Iconoclastic jazz singer dies, aged 83

By Matt Micucci

Jazz vocalist Mark Murphy passed away on Thursday Oct 22 in Englewood, NJ, at the age of 83. The cause was complications of pneumonia, according to his manager Jean-Pierre Leduc.

The iconoclastic jazz singer drew inspiration from such varied sources as the sound of his hometown factory whistle to the words of the great Beat novelist Jack Kerouac. Throughout his career, he was nominated for six Grammy Awards and was cited multiple times by readers of Down Beat magazine as male vocalist of the year.

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1932, Murphy was raised in a musical family, his parents having met as members of the local Methodist Church choir. He started piano lessons at the age of seven, and joined his brother’s jazz dance band as the singer when a teenager, citing influences from Nat “King” Cole, June Christy, Ella Fitzgerald and even jazz pianist Art Tatum.

After some work as a part-time actor, appearing in productions for the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Orchestra and a musical version for television of Casey and the Bat, he was eventually introduced to record producer Milt Gabler, who was an artist and repertoire director for Decca. His resulting debut recording was Meet Mark Murphy (1956) and Let Yourself Go (1957).

He spent most of the sixties in London, where he worked primarily as an actor, but continued to cultivate his jazz audiences in Europe – he was the first jazz singer to record the Beatles hit “She Loves You”. When he returned to the States in 1972, he began recording an average of an album a year for more than fourteen years on the Muse label. He also continued to perform in New York nightclubs well into his 70s. His last appearance was at Joe’s Pub in 2013.

Writing about Mark Murphy, Stephen Holden of the New York Times said ““Instead of playing the seducer or the comforter when crooning, or the preening, self-assured leader of the pack when swinging, he embodies a wandering post-Beat minstrel, a restless soul, world-weary hipster and die-hard romantic ruminating on old loves.”

Throughout his career he ranged from bebop to ballads, torch songs to scat singing, from vocalizing Kerouac’s poetry to experimenting with rhythms inspired by the whistle that summoned his neighbors in upstate New York to the local wool mill.

He was a firm believer in learning through the art of improvisation, and in 2009 said “you have to fall in love with it, and that’s what gives you the courage and the inspiration to go on further and further and further. And then, all of a sudden, things start to happen.”

Mark Murphy died at the Lillian Booth Actors Home, where he had been living for several years. He is survived by his sister, Sheila Bidwell. His partner, Eddie O’Sullivan, died in 1990.

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