Michael Murphy. Photo by Tom Willis

Michael Murphy: Real Live Sax

By Darrell Ray Elmore

"So this Park Ranger was walking along the shore of this lake when he runs across this man fishing while wearing a tuxedo. He says 'Excuse me pal, but If you don't mind my asking, what's the story here? Why are you wearing that tuxedo?' And the man says 'Well, you see, I'm on my honeymoon.' So the Park Ranger says 'Honeymoon? Well why aren't you back at the hotel, making love to your wife?' And the man replies 'Well, she's got gonorrhea,' and the Ranger says 'oh, sorry 'bout that bud. . . but had you thought about maybe some oral sex?' The man says 'well, she's got pyorrhea, too.' So the Ranger shakes his head and says 'that is too bad. How about anal sex?' The man says, 'No, no, you see, she's got diarrhea as well," And the Ranger says 'Well, excuse me for asking, but why in the heck did you marry her?' The man smiles and says 'Well, she's also got worms. . . and I LOVE to fish!'" ÑÊMichael Murphy, 1994

Michael Murphy is a pretty cool guy. I went into this story expecting a nut, mainly because everybody I talked to said he was a nut. "Michael Murphy?" they would say, "He's a nut! He's the guy that drops his pants onstage!"

Michael Murphy with hair. Photo by Tom Armstrong

Or rather he used too. He doesn't do it much, anymore. Now what he does is blow tenor sax in the band Murphy's Law, which when compared to the pants dropping thing, might seem a little anticlimactic. In fact, it is a little anticlimactic, but it's what he does, and he doesn't drop his pants anymore. So. I mean, I didn't really WANT to see him drop his pants, it's just that everybody told me he did, and when he didn't, I was a little disappointed. But it's not really that important. The pants thing.

What is important is Michael Murphy's sax playing. He blows his horn quite well. Actually, I would say he does an excellent job of blowing his horn, but I I don't want him to get a big head or anything. Not that he would, but I'm afraid he might. As he is, he seems well adjusted to the ego/musician thing, and I sure wouldn't want to screw that up.

Indeed. I was quite impressed with his quiet charm and natural wit. His stage manner is impressive too. I saw him on a recent "open stage/jam night" at Air Devils Inn.

When I entered the bar, Michael was already onstage, decked out in shorts, sandals, and a denim shirt. Comfortable looking, perhaps a bit self assured. He lacks the chipmunk cheeks one usually relates to horn players (you know, like 'ol Duke Ellington).

During a break in the song, he calmly lit a cigarette, stepped up to the mic with his sax, and prepared to blow. . . but the mic fell from its holder with the hollow clang that can only be produced by dropping a live mic about four feet to an uncarpeted stage. Michael smiled, picked up the mic and replaced it in the stand. Just as he was about to start his solo, it fell again, with the expected electric noise. Michael grinned, shrugged it off, and turned the vocal mic around so that it would pick up his sax blowing, and went ahead with the show.

It was little thing, a problem that could plague any musician anywhere, but the telling detail of the entire episode was the fact that Michael at no time lost his cool in any way. He just didn't care. It was obvious (and is obvious if you ever meet him) that the man has been in the business long enough to know that what is important is the music itself, and not some pretentious image-thing. I guess twenty-five years of blowing sax will do that to you.

Photo by Tom Willis

Michael is at home onstage, and secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens his playing will make up for it. And you know what? He never missed a beat.

It was impressive as hell. I just thought I should tell you about it.

How can you beat the sound of a horn? It can instantly transport you back to a small, 1930-40 vintage speakeasy, especially in a setting like the ADI. A crowd of people packed into a small space, weaving back and forth to the blues stylings rolling offstage. . . smoky R&B with a definite jazz flavor. Adult music, appreciated by an adult audience. Kinda refreshing after a recent tour of some of the more Gen X places around town.

I was crammed up against the P.A. and Michael's horn was so loud I could feel it vibrating in my teeth. Much more of this and I'll probably wind up deaf, but so what? I'll eschew the earplugs for now. Especially when the music is as good as Mr. Murphy produces.

A veteran of literally hundreds of open stage nights, I was surprised at the quality of the music. Professional musicians providing free music just for the fun of it. What a great idea! I suggest you take it upon yourself to experience it first-hand. Air Devils InnÊÑÊ Thursday nights. I guarantee you'll be satisfied. Oh, and don't be put off if there is a large number of motorcycles in the parking lot. Those people are really nice, just good 'ol Americans like you and me.

