Over the course of his 60-year career, jazz vocalist Mark Murphy — who was born in Syracuse and raised in Fulton — became known as one of the world’s most innovative singers. Making his mark with scat singing and bebop vocalese, Murphy’s early work demonstrated an affinity for swing and standards.
Murphy died Oct. 22 at age 83, at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J., after a lengthy illness that had kept him from performing since 2012.
“Oh, he was swinging on his early stuff in the 1950s,” recalled Central New York jazz chanteuse Nancy Kelly. “His recording of ‘This Could Be the Start of Something Big’ in 1959 is legendary. He certainly swings on that! He even had a hit with it.”
“This Could Be the Start of Something Big” was written by late-night talk-show host Steve Allen, who featured Murphy several times on NBC-TV’s The Tonight Show after Decca released the singer’s first LP, Meet Mark Murphy, in 1956 when he was 24.
Murphy scored another minor hit in 1963 with a version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” previously recorded by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. But just when his career seemed ready to take off, British rock bands began to dominate the charts, and popular music changed forever.
Mark Howe Murphy was born in Syracuse on March 14, 1932. His parents, Dwight Murphy Sr. and the former Margaret Howe, met at the Methodist church where his father served as choir director.
His grandmother played church organs, as did his Aunt Mary, who augmented her liturgical music by playing in a swing combo. Murphy began taking piano lessons at age 7 and joined his brother’s six-piece jazz band as a singer when he was a teen.
Decades later, the vocalist retained fond memories of his Aunt Mary’s jazz band. “That’s where I learned most of the early gems of music that you have to get in order to tell yourself where you are going,” he told an interviewer.
After growing up in Fulton, Murphy graduated from Syracuse University as a music and drama major. In 1953 at age 21, he was discovered by singer Sammy Davis Jr. at a jam session at Syracuse’s Ebony Club.
“Syracuse was my first big city,” Murphy told The Post-Standard in 1998. “I was an acting student at the university, and I was either playing on weekends in Fulton or Oswego, or I was down at the Casablanca in downtown Syracuse. Those days, it was the Italian bop center. A couple of blocks away was the Ebony Club, which was the African-American bop center. In the Ebony, I saw Sammy Davis Jr. bopping and tapping his feet. He was gigging at the Three Rivers Inn. That was the showplace in the old days. He asked me to come to the show. I think I even sat in. If this guy thought I was good, then I thought I could be something.”
Murphy relocated to New York City, where he worked with the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company. He also performed in an amateur contest at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, according to Ron Wray, an ex-radio deejay known as the “Syracuse Music Authority.”
In the 1960s, Murphy worked as an actor in London before returning to the states, where he recorded highly acclaimed albums for the Muse label, including an inventive tribute to Jack Kerouac and a heartfelt homage to Nat King Cole. In 1962, he waxed a blues LP for Riverside.
Over the years Murphy emerged as a master of vocalese, a style in which words are sung to melodies that were originally part of an all-instrumental composition or improvisation. Murphy expanded the vocalese library by penning original lyrics to jazz tunes such as Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.”
Baldwinsville-bred guitarist Marty Ashby got to know Murphy well. “He could scat with the best of them and yet phrase a melody with such amazing emotion that drew the listener in immediately,” said Ashby, now an executive producer at MCG Jazz in Pittsburgh, Pa. “His unique phrasing and unconventional diction set his style apart from all other singers.”
In the late-1990s, New York Times music writer Stephen Holden saw Murphy as a vibrant vestige of the beatnik era. “Instead of playing the seducer or the comforter when crooning or the preening, self-assured leader of the pack when swinging,” Holden wrote, “he embodies a wandering post-Beat minstrel, a restless soul, world-weary hipster and die-hard romantic ruminating on old loves.”
Murphy returned to the Salt City to play the Clinton Square main stage at the Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest on June 7, 1998. Jazz Fest artistic director Frank Malfitano has strong memories of that day:
“I remember it being a rainy and overcast afternoon, and I vividly recall our conversations in his dressing room backstage when we talked about his new CD, Song for the Geese, how great it was and how thrilled and appreciative I was that he came back home to appear where it all began for him. He was extremely proud of the new CD and not shy about immediately agreeing that it was one of his best ever. But at the same time he wasn’t being the least bit immodest. He was just thrilled about the way it turned out.
“He had a regal hipster presence about him offstage that resembled his gigantic presence on stage. He was an artist in every sense, and when you were in his sphere you felt that.”
A six-time Grammy Award-nominee, Murphy released some four dozen albums over his lifetime, including his final recording, A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn, released by Gearbox Records in 2012. He also topped the Down Beat magazine readers’ jazz poll for Best Male Vocalist of the Year in 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2001.
In the 1970s, he lived in San Francisco before relocating to rural Pennsylvania in 1998, and finally to New Jersey. His longtime relationship with his partner, Eddie O’Sullivan, ended in 1990 when O’Sullivan died.
Murphy, who cultivated a sometimes eccentric appearance, dying his facial hair and wearing a shaggy 1980s-era wig, continued to tour internationally into his 80s, appearing at clubs, festivals, theaters and on TV around the globe. “You find out who you are from improvisation,” Murphy once said. “You throw away what’s not needed and get to what’s real.”