Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Vocalist Mark Murphy has always sung with an instrumentalist's ear and discipline. A performer of jazz for more than 50 years, he has never become settled in his approach, and over his career has progressively moved away from a straightforward vocal delivery into a style which encompasses the expressiveness of a musician while maintaining the deeper meaning of the song being sung.
Murphy was born in Syracuse, New York on March 14, 1932 but raised in nearby Fulton. An early exposure to music was through singing in the choir at the local Methodist church, but he ultimately was introduced to jazz by an uncle who owned a 78 RPM record of Art Tatum playing “Humoresque.” Eventually young Mark began listening to bands such as Stan Kenton’s, and singers such as June Christy, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and, most significantly for a time, Peggy Lee.
When in his early teens, Mark first sang in public with his brother’s band. A few years later the singer studied music and acting at Syracuse University. He received early encouragement from Sammy Davis, Jr., when the young singer performed at the Ebony Room. By the mid 50s, he signed on with Decca Records for whom he recorded the albums Meet Mark Murphy and Let Yourself Go. In each of these albums Mark’s singing style was closer to the classic pop singers of the 1950s such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Vic Damone but even at this early stage there were signs of the unique approach that would eventually become fully developed a few decades later.
Mark next moved on to the Capital label and made three appearances on “The Steve Allen Show.” He even recorded Steve’s song, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” on an LP of the same name.
In the early 60s, Mark switched labels once again, this time to Riverside where he recorded “Rah,” still considered to be one of his finest LPs. It included songs such as “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Señor Blues,” which he would continue singing in live gigs throughout the decades, and is considered to be the first recording in which Mark proved began truly showing off his talent as a jazz vocalist.
By the middle of the 1960s Mark had relocated to England, where he recorded for a couple of British labels, Fontana and Immediate, sang on television and radio programs, and even did a bit of acting. While still in Europe, he even did a television pilot in which he portrayed Jesus Christ!
In the 1970s he returned to the jazz scene in the U.S. It was during this period that Mark totally came into his very personal and powerful vocal style, which includes flexibility, impeccable diction, sensitive phrasing and an easy sense of swing. Most significantly, he found the courage to take chances with his scatting, even at the risk of producing sounds that are not classically beautiful but always true to the mood he is trying to express.
This new approach to Mark’s craft has been preserved on his many recordings for Muse, with which he remained through the early 1990s. While with them, he recorded the LP Stolen Moments. Its title tune, with lyrics he himself had written, became perhaps his most requested song.
Another memorable album he recorded for Muse is Bop for Kerouac, which features Mark reading excerpts from the novels of Jack Kerouac, and performing songs such as “Bebop Lives (Boplicity),” “Parker’s Mood“ and “You’ve Proven Your Point (Bongo Beep).” This last song perfectly illustrates Mark’s no-holds-barred style where the sung lyrics are so clearly you can write them down with ease, yet his strong voice seems almost weightless in its ability to alternately soar and swoop downward with speed and precision. A kind of follow-up, Kerouac Then and Now, was released a few years later. Further excellent recordings are Beauty and the Beast, which begins with a spoken word version of the title song, and a collaboration with Sheila Jordan, One for Junior.
Mark has continued to make fine recordings for labels such as Milestone, HighNote and most recently, Verve, which yielded two wonderful CDs in collaboration with trumpeter Til Bronner. The first, Once to Every Heart, is a CD totally comprised of ballads ranging from “Skylark/You Don’t Know What Love Is,” to “It’s Not Easy Being Green” to Mark’s own beautiful composition written after 9/11, “I Know You From Somewhere.”
His second album for Verve, Love is What Stays, is a more eclectic recording, which includes new versions of the songs, “Stolen Moments” and “Angel Eyes.” Murphy's first version of the latter song appeared on Rah, where it was sung with force and beauty. However in the newer version, you can now actually experience the desperation of someone who is feeling the weight of the passing years and lamenting that the love of his life may be gone forever. Other tracks includely the Johnny Cash song, “So Doggone Lonesome,” the Coldplay song, “What If,” a song from the film Royal Wedding, "Too Late Now," and a Murphy original, “Blue Cell Phone.”
Many of Mark’s earlier songs had also become popular with the dancers in London clubs catering to the Acid Jazz scene and, as a result, he participated in recorded projects by such groups as UFO, Five Corners Quintet and Lindberg Hemmer Foundation.
Throughout his long career and on into the present time, Mark has performed in countless jazz clubs, theatres and festivals for appreciative audiences throughout the country and around the world. This has been supplemented by the countless workshops he’s given, which have been attended by a large number of the younger jazz singers who have since made their own fine contributions to the art form.
In the summer of 2009, Mark had a gig at the Kitano in New York, where he demonstrated to those in audience – which included a number of leading younger jazz singers who have been his students – that he remains a vital and inquiring jazz performer, well into his eighth decade in life and sixth in jazz.
Select Discography: Decca:
Meet Mark Murphy (1956)
This Could Be the Start of Something (1959)
That’s How I the Blues (1962)
Midnight Mood (1967)
Stolen Moments (1978)
Bop for Kerouac (1981)
Beauty and the Beast (1987)
Kerouac Then and Now (1989)
One for Junior (1993)
Night Mood (1987)
The Dream (with Dutch Metropole Orchestra) (1995)
Song for the Geese (1998)
Some Time Ago (2000)
Memories of You (2003)
Once to Every Heart (2005)
Love is What Stays (2007)
A wonderful DVD, Murphy’s Mood, which includes four songs Mark performed on the Ad Lib TV series in 1981, was also released by Arkadia Jazz in 2009.
Contributor: Francesca Miano