He was a hipster and a hippie, opinionated and open-minded musically, a leader and a loner, knowledgeable and cranky.
Willie Murphy, who died Sunday at age 75, was the kingpin of Minneapolis music scene before Prince. The West Bank was the hub. Dylan had gone to New York City. Koerner, Ray & Glover were off playing folk festivals.
After playing in a bunch of Minneapolis R&B bands and then touring as a folk-blues duo with Spider John Koerner, Murphy formed Willie and the Bumblebees. The Bees, as they were widely called, were a funky, booze-fueled party band, perfect for dances, festivals and, most importantly, playing original music in bars.
Those good grooves, his work with Koerner, and Murphy’s savvy instincts landed him the career-defining gig of producing Bonnie Raitt’s 1971 debut for Warner Bros. Records. They recorded it in a vacant camp on Enchanted Island in Lake Minnetonka, with engineer Dave Ray, such Bees players as Maurice Jacox, John Beach and Eugene Hoffman and special guests Junior Wells on harmonica and A.C. Reed on saxophone.
It was that magical time with Murphy and the Bees that planted Raitt’s roots in Minneapolis, which became her second home as well as where her brother, engineer/producer Steve Raitt, moved.
“Willie lived to play and remained a defiant maverick, preferring to spend time creating music and friendships rather than get sucked into the trap of social media,” Raitt told me in an email on Sunday afternoon. “He was my friend, a great inspiration and I will miss him terribly. I’m so grateful he was able to leave us with another amazing record [“Dirtball”] before his untimely passing. Another bright light, gone way too soon.”
The Bees defined Minneapolis in the 1970s until Prince came along. Coincidentally, both were graduates of Minneapolis Central High School. Their careers didn’t really intersect. Except for both being inaugural inductees (along with Bob Dylan) to the Minnesota Music Academy’s Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. And then there was one night in late December 1984.
Prince was playing one of his five historic concerts at the old St. Paul Civic Center. Willie & the Bees were playing their farewell show at First Avenue. Of course, I attended the Prince & the Revolution concert in St. Paul, but I also wanted to catch some of Willie & the Bees, probably the local band I’d witnessed the most in the ‘70s whether at the Cabooze, some wild and crazy party or the so-called Firehouse (which became Mixed Blood Theatre).
By the time I got to First Avenue, the performance was over. But I hung out backstage to pay my respects to the Bees. Bars closed at 1 a.m. in those days and everyone had to be out of the place by 1:30. On this night, at 1:45ish, several Minneapolis police officers showed up at First Avenue.
Word was they thought there was going to be a Prince after-party at First Ave. There was no Prince, just a bunch of Willie & the Bees hangers-on. If you weren’t working with the band (I wasn’t), you got arrested for being in a bar after hours. Because I had my driver’s license, I was released but ticketed. However, several people without IDs went to jail.
Murphy, the raging liberal and iconoclast that he was, was outraged. Luckily, all charges were quickly dropped.
Willie, an avid reader, always had an opinion. Whether about politics (check out his late 2018 album “Dirtball”), cinema (he was a true cineaste) or wardrobe (he favored colorful shirts and sometimes psychedelic sport coats).
The cigar-smoking, long-sober bassist/pianist/guitarist with the shaggy red hair would grouse at you if you called him a bluesman. He didn’t want to be defined so narrowly even if he specialized in the blues, especially during his solo piano gigs in the corner of the 400 Bar.
But Willie was right. He was much more than what meets the eye. He was deep and soulful, smart and full of heart, and funky to the bone. He was – and always will be — a pillar of Minneapolis music.