I had spoken to Mr. Murphy on the phone, and I guess he noticed me scribbling in my notebook, because during the break he approached me. We shook hands and made the required "nice-nice" introductions. The man is no fool, he bought me a beer straight off the bat. He obviously knows how to schmooze the working press. He seemed excited about something, but it was obviously not my presence. In fact, it was the expected appearance of his girlfriend, Susan McGeary, who he said would probably get up and sing a few songs with the band later.

"I should know better than to start liking women again," he told me, "They always get me in trouble. My last girlfriend cost me a fortune in therapy. . . hers."

It was plain to see why Mr. Murphy decided to risk losing another battle of the sexes.

Ms. McGeary, an actress with Stage One, proved to be quite the knock-out. Drop-dead gorgeous, she graced the stage for a quick two-song set, performing both a cover of 'Route 66' and a sexy rendition of 'Summertime'. Susan told me later she was more comfortable doing show tunes of the Gershwin type, but enjoyed jamming with the boys on Thursday nights.

Susan McGeary, left, and Murphy discuss arrangements

Later on, when I asked about the all the motorcycles, Michael said, "Yeah, Thursday night is like biker night. . .but they're all lawyers and accountants and college professors. . . they dress in black, like Johnny Cash or something, and like to hang out with cheap looking women. . . which sounds good to me. But yeah, they're really kinda non-threatening, even though they do ride Harleys."

Back onstage for the second set, Michael's horn is laying down the lead. You can tell he likes to lead. His voice on the vocals is strong, powerful enough to push the inadequate P.A. to its limits. Yeah, he likes being up in front. You can tell by the big grin on his face, and the swagger he has about him as he works the stage.

Michael invited Shari Edwards to get up and sing a few. Ms. Edwards is blessed with a ragged, throaty voice, one well-suited for the blues, and she plays it better than any instrument that employs the use of the hands. The blues. Man, if you don't know, then I don't care to tell you. And Michael just blows and blows and blows. But hey, like the girl says, that's the way to go . . . older men, they got something. . . everybody else . . . they're just boys. . .

Michael Murphy plays tenor saxophone. He used to drink a lot of scotch, back during the pants-dropping days I suppose, but now he doesn't drink at all, or at least, what he drinks is non-alcoholic. When I commented on his swilling of a brand of non-alcoholic beer, he said "It's a social thing, you know? It's almost impossible to work in a bar and not drink something, just to put everybody else at ease. Working here (at ADI) also ruined almost a year of non-smoking. At least I still don't smoke at home." He has an affinity for stale cigarettes. "I like it when you can smell 'em from like 6 feet away, before they're lit." he says.

When I pressed him on the pants dropping thing, he shrugged and said "yeah, I used to do it. It started out as a joke. My pants would just 'accidentally' fall down. I had a bunch of different underwear with gag-lines printed on 'em, like 'See Rock City'. But it got old after a while. People were coming up to me and saying 'could you drop your pants during the first set, 'cuz we have to leave early tonight. . .' So I cut it out entirely. Nobody wants to be known as some exhibitionist freak."

Michael is forty-two years old, and grew up in the same Algonquin neighborhood as the guys that eventually became the Rugbys. He has been playing music since he was 15 years old. He started out with the sax, playing local T.V. shows like TEEN BEAT. He messed with guitar for a while, but went back to the horn while in college, where he says he "discovered the blues".

He also did a two year stretch in the U.S. Military during the Viet Nam war. Stationed in New York, he claims the closest he ever got to action was "handing out basketballs in the gymnasium at West Point". When I asked if he had been overseas, he responded with "Being in New York, they kinda brought a little of the overseas to me." He also tended bar for a while in NYC.

It was after he returned to Louisville that he began to seriously perform music in a more professional sense, first with Another Mule, then later with the Mighty Water Kings. He left the Water Kings around 1991, when he was approached by Ray Barrickman, the bass player for Hank Williams, Jr.

Hank wanted him, so he hopped a jet, and met up with Bocephus on tour in Las Vegas. Michael said he was given about two weeks to learn Hanks set, but at the end of that time, he still didn't really know all of the material. . .but was lucky enough to be able to fake it.

