appeared to be about to take off, as he had minor hits, first with Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” and later with a version of “Fly Me to the Moon.” But like other jazz musicians of his generation, he was a victim of the changing landscape of popular music, as Elvis Presley came on the scene and then the Beatles.
His career, then, was that of a cult figure, whose fans were the jazz cognoscenti and, significantly, the other jazz singers. In 1953, Sammy Davis, Jr., hearing Mark Murphy sing at a jam session, invited the young vocalist to join him on stage. Ella Fitzgerald declared him “my equal.” Jon Hendricks dug Murphy. And Kurt Elling, a Murphy protegé, said this: “For new people coming to Mark’s table, he is such a potent flavor. It’s a very distinct and powerful spice, and not everybody’s ready for that.” Jazz critic Will Friedwald, in his book A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, put Murphy and the legendary vocalist Betty Carter in the same category, declaring the two “co-founders of the school of swinging eclecticism in jazz vocals, major influences on virtually all the well-regarded singers of the current generation.”
Murphy sang in a rich baritone voice, delivering performances that mixed edgy vocal pyrotechnics with darkly dramatic recitations. His repertoire included American Songbook standards, jazz classics and lesser known gems, vocalese, Brazilian bossa nova, and stream-of-consciousness improvisation.
Perhaps emulating one of his own heroes, Jon Hendricks, Murphy also wrote lyrics to jazz classics, including Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.”
Over a 50-year career, Murphy recorded more than 40 albums for various record companies, most notably for the small jazz label Muse, between 1973 to 1991. He continued to perform in New York nightclubs well into his 70s. His last appearance was at Joe’s Pub in 2013.
Mark Murphy was 83 when he died at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, where he had been living for several years. He is survived by his sister, Sheila Bidwell. His partner, Eddie O’Sullivan, died in 1990.
Sources: Matt Schudel, The Washington Post; Sam Roberts, The New York Times