"GUITAR" MURPHY - BLUES BROTHER NUMBER
Legendary guitarist Matt "Guitar" Murphy was born Dec 28, 1929 in Sunflower, MS, and first made a name for himself in Memphis in the early 1950’s. The Beale Street music scene at this time consisted of two styles; up-scale jazz played by artists such as Phineas Newborn Sr. and Tuff Green, and blues played by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Matt was one of the few musicians who was able to successfully bridge the gap and play with both factions.
By the mid-50’s, Matt had migrated to Chicago where he became one of the founding fathers of what we now consider the "electric blues" movement. Over the past forty-five years, Matt has played with such blues legends as Memphis Slim, Bobby Bland, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and James Cotton, but he is probably best known for his role as lead guitarist in The Blues Brothers’ band. Considered one of the finest in his field, his jazz-influenced riffing has most recently been featured on his own fine "The Blues Don’t Bother Me" cd (Roesch Records), as well as in "The Blues Brothers 2000" movie and soundtrack.
I have been lucky enough to see Mr. Murphy perform several times over the past 15 years. On a personal note, Matt has been such an influence on me that several years ago I put together a band that featured his former lead singer David Cox and his bass player extraordinaire, the late, great Charles Calmese. Since I learned so much from David and Charles, I actually consider Matt a mentor once removed.
Matt "Guitar" Murphy’s performances are always satisfying studies in blues guitar soloing. If you have a chance, check him out. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed!
Tom Guerra: Matt, you’re originally from Mississippi and you made a name for yourself in Memphis, right? What got you into music in the first place?
Matt "Guitar" Murphy: Well, I’m not sure I’ve made a name for myself yet…and I really don’t know where I was born, I can’t remember (laughs)! No, truthfully, I was led to believe that I was born in Tutweiller, Mississippi. Then, later when I went into the Army and they got my birth certificate, I found out that I actually was born in Sunflower, Mississippi.
As far as getting into music, my aunt had an old corrugated crate filled with records, and I’d listen to them all the time growing up. Guys like Petey Wheatstraw, who called himself "the devil’s son-in-law," Blind Boy Fuller, and Josh White… these are the guys that I was listening to for the open string playing.
Of course one of my favorites was T-Bone Walker, who influenced a whole bunch of people. He had a certain way he’d play, by using the 9th and 13th chords, and then he’d add on to them. He had a great way that he plunked the strings…I just liked that sound. And later on, it was Albert King and Albert Collins that really got me.
TG: Did you ever get to play with either of them?
MGM: I actually got to play with both of them, and they both knew I loved them. It’s too bad that they are gone. Albert Collins was a master, he had total control over what he was doing. And Albert King was another, it only seemed like he was playing on two or three strings, but he did it right.
TG: Did you listen to music besides blues growing up?
MGM: Oh yeah, I loved all kinds of music, including jazz, blues, piano concertos, and country and western. And I still love these today. Back when I was a kid, I always wanted to have a clarinet, and I’d go down to the pawn shops, and just stare at them through the windows. And I think a lot of my phrasing comes from the horn players that I love, including Stan Getz, Coltrane, a whole bunch of them.
TG: I’ve heard you play a few King Curtis lines too..
MGM: I thought King Curtis was the king of what I call the "Yakety Sax"…he was one of my favorites too.
TG: Who were you playing with when you started in the early 50’s, wasn’t it Memphis Slim?
MGM: I remember it very vividly, but no, it was NOT Memphis Slim. One of the first people I played with was Howlin’ Wolf, and I know that I was instrumental in teaching Howlin’ Wolf his time, because he’d always run over the right number of bars, you know? I was aware of counting the correct number of bars, usually 12, and whenever he would overrun, I would just cut through and get him back on time, and that really helped him. I probably played with Howlin’ Wolf for a year, then Wolf hired Little Junior Parker, who would play when Wolf took a rest. From there, Little Junior and I got a band started and I named it The Blue Flames. It was Little Junior, L.C. Drane, Ike Turner, and me. From The Blue Flames,
I went to play with (jazz artist) Tuff Green, who was very popular in Memphis at the time. Tuff Green had lost several members of his band - he had just had an accident on the road and two or three of his guys had died, and he hired me. I remember them always talking about this one guy called "Doughbelly." I started playing with Tuff at this time, which was around ’51 or ‘52. From there I went to play with Memphis Slim, and we played together for close to three years.
