Music to their ears Murphy family loves to sing the blues
It's a Friday night at the Rynborn Restaurant and Blues Club in Keene. You're 21 years old and you're playing bass in a Chicago blues band. Friends and fans are clapping and dancing on a new hardwood floor; upstairs at the bar newcomers bob their heads and strain their necks to catch a glimpse of the show.
And who's standing at the microphone with a guitar and a harmonica, belting out the blues?
If you find that hard to imagine, you’re not alone.
Jeffrey J. Murphy, the bassist for Murphy's Blues, is questioned all the time by people who
can't imagine jamming with their fathers in front of a crowd.
But for Jeff Murphy, it's perfectly natural, even if they look like the odd couple. He wears his long brown hair in a pony tail
, quite the contrast to his balding, white-haired father, James G. Murphy. Yet they became a musical duo when Jeff was 14 years old, and they’ve been making music ever since.
We started playing in front of audiences before I got really
self-conscious, so I never really got to that nervous stage, Jeff said.
In nine years, Jeff has arguably surpassed his band mates in terms of skill.
He's probably the most technically proficient member of the band, keyboardist D. William Symonds said.
I mean, when he takes a bass solo, it's an event.
But Jim Murphy, the leader of the band, is still the emotional center of the seven-member group.
I've never played with anyone who just so obviously loves playing as much as my dad,
Jeff said, remembering family parties and nights of jamming that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
The other members of the band are vocalist Nadine Laughlin, Jeff's future
mother-in-law , vocalist Dawn
Plante, sax player Drew Kurimay and drummer Glenn Rogers. Murphy's Blues is a regular attraction at the Rynborn, which moved to Keene from Antrim in the summer of 2003.
When they play here, they have an awful close following, said Rynborn owner Doug
Aborn. Murphy’s Blues can turn an evening into one big party, he said.
Start on the same note
Jim and Jeff both started playing their instruments when they were 12 years old.
For Jim, it was in the early 1960s when he played in a band called The Town Criers in his home town of Miller Place on Long Island in New York. It played songs by the Rolling Stones, the Young Rascals and Loving Spoonful, he said.
I can remember every chord, everything from that time, he said. Billy Joel and his band, The Nighthawks, used to play at those same clubs, but
I never saw him because he would play at night and we couldn’t go,
Then there was a lull, of about 35 years, when Jim didn't play in a band.
He played guitar in his spare time while earning a degree in art from Keene State College, raising a family and developing twin careers in painting and as a nurse at the Cheshire Medical Center.
He moved to Keene about 30 years ago and had three children with his wife, Diane. Nora, 30, is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh; Emily, 28, is a potter in Chicago; and Jeff is the youngest.
It wasn’t until about seven years ago, when Jeff started showing musical ability, that another band started to take shape.
Jim always figured he'd get back into performing some day, even if his son hadn’t followed in his shoes.
But I always brag about how unconsciously I grew a bass player in my house,
For Jim, the power of the blues reflects the nature of his work as a nurse in Cheshire Medical Center’s oncology ward.
They are both intense feeling kind of experiences, he said.
Growing up at the Rynborn
Long before he picked up an instrument, Jeff’s life was full of music. His father played guitar, Nora played the flute, his mother played the piano and he was always singing.
Before he settled on the bass, Jeff worked through some false starts with the trumpet and the guitar.
Finally, he found his calling. He removed the two high strings from his guitar, effectively creating a bass.
Jim and Jeff think their first appearance on stage together occurred at a
father and son event at the Keene Middle School when he was 14. I think it was a benefit. We do a lot of benefits,
Jeff said. From then on, they started performing at open mike nights at the Rynborn in Antrim.
One of Jim’s favorite memories was at the Rynborn when Jeff was 14. They went to hear Eddie Shaw, an old blues musician who had once played with Howling Wolf and was touring with his son, Eddie Van Shaw.
They always let Jeff in even though he was underage, Jim recalled.
Anyway, before I knew it, they had him play a set. Indeed, the band asked Jeff to take over for its bassist, who was eating dinner. Eddie Van Shaw tested Jeff's
skill, running him through a lickety-split progression. Jeff followed it perfectly, his proud father remembered.
On another occasion, Jim lost track of his teenage son in the Rynborn restaurant, and found him a few minutes later sitting upstairs at the bar next to Luther
Guitar Junior Johnson, another jazz great who was playing at the Rynborn.
In a way, the Rynborn was a musical home away from home for Jeff long before he could legally buy a drink there.
The folks at the Rynborn have always been so supportive of my music, and anytime I wanted to see a concert, they were like,
that’s what we want you to do, enjoy yourself and learn, Jeff said.
These days Murphy's Blues plays at the Rynborn on the first Wednesday of every month, and occasionally on weekend nights and at the restaurant’s Sunday
Concert in the living room
In some families, music is a symbol of the generational divide, with parents and kids split sharply over musical taste.
But not for the Murphy's. The blues is very expressive music, and that’s something we both gravitate
to, Jim said.
It was their mutual passion for the blues that drove them to practice together, usually about once a week, throughout Jeff’s teenage years.
When I was living here, it was easy, Jeff said. Sometimes it was a lot together, and sometimes we wouldn't play at all, depending on what was going on in our lives.
Although he sang in the Keene High School choir and studied music during his one semester at Earlham College in Indiana, Jeff learned the fundamentals from his dad, he said.
Some teenage boys might find it hard to play in their dad's band, where the dad holds two simultaneous positions of authority. But Jim says he and his son are on equal footing when it comes to the music.
He’s not my son when we’re rehearsing or anything, or playing,
For Jeff, the music has been another way of relating.
Music is such a strong part of our relationship, and everything we’ve gone through as father and son, we’ve gone through with music and we’ve worked it out,
Jeff said. Sometimes when you’re 15 years old and you don’t know what to say,
music can be another way to communicate.
Jim said he believes working out all the creative details of a song and all the logistics of a performance are projects they can enjoy together.
In the beginning, Murphy's Blues repertoire was more obscure traditional country blues, but they’ve drifted a little bit into more mainstream soul and R&B, Symonds said.
Their main goal is to get people onto the dance floor.
The long and winding road
Since he returned from Earlham three years ago, Jeff has completed a degree in massage therapy from the Northeastern Institute of Whole Health in Manchester.
He has also lived for a year with girlfriend Eliza Laughlin in a yurt in Nelson.
What's a yurt, you ask?
A yurt is made out of wood and canvas. It’s made out of latticework all around the outside about six-feet tall and then it comes to a skylight in the center,
Recently, Jeff and Eliza moved out of the yurt with news: They are planning to get married and they are expecting twins in February.
Today, Jeff and his fiancé live with Eliza's mother Nadine in Nelson. Jeff teaches pre-school during the day, plays his bass and plans to set up a massage practice with his mother-in-law in Keene.
You can’t go into playing music with expectations of making it big,
said Jeff. His main goal is just to keep playing regularly.
But Jeff is trying to set up a concert in November with the remaining members of the KD Bell band. The leader, KD Bell, passed away last year.
And Jeff keeps jamming with people all over the area.
A couple of weeks ago I realized I’d played about 18 hours in a week, and with other people, not just myself,
Meanwhile, Jim is trying to get his son to sing with Murphy’s Blues.
Jeff isn’t against singing a tune. But he’s waiting for that special song to grab his attention.
It’s one of those things. You never know. It’s hard to find the right song to do,