Matt Murphy, Master of Blues Guitar, Is Dead at 88
Posted June 19, 2018 6:02 p.m. EDT
Matt (Guitar) Murphy, a masterful bluesman who played with Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry and Memphis Slim but was best known as a member of the Blues Brothers band, died Friday in Miami. He was 88.
The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Kathy Hemrick, said.
Murphy began his career in Memphis before moving in the 1950s to Chicago, which was then at the epicenter of a new kind of hard-driving, heavily electrified blues. Murphy’s harmonically sophisticated, jazz-inflected guitar playing established him as a mainstay of the Chicago scene, and a true original.
Reviewing a 1982 performance at which Murphy played mostly other musicians’ songs, Rafael Alvarez of The Baltimore Sun wrote, “The blunt affection for the wide, wide range of musical styles Murphy offers will make you forget the original discs.”
Murphy’s singular talent came to the attention of John Belushi and Paul Shaffer in 1978 as they searched for musicians for the band that Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, both stars of “Saturday Night Live” at the time, planned to take on tour as the Blues Brothers. They asked the songwriter Doc Pomus for help.
“He was known as a guru figure,” Shaffer said in a telephone interview, recalling a visit he and Belushi paid to Pomus at Kenny’s Castaways, a music club in Greenwich Village. “We explained our project and he said, ‘You need Matt Murphy.’ I didn’t know his history and asked Doc, ‘Is he legit? Is he one of the real Chicago guys?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and based on that we hired him.” The band — whose other members included Lou Marini on tenor saxophone, Steve Jordan on drums and Steve Cropper on guitar — recorded an album, “Briefcase Full of Blues,” at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in 1978. They subsequently appeared on “SNL,” went on tour — and made a movie.
The hit 1980 film “The Blues Brothers,” directed by John Landis, told the fictionalized story of Jake and Elwood Blues’ quest to get their band back together. In the film, Murphy’s character — also named Matt Murphy — owns a soul food restaurant with his wife, played by Aretha Franklin, who angrily warns him not to leave for the road by singing her 1968 hit “Think.” But Murphy removes his apron, picks up his guitar and tells the brothers, “Let’s boogie.”
Murphy continued to perform with the band and appeared in “Blues Brothers 2000,” Landis’ 1998 sequel to the original movie.
Although he had been performing since the late 1940s, Belushi and Aykroyd “definitely put me in business,” Murphy told the guitarist Tom Guerra in an interview on the website of his band, Mambo Sons.
Matthew Tyler Murphy was born on Dec. 28, 1929, in Sunflower, Mississippi, to Daniel and Lizzie Murphy. His mother died when he was a youngster, and he and his siblings moved to Memphis, where his father was a porter at the Peabody Hotel.
Murphy nurtured his love of guitar playing by listening to records by T-Bone Walker, Blind Boy Fuller and others. But his musical influences also included the jazz saxophonists Stan Getz and John Coltrane.
In Memphis, he played with Howlin’ Wolf, the blues pianist and singer Memphis Slim and the bandleader Tuff Green. Memphis “was one of these hot spots where cats could come from everywhere else and get the surprise of their life because there were so many good musicians there,” he told Guerra.
Nonetheless, he soon left for the even more fertile musical turf of Chicago. He became a staff guitarist at Chess Records with the help of the bassist Willie Dixon, which led to many years of session work. Murphy recorded with Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson.
In 1963, Murphy electrified European audiences with his performance of “Matt’s Guitar Boogie,” backed by Dixon, Memphis Slim and the drummer Billy Stepney, on the American Folk Blues Festival tour.
In the early 1970s, Murphy joined the harmonica player James Cotton’s band. The group’s 1974 album, “100 Percent Cotton,” included two songs written by Murphy.
Murphy formed his own band in the 1980s and recorded three albums as a leader between 1990 and 2000. One of his sidemen on the 1990 album “Way Down South” was his brother Floyd, an accomplished guitarist in his own right who played with Little Junior Parker, Big Mama Thornton and Rufus Thomas.
Baron Raymonde, a saxophonist in Murphy’s band, said that Murphy was always looking to improve his playing. “He would sleep with his guitar,” Raymonde said in a telephone interview. “He’d practice before he went to sleep and sometimes wake me up at 4 a.m. and say, `Listen to this.'”
Murphy had a small stroke during a performance around 2001 — he was treated by paramedics but did not go to the hospital — and a more severe one a year or so later. He underwent extensive physical therapy and retired, but he resumed performing at the 2010 Chicago Blues Festival with Cotton (who died last year).
“Although both men have suffered major health problems in the past, both were back in virtuoso form that night, storming though lively numbers like ‘Rocket 88,’ danceable jump blues, Chicago blues and some Wolf songs,” Chicago Blues Guide said in its review of that show.
He continued to perform, including an appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden in 2013. His wife said he was planning a new recording.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include two sons, Melvin and Christopher.