A force to be reckoned with in the Minnesota music scene, Willie Murphy’s songs were political, bombastic, loud, edgy – but he could also write a memorable love song. Best known as the pianist and lead singer of the blues band Willie & the Bees, Murphy learned to play piano by banging on the one at St. Stevens Church in Minneapolis. He admired Little Richard; he was inspired by the early days of rock ‘n’ roll; and the sacred noise he produced as a musician morphed with the times, moving from sinuous blues songs to the folksier sounds of the West Bank in the 1960s and back again before he died on January 13.
“He was a greaser. He was in a hot rod club,” remembers Joe Demko, former Willie & the Bees bassist and current Audio Technician at Twin Cities PBS
Before long, Willie abandoned his hair grease and motor oil, and turned over a new leaf as a folk musician. In 1969, he recorded the album Running, Jumping, Standing Still with “Spider” John Koerner (of the folk trio Koerner, Ray & Glover). Shortly after the debut, Murphy was offered a position as a producer with Elektra Records, an opportunity he declined in favor of staying in Minneapolis, where he produced Bonnie Raitt’s 1971 debut album for Warner Brothers Records.
“I was 18 when I first heard the Bonnie Raitt album that Willie Murphy produced,” Joe recalls. “I immediately thought ‘That’s the band I want to be in.’”
Willie’s love for rhythm and blues pulled him back into the early rock ‘n’ roll sphere, and he formed Willie & the Bees. The band’s de facto mission? To make people “dance their brains out forever.”
“They went on to cause music and mayhem for a number of years,” Joe laughs. “I joined the band in 1978 after Willie broke up the original band. They couldn’t get gigs because they were too wild – which didn’t play well up north with bar owners.”
While Joe and Willie had crossed paths before, it was a Charlie Parker poster that ultimately brought them together. Willie had a radio show on KFAI and was giving away posters of the iconic jazz saxophonist. Coming right off a Canadian tour with a country band, Joe won one of the posters and went to pick it up from the old KFAI location at the Walker Church.
“Oh, you…,” Willie noted as he handed over the poster. “You play guitar. Would you be interested in auditioning for the band?”
From 1978 to 1984, the two played together along with a slew of other musicians.
“I learned how to play his brand of R&B-blues-soul-reggae eclectic music,” Joe says. “Willie played great blues guitar and piano. He was an excellent bass player and singer. He had an eclectic range – comparable to Dr. John. It was more blues-edged than New Orleans-edged.”
“We played tons of gigs.” Joe remembers. “Bonnie Raitt would sit in. Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds would sit in. Any number of musicians would sit in because Willie had a good reputation.”
Willie and the Bees recorded several albums, including Out of the Woods, the spoof record Disco Christmas, and the single “Supermarket.”
According to Joe, “If you want to see the most iconoclastic version of Willie, listen to ‘Supermarket.’”
By 1984, the band had swelled to 11 members, including two drummers, a percussionist and a entire horn section. Between the expense involved in touring with such a large group and R&B’s decline in popularity, the group decided to call it quits, playing their final show at First Avenue.
The group reunited twice: once for the 1999 Mill City Music Festival and once at the Cabooze in 2014.
“I had to re-learn how to play bass, which was a monster of a job,” Joe reminisces.
Joe recently went to Willie’s 75th birthday and CD-release party. “His new CD is insane, dark, prophetic. It’s edgy,” Joe mused. “But you know, I always loved Willie for his ballads. He wrote great love songs. I think part of that was the folkie in him.
“Whether he was singing the blues or a composition or playing the piano, it was always him,” Joe says. “It was true to who he was. And the community really respected that. They respected that he was political and indignant about racism and that the U.S. doesn’t really support artists of his ilk. They commercialize music, but they don’t really support those who live on the edge like he did. So he lived poor and he made records and he never sold out.”