Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
If you never heard Rose Murphy, you would be completely mystified when Ella Fitzgerald, at mid-fifties concerts like her famous 1958 birthday set Ella In Rome, takes a very strange detour in the middle of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” After the opening chorus, the First Lady of Song makes mysterious noises, chirping like a butterfly would, if it could sing, twitting about on the nonsense phrase “chee chee.”
If Fitzgerald fans were puzzled by this in 1958, their kids were fully flabbergasted when, in 1962, they heard Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sing the same song. Here too, Valli intones the Jimmy McHugh melody in a voice even more stratospherically high - and sexually ambiguous - than usual, and here too he dwells on that mysterious phrase: “chee chee.”
Even while Valli is chee-chee-ing in the foreground, the other singers, presumably the other three "Seasons," repeat the phrase over and over, as if it were some kind of spiritual mantra or magical incantation. Like Fitzgerald, Valli here produces high-pitched, non-verbal noises that apparently originated in the animal kingdom, sounds more like humming birds and purring kittens than pop singers doing the songbook or the blues.
Fitzgerald and Valli are both, of course, affectionately imitating that famous femme follower of Fats, Rose Murphy, who was once billed as “The Chee Chee Girl,” and recorded an album called Not Cha Cha But Chi Chi Ok, it's spelled slightly differently, but I think Murphy was “chee chee” long before it was chi-chi.
Of Fat's followers, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher and Murphy had progressively higher voices: Lee sang in a deep contralto that made her a blues-singing, Kansas City counterpart to Tallulah Bankhead, while Lutcher was somewhere in the middle. Murphy was up there in realms ornithological, higher than Cleo Brown or possibly even Blossom Dearie.
Rose Murphy was born in 1913 in Xenia, Ohio, coincidentally, two years before Una Mae Carlisle. Like Lee and Lutcher, Murphy didn’t begin recording until she was already in her mid-thirties. She doesn’t have a wide vocal range in terms of her actual chops themselves; perhaps she developed her wide vocabulary of sound effects as a way of compensating for her comparatively narrow range.
According to historian Wolfram Knauer, Murphy’s first noteworthy gig was on New York’s 52nd Street when she alternated with William 'Count' Basie at The Famous Door around 1938. Later, Murphy was part of famed dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s troupe, which brought her to the West Coast during the War Years.
On the West Coast, she was a regular performer on the Armed Forces Radio Service Jubilee program, the era's number one program for black soldiers and black talent; at least one track from the program - an early version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” - has found its way on to a commercial CD.
By 1944, Murphy was being mentioned as a possible headliner for the Blue Angel, the famed cabaret room, in New York. In Hollywood, however, Murphy did something neither Brown, Lee, nor Lutcher ever did – appear in a major Hollywood movie musical. This was the 1945 20th Century Fox film George White’s Scandals, alongside Joan Davis, Jack Haley, organ star Ethel Smith and Gene Krupa and his Orchestra. Plus, as Art Fern would say, Scratch The Wonder Crab.
In the film, Murphy played a maid, as did virtually every other black actress in every movie ever made before 1950, but she got to sing “Wishing (Will Make It So).”
In 1947, Murphy finally began recording. As the year was drawing to a close, she laid down 18 tracks for Majestic, an independent concern that was trying to become a major label. Many of these tracks were subsequently reissued by Mercury Records, a startup label that, unlike Majestic, did graduate to conglomerate status.
Unfortunately, Murphy only seems to have commenced her contract with Majestic in November, which meant that she had only two months before the American Federation of Musicians banned all recording activity in January of 1949; her entire association with the label lasted for only these 18 tracks and six or so weeks.
They were all apparently made in a rush; her first recording of “Little Coquette,” in fact, sounds like Murphy has accidentally mixed up the lyrics here and there, and that she wasn’t not deliberately playing with the song, as usual. Apparently there wasn’t time for another take.
As with Lutcher’s Capitol sessions, Murphy’s 1947 recordings offer a congenial balance of new songs and standards. Her overall approach is to get everything going with a buoyant, danceable tempo, spicing up the tunes old and new with chee-chee's and other sound effects.
These are the same kinds of musical devices that instrumentalists use to spice up a melody; at the end of her concluding piano part on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” she decorates the McHugh melody with a tinkling glissando, yet she’s been doing the same thing all along with her voice. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is closer to a piano feature with vocal interjections: she begins with a boogie woogie vamp intro, then launches the melody about 35 seconds in, singing only at the end of every A section on the words “Georgia Brown.” On “Cecilia,” she does the opposite, singing everything but the girl’s name, substituting a few seconds of hissing sibilance instead.
Like Waller, she deflates many a sentimental old song, like the potentially sappy “A Shanty In Old Shanty Town,” and even more so on the archetypical torch song “Jim”; she makes a mockery of this turgid tale of a neglectful lover who fails to bring her pretty flowers or cheer her lonely hours. Possibly the funniest is “When I Grow Too Old To Dream,” which reprises the jivey update recorded earlier by The Cats and The Fiddle.
Murphy’s standards are marvelously listenable, even though they’re all in the same bouncy foxtrot. When she’s not using sound effects, sometimes there are distinctly Wallerian vocal interjections, as when she offers up “oh yes they are” in the middle of “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” or in Waller’s own “Honeysuckle Rose,” she can’t help but spontaneously start laughing, and her chortles and giggles also become part of the music. On “Pennies From Heaven,” her descending treble notes, both on voice and piano, have a distinctly penny-from-Heaven quality to them.
