Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Tribute to legendary guitarist Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy

By Todd Houston

Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, Floyd Murphy Jr. and Maceo Parker, sax player that was with James Brown for many, many years.Legendary guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy was born Dec 28, 1929 in Sunflower, MS, and first made a name for himself in Memphis in the early 1950s. The Beale Street music scene at this time consisted of two styles – upscale jazz played by artists such as Phineas Newborn Sr. and Tuff Green; and blues played by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Matt was one of the few musicians who was able to successfully bridge the gap and play with both factions.

By the mid-’50s, Matt had migrated to Chicago where he became one of the founding fathers of what we now consider the “electric blues” movement. Over the past 45 years, Matt has played with such blues legends as Memphis Slim, Bobby Bland, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and James Cotton, but he is probably best known for his role as lead guitarist in The Blues Brothers band. Considered one of the finest in his field, his jazz-influenced riffing has most recently been featured on his own fine The Blues Don’t Bother Me CD (Roesch Records), as well as in The Blues Brothers 2000 movie and soundtrack.

Today we are talking to Floyd Murphy Jr. about the life and legacy of his uncle Matt “Guitar” Murphy.

Rockford Rocked Interview: Good morning Floyd. First off let me express my deepest condolences in the wake of your uncle Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s passing. I understand you and your father were very close to him.

Floyd Murphy Jr.: Thank you Todd. Yeah man, Matt was born in Sunflower, Mississippi. He and my father grew up playing guitar as session cats. My father played sessions at SUN Records with guys like Little Jr. Parker and actually recorded the song “Mystery Train” before Elvis. Of course Elvis made a big hit with it as we all know now. But yeah, my dad and Matt played a lot together. They were probably the two tightest brothers in the whole family. He would always come to Rockford to visit when I was a kid. There was a time when he actually lived with my folks and me on Kent street.

RRI: So was there ever any competition between your dad and your uncle Matt when it came down to playing the guitar?

FMJ: Well, not really. Their playing style was quite different even though they both played them blues. Matt’s playing was jazzier man. T-Bone Walker, Les Paul and guys like that. Later on he was getting into cats like Albert Collins and Albert King.

RRI: In my opinion Matt didn’t really get the recognition he deserved until maybe the Blues Brothers movie in 1980. A touring band was put together correct?

FMJ: Absolutely. Yeah he was basically a side man and comfortable with that. A lot of stuff that James Cotton was doing was Matt’s stuff. He was writing it man. He ended up hooking up with Willie Dixon too. There’s tons of footage of gigs they were doing overseas back in the ‘60s.

RRI: What was Matt’s relationship like with Aretha Franklin after the Blues Brothers movie (1980)? Did they remain friendly and keep in contact?

FMJ: No, everyone was sorta tying Aretha and Matt together because of the movie scene where he played her husband. But no, I don’t think Matt even shared the stage with her after the movie. They just sort of did their own thing really. The Blues Brothers would very seldom play the states but they were considered rock stars in Europe. So they constantly played all over Europe, South America, Japan, etc. I was fortunate enough to play a tour with The Blues Brothers in Japan on the Blue Note circuit. That was lots of fun.

RRI: So blues is big in Japan?

FMJ: Oh yeah man! They considered us rock stars. They love blues. Blues is our music, it was invented in America so anytime they get blues musicians from the states they know they are getting the real thing man. We had Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper and Leon Pendarvis who is the musical director today with the Saturday Night Live band. You see that cat sitting behind the B3 organ on the side of the stage. He’s the boy.

RRI: How were the musicians recruited for the Blues Brothers band?

FMJ: Well, here’s a funny story. When Dan Aykroyd and Belushi were first scouting for a band they were initially going to give the gig to a band called “Room Full of Blues”. Now I know those guys. The story goes that Belushi, Aykroyd and company approached pianist Al Copley, and probably their management, and told them what they were looking for and explained that there might be a movie, etc. and they would like them to be involved. Their reaction was “what do you guys know about the blues?” and they turned the part down! To this day Al Copley said he is still kicking himself in the butt! (laughter) So after that they went out scouting, Matt Murphy’s name kept popping up as a potential guitar player for the band. So Belushi, Aykroyd and company track him down at some club in New York. It just so happened that Keith Richards was up on stage jamming at the time they walked in. So after the show they approach Matt about being in the band etc., and he said sure, lets do it! After that they added the rest of the players.

RRI: Matt always looked like he kept himself in really good shape.

FMJ: Yeah he was beast man. He did work out. But he also kept away from booze, cigarettes, etc. He had this ball that he would carry around and squeeze to strengthen his hands and forearms. When on tour I would sometimes walk into his room and he was either practicing guitar or doing some kind of work out. My grandfather was built like him too man. My grandad was a monster! A real man you know? Must have been genetics.

RRI: I understand he also recorded with Chuck Berry who has been known to be difficult to work with sometimes.

FMJ: I heard the same thing. I don’t know how Matt and Chuck got along but Matt respected all people. He basically just liked to work. He was a true workaholic man. He didn’t step on anyone’s toes and at the same time he didn’t like people stepping on his toes either.

RRI: You mentioned earlier that Matt would come and visit a lot when your family finally decided to relocate to Rockford from Chicago.

FMJ: Yeah, he would come and visit all the time. Like I said my dad and him were very close. He would come over and him and dad would plug in guitars and jam in the living room. I would just sit there and watch in amazement. That’s what I wanted to do man. I had to do that.

RRI: Well you did end up doing it and doing it quite well I might add! I remember walking into a club and seeing you playing drums for a band and you guys were swinging! A couple weeks later I see you playing guitar and was blown away. If I remember right you play the guitar upside down a la Albert King. Did your dad ever try to convince you to play traditional style?

FMJ: Yes. The funny thing is that I am right handed. I play baseball right handed, write, etc. For some reason it just never felt right to me. My dad would teach me things on the guitar and as soon as he left the room I would switch it around to where the small strings were on top.

RRI: You and Matt actually recorded some tracks together correct?

FMJ: Yeah we did a track called “Lucky Charms” and some others together.

RRI: I see that CORT Guitars has created a Matt “Guitar” Murphy signature model. Have you ever played one?

FMJ: Yeah man. They are nice instruments and very affordable too! Great guitars.

RRI: Are you still actively gigging around the area?

FMJ: Oh absolutely! The latest project is Murphy Blues and the All Stars. I’m also currently working on a tribute album to Matt and my dad. I’m doing all the instruments, recording and producing myself so it’s taking a little bit of time. Thank you for having me here and helping me pay tribute to a great musician and a great man.

RRI: Well Matt has certainly left behind a great legacy and a great catalog of music. Thank you! R.

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