TG: Do you remember what the scene was like in Memphis around this time? It must have been really hopping!
MGM: Well, musically, Memphis has always been alive. It was one of these hot spots where cats could come from everywhere else and get the surprise of their life, because there were so many good musicians there!
TG: Did you remember any of the early Memphis rock n’ roll / rockabilly pioneers like Carl Perkins, Elvis, or Jerry Lee Lewis?
MGM: I was aware of what was going on, but that started to happen a year or so after I had left Memphis.
TG: Was your brother Floyd playing with you in those early days?
MGM: (Laughs) Floyd and I were ALWAYS playing together, ‘cause we’re brothers!!! Actually, we always practiced together, but he came to Memphis later when I started playing with Memphis Slim, and then he hooked up with Little Junior and The Blue Flames. Floyd came up with some great licks, like the one in "Mystery Train."
TG: Do you remember what you were playing for a guitar and amp setup in Memphis?
MGM: Oh yeah, when I first started playing, I really didn’t know too much about equipment, and still don’t, but I do know that Fender and Gibson made good equipment. My first guitar was a guitar from Sears, a Harmony with a pickup in it, and I played that for a little while, then the neck broke. But when I first bought a Fender Electric in the early fifties, people didn’t know what it was, they were like "What is THAT?" It was just a real flat piece of wood…
TG: A Telecaster?
MGM: Well, actually, my first one was an Esquire that I carried around in a paper bag, because it didn’t have a case. I played that for years, and I later had a Jazzmaster, a Telecaster, a Strat…I also started playing Gibson guitars, and I’ve been playing Fender Guitars and Gibson guitars from then till now!
For amplifiers, Fender amplifiers were very good, all you have to do is ask anyone. It seems that through the years, guys have thought of those as keepsakes! People know a good amplifier the minute they hear it, based on the sound, so you’d hang onto it. My first one was a Fender tweed from the early fifties.
TG: Didn’t you play with a lot of other people in Memphis that we now consider legends?
MGM: Yes, but actually, to tell you the truth, I’ve always been an advocate of sticking with one group and I never was and still am not one to go out and play with a lot of different groups. I like to stay with someone and let it develop.
TG: Around what time did you make your way to Chicago?
MGM: Ahhh, I only played around Memphis for three or four years or so, and then we started traveling all over the states and everywhere, and I eventually ended up in Chicago.
TG: You played on some early Chess sides, including some stuff by Chuck Berry? What was that studio like and what was the general feeling of those Chess sessions?
MGM: Yeah, right, I guess I was one of the staff guitar players down there at Chess. I was on an album by Chuck Berry, and I also played on Muddy Waters’ things, I played on some of Sonny Boy Williamson’s records like "You Gotta Help Me"…(laughs)! I’ll never forget, one time I was playing in Atlanta, Georgia, and this lady was trying to tell me how "You Gotta Help Me" went, so I just stopped the band, and I said "Look lady, I’m on the record, I KNOW HOW IT GOES! HA HA HA!!"
The studio was, well, it all depended on what kind of day everyone was happening. You see, what happened back then, they didn’t have any punch in (overdubbing), so you’d hear stuff like "Take Number Thirty-Three!" and "Take Number Forty-Seven…I hope I’m painting a picture for ya (laughs). So, whenever something went wrong, you’d have to do the whole song over again.
TG: You’ve played with just about all of the Chicago blues greats…can you tell us who were your favorites and what you liked about them?
MGM: My favorites, oh man, I don’t know… I’d come to know Willie Dixon pretty good, he was instrumental in getting me involved in those Chess sessions. He used my licks on about ten or fifteen tunes he wrote (laughs).
