Article on Willie as first mayor of Mill City Fest (8/29/97)
Jim Meyer / Mpls. Star Tribune

In this local election year, the "Mayor of Mill City" is running strong again.

Willie Murphy, venerable musician/producer, was named Mayor of Mill City during last year's inaugural Mill City Music Festival. Though Murphy hasn't been a frontrunner of late, he did make a strong showing in a recent poll: His '70s funk band Willie and the Bees made the top 10 in last Sunday's Star Tribune poll to determine the best local live bands of all time.

Saturday, Murphy and his current band, the Angel Headed Hipsters, return to the place where Murphy was king for a weekend last year. "It was a