"I met Hank that first night at dinner, and he asked me to sit next to him. . ." Mr. Murphy explained to me, "I was scared to death he was going to ask me what my three favorite Hank Williams, Jr. songs were. . . because I couldn't name even one Hank Williams, Jr. song. . ."

Michael Murphy toured with Hank for a little over a year. He says Mr. Williams was a kind, generous man, prone to extravagances. Like taking the entire band to expensive restaurants and dropping $3000 on dinner. Or buying Michael a new tenor sax. "But I that one. . . " said Michael, a definite tone of regret in his voice. "I was in school and had to hawk it. . . I got like $300 for an $1800 horn."

Murphy says Hank had brought in a guy with a synthesizer, who could have easily done his pieces as well, but "I think Hank really liked the warmth of a real horn, and I know he liked the look of it. Those synthesizers are great, I mean, why pay three guys when you only need one? But still, there are esthetics to be considered."

I was very curious about why his gig with Hank ended, and while we talked about it, I couldn't get over the image I had gotten when I had watched him play. He is a lead player, and I got the definite feeling that playing back-up in a country and western band was not exactly Michael Murphy's cup of tea.

Several of his comments indicated he was more concerned about being able to play what he chose, even if it meant less money. . . rather than having to play someone else's script for the big bucks. "You make a decision early on," he said, "success, or doing what is you. . .But don't get me wrong, I loved that kinda work. . . staying in nice hotels, always having money in your pocket. . .I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

(big N here, paul) Nowadays, Michael seems more at home playing with the current lineup of Murphy's Law (John Burgard, guitar, Monk Mackey, Bass, and Mike Durlauf, drums). . . and maybe jamming with a few of the boys on Thursday nights. He is a modest man in a lot of ways, but the ego is there. "If you don't have a pretty big ego, you've got no business being onstage. . ." he told me, "But it's not like I feel mine has to be stroked all the time." Later, he told me I should "write about how good lookin' I am, and how all the chicks dig me 'cuz I got a big car." There was a sly wink as he confessed to actually owning a small Honda. "But it makes it easier to creep around all the motorcycles in the parking lot" he added.

We spoke at length about the local music scene, and whereas Michael had many good things to say, especially about the creativity and diversity of the Louisville market, he also expressed the idea that Louisville desperately needs a strong local label, one with a good marketing dept., and the necessary business savvy and knowledge of distribution to really get the ball rolling. We both agreed that the explosion of indie labels has helped to put rock and roll back where it belongs. . . in the hands of the rockers themselves rather than some corporate hatchet man. "It's like after Woodstock, a bunch of guys in suits sat up and started taking notice of the music scene. . . thinking 'Hey, we can make a lot of money. . . after that it was just a matter of time. . ."

Of the local bands, Michael says he is a big fan of Bodeco, whom he has played with in the past. "We did some stuff on a tiny board at Jimmy Brown's place (Guitar Emporium). Jimmy is my hero. He has mastered success."

When I asked if he considered himself a jazz or blues artist, he replied that he thinks of himself more as a "rock and roll " player. He describes the band Murphy's Law as being more of a "club for free-lance musicians" than a band. At the moment he's splitting his time between Murphy's Law, bartending something like 50 hours a week at ADI, plus he's working on a few projects with Greg Foresman (ex-Hammerheads, now playing with Debra Allen on the MCA label) and the Freakouts. "We do these weird 11/8 time signatures," he told me, "I mean, I can count it, but you can't exactly tap your foot to it, if you know what I mean. It's kinda like Sting and Steely Dan meet Bootsie Collins."

Murphy works almost exclusively with Jeff Carpenter at Real to Reel on recordings, and says that Jeff often calls him in when he needs a sax player.

Murphy's Law have a release on tape, and they are looking to get back into the studio soon. Dates where you can hear them perform in August include the 5th and 6th at Jim Porter's, the 12th and 13th and the 27th at Harvey's in Oldham County, and The Cheapside the 19th and 20th.

Being a bartender, I couldn't help but ask if he knew any cool bar tricks. He aptly demonstrated several sleight of hand maneuvers that required a lit cigarette, but warned "Kids, don't try this at home." I also asked if he knew any cool sax tricks. . . but he said he was still learning those. When I asked Michael if playing horn differed in any major way from playing, say, guitar or drums, he smiled and said "yeah. . .you get more chicks." For some reason, I believed him.