TG: So you’d play something and he’d write around it?
MGM: Well, yeah, the things I did, especially on the comeback, were things that I came up with and he based songs around them (sings the lick to "Little Red Rooster"). I’ve used that one on a few of mine, I might as well, its my lick and everybody else was and is using it!
TG: Yeah, Bo Diddley used that one on "Mannish Boy"…
MGM: Yeah exactly, not only that, but check out a lot more… Well, what happened with Willie is he began to include me as co-writer, like on "Every Girl I See" which was more recently covered by Buddy Guy and Joe Louis Walker.
TG: Weren’t you and Buddy considered rivals back then in Chicago?
MGM: EVERYBODY was considered a rival then, whaddya talkin’ about?! We ALL played guitar, but it wasn’t like "Who’s the toughest, who’s this, who’s that," ya know? But it never came from me, and I don’t think it came from Buddy. I was too busy trying to learn than care about who was the best. I’m still trying to learn how to play the guitar.
MGM: I’m still learning, man. But there ain’t nothin’ you can do when you’re dead, you know? All that means is - you keep living and you’re gonna get older, and one day, you’re gonna be old. So, hang on and you will learn.
TG: In the late sixties and seventies, you started playing with James Cotton. I personally remember some great Cotton / Murphy shows and became great friends and bandmates with bassist Charles Calmese. What do you think made that band so special?
MGM: Thanks, man! One time I went to hear James play at McGee Fitzhugh’s lounge on 63rd. in Chicago. This must have been in the early seventies. He’d asked me to play with him before, but I was with another band, and it was at this time that I decided that I was going to play with him. That was probably in ’71…
Well, what made the band special was Charlie…Yeah, man, Charles was one of my few very good friends! Also, James was a reason, I was a reason, Ken Johnson (drummer) was a reason it was so special, Cal Clement and Little Bo (saxophone players) were a reason. So it was the combination of all of us. I wrote a lot of that stuff with James.
TG: One of my favorites of that era was "Boogie Thing" which you wrote and recorded with Cotton…That’s now considered a standard, and even Muddy Waters played it live. You can go into any blues bar in the world and on any given night, you’ll hear a band playing it…
MGM: Thanks, we were takin’ care of business on that!
TG: Amps and guitars at this time?
MGM: By that time, it was mostly Gibsons, a hollowbody 335 and 345. I played through a Fender Twin Reverb, and sometimes a Quad Reverb…that’s the one with 4 speakers in it.
TG: I remember in the seventies you used a phase shifter on a live record once with James Cotton, have you ever used any other guitar effects?
MGM: I did that? When did I do that? Maybe I was doing it to see how it sounded, but basically, I’m just a straight guitar into the amplifier guy. I see a lot of guys using stuff to make me picking softer, and that’s OK, but I just prefer the guitar-amplifier thing.
TG: And from the Cotton band, you were asked to join the Blues Brothers? That must have been an incredible experience…How did that come about?
MGM: Actually, I was playing one night at McHale’s, in New York City, and what happened was it seemed like everybody was there that night…Sha Na Na was there, then Johnny Winter came through the door, and people were like (in a hushed voice) "Ohhh, here comes Johnny Winter!" Oh well, we had become friends before that because he invited us to go on the road together with him… So, what happened, was…since I always carried two guitars with me, I gave him one, and we were on the bandstand jammin’ when John (Belushi) and Dan (Aykroyd) came in. Oh yeah, we got through jammin’ and the people understood what was happening! So, when I came off the stand, they introduced themselves to me, and they said that they’d like to make an album with me, and asked if I’d be interested. I said "Yeah, I’d be glad to do it."
TG: Did you recognize John and Dan at this point? I figured every time that show (Saturday Night Live) was on, you’d be off playing somewhere…
MGM: I sort of knew who they were…you’re right, I was always gigging, but you could see Saturday Night Live at other times, you know?