On new songs, she’s more likely to vary the tempos. Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the newer songs she recorded allow her to accommodate her vocal shtick: On “MM-MM Good,” known to television audiences worldwide as the Campbell’s Soup jingle, the humming is part of the song as written; “Midnight On The Trail,” Murphy’s cowboy counterpart to Lutcher’s “Cool Water,” has her imitating a horse’s hoofbeats (at least I think so, the quality of the recording and the reissue are so murky that it’s hard to say for sure). “A Little Bird Told Me” is a welcome opportunity for aviary chee chee's, while “Busy Line” finds her making like a telephone busy signal. The playful lyric to “Is I In Love? I Is” allows Murphy to play with the words as if they were sound effects or nonsense syllables.
The latter three tunes were recorded as part of Murphy’s contract with RCA Victor, which began in December, 1948, at the conclusion of the AFM recording ban, and lasted through July of 1949, enough time to record 17 tracks. The great boon of the RCA sessions is that the recording quality is considerably better than that of Majestic, and there’s also a brilliant-sounding reissue of the 17 tracks, which included several alternate takes and previously unissued items,Rose Murphy: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings.
Other than improving the acoustics, RCA, commendably, didn’t mess with the Murphy mixture. There are more standards in this batch, including a new take on “Honeysuckle Rose,” and an equally ebullient “Rosetta.” The new songs are also right up her alley, especially “Girls Were Meant to Take Care of Boys,” which plays to Murphy's own demeanor, which was more kewpie doll than Billie Holiday. Among Murphy's chestnuts for RCA are “You, Wonderful You,” which is not the same-titled song of the following year from Summer Stock but a goodie just the same, “Not Tonight,” and “Hey! Mama (He’s Trying to Kiss Me),” which, like most of Murphy’s best work, it’s impossible to imagine anyone listening to without cracking a heavy-duty ear-to-ear smile.
Murphy next did a batch of dates for Decca in the early ‘50s, including a particularly zippy “Believe It Beloved” that honors Waller’s memory, and more ‘20s tunes, like “Button Up Your Overcoat.” On “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” she effects a compromise between her chee-chee’s and the song’s famous “boop-oop-a-doop,” by cooing “chee-boop, chee-boop.” Several of the Deccas seem deliberately aimed at children, like “Peek-A-Boo” and “The Little Red Monkey,” the second of which earned Murphy some notoriety in England.
On Vincent Youman’s “Time On My Hands” she eschews all the lyrics to simply repeat the title line, make tic-tock noises and cuckoo clock calls with her mouth, and imitate a chiming clock on the piano. At one point, she interjects the catchphrase “Time marches on!” and follows it with an approximation of soldiers marching, “left, right!”
In 1957 Murphy cut an album for Verve Records, with the witty title of Not Cha-Cha But Che-Chee, and began it with her third recording of “Honeysuckle Rose.” The presence of alto saxophonist Willie Smith added much to the proceedings; Murphy was an accomplished enough jazz pianist to fully complement him, and, like Nat Cole’s After Midnight, on which Smith played on a few months earlier,
Not Cha-Cha can be enjoyed as a swing combo album with sympathetic vocals; in fact, several tunes, including the recent show tune “Mr. Wonderful” are done entirely as an instrumentals. Unlike most of her singles, not every track is in the same relentless tempo, in fact, “I Ain’t Got Nobody” is positively relaxed, if not exactly sad and lonely.
“By The Waters Of Minnetonka” turns out to a medley of alleged Native American love calls, starting with “Pale Moon” and transitioning into “Minnetonka,” in which Murphy uses her chirping to depict what she imagines as the ululations of wild Indians.
There’s not a lot of variety to Murphy’s work overall, but this package, overall, goes down very smoothly. Aided considerably by Willie Smith, Not Cha Cha is an adorable album all the way through.
Tom Lord's Jazz Discography reports that Murphy also did some “rock and roll” records for a label called Regina Records. There was one further album in the “classic” period, an elusive LP titled called Jazz, Joy, and Happiness, which, according to the discography, was produced by an outfit called “Big A’s” and then reissued on United Artists. The album features star bassist Slam Stewart, trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and multi-reed player Seldon Powell.
Lastly, Murphy made two releases in the “elderstateswoman” phase of her career. 1980's Mighty Like A Rose pairs her with another star bassist, Major Holley, and Live In Concert (1982), was taped in performance at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C..
The 1980 set, recorded in Nice and released on the French label Black & Blue, is a set of duos by Murphy and Holley. Murphy is up to her proverbial old tricks, such as the by-now expected chee chees and other vocal effects, but at 65, she’s mellowed considerably, and is much less intense than on her vintage 78s.
Those who thought her ‘40s and ‘50s work too frantic would probably enjoy this album a lot more, she’s still a fine singer and a superb pianist, as can be heard on the album's instrumentals, which include “Caravan” and Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz." She reprises a few old favorites, among them “Busy Line” and “Time On My Hands,” which are now considerably less anxious, even though time still marches on.
There’s also a new “Summertime,” in a very modern jazz-waltz tempo; before Murphy starts singing, you might assume the pianist was a disciple of Dave Brubeck. Her solo after the vocal is equally modern, again you couldn’t tell it was Murphy except for the giggling and foot stamping.
Rose Murphy worked off and on throughout the ‘80s - I was fortunate enough to hear and her at a meeting of the New York chapter of the Duke Ellington Society, before she died on November 16, 1989.
Murphy's was a comparatively small career – no one can say she over-recorded – but she certainly is one of the most distinctive, and not to mention delightful, performers in all of American song. In fact, if delightfulness is your dish, you’d be hard pressed to name anyone who does it better. Here it is. Eat up.
Contributor: Will Friedwald