TG: Here’s one that might be a bit touchy for you… Why did the whole James Cotton band except you end up playing with Johnny Winter on the Grammy winning Muddy Waters’ "Hard Again" album?
MGM: They took everyone, but didn’t want me for some reason…HA, HA, HA! I might have put a little heat on them, that might have been one of the reasons, but I wanted to go and they didn’t want me…Maybe it was too much of a conflict! It might have been politics or something, but that would have been nice…
TG: How did being in The Blues Brothers affect your career? What was it like to work with Paul Shaffer as an arranger?
MGM: Yeah, those guys (Belushi and Aykroyd) definitely put me in business. Paul Shaffer is one of the best guys I’ve ever known to work with musically. He’s such a nice cat, man. I just wrote a thing called "Bumpin the Grind, Doin’ the Nasty" and he’s playing on it with me. It’s in the movie. He’s a great arranger. We also did "The Blues Don’t Bother Me."
TG: How do you relate to Steve Cropper as a guitarist?
MGM: Steve Cropper and I respect each other as musicians. I mean basically, that’s the thing…we recognize each other’s playing, and it works out fine. We both go out and play golf together, too, and we’ve become close as a result.
TG: I remember a few years ago you were playing a beautiful sunburst Les Paul flametop reissue. What are you playing these days for a guitar? How about an amp?
MGM: I have two or three of those that I play from time to time, and I still play a Fender amp, either "The Twin" or one of their new "Blues deVille" models. Those are really great amps!
TG: I see that CORT has created a Matt "Guitar" Murphy instrument. Are you currently playing one? What is it like?
MGM: Yes, It is a VERY good guitar, man it’s outtasight! It is a GREAT guitar, and I’m playing that a lot! Actually, I helped design it, I went to Seoul, Korea and talked to them about what I’d like to see in a guitar. It plays great, it is very responsive and has a great bridge. It’s a heck of a guitar. I’m playing it right now!
TG: How did working on "The Blues Brothers 2000" differ from the original film?
MGM: Well, this time, we knew more of what to do about the music. This music is a lot better than the first time. It’s just cookin’ and the guys were having so much fun this time. Paul was there too, you see, and it was a pleasure! We had the horn section there, and a few new guys. The music was great and I just loved it! "Respect" was so funky, man!
TG: What was working with Aretha Franklin (who plays Matt’s on-screen wife in the film) like?
MGM: She’s a real nice lady and she can sing her BUTT off…This time, Dan and John Landis wrote us into the script as owners of a Mercedes Benz dealership instead of the little kitchen. Dan and John are really nice guys!
TG: How about some of the newer school of blues guitar players…do you have any favorites?
MGM: Monster Mike (Welch) and Jonny Lang are good. And you’ve got a whole bunch of guys that are taking it even farther, like Joe Louis Walker. I like him, he’s a PLAYER, and a lot of people don’t know how good he can play. He’s definitely one of the guys that I tell people to check out. Also, Coco Montoya is good, I like the way he sounds! You’ve got a whole bunch of them out there.
TG: I hear you are working on a new recording right now…what can you tell us about it?
MGM: Yup, I’m doing another cd now for Roesch Records. The last one "The Blues Don’t Bother Me" did really well. This one will feature Mitch Chakour on vocals and Hammond, my nephew Floyd Murphy on drums, Howard Eldridge on vocals, and a couple of guys from The Saturday Night Live Band - Leon Pendaris on keyboards and Tom Barney on bass.
TG: Any message that you want to send out to our readers?
MGM: Yeah, take a look at the Matt Murphy model of Cort guitars! It’s definitely a really good guitar. And one thing I’ve always said about guitar is.. It’s about learning…you can’t learn enough, and that’s so good about it! You can be there for ages trying to learn this stuff, and if you are able to absorb it and express it, that’s great!
TG: Thanks a bunch Matt, and good luck with the album, tour, movie, and guitar!
MGM: Tell me Tom, are they paying me for this interview?
TG: Ahhh, I don’t think they do that…
MGM: HA, HA, HA!!! Thanks, its been a lot of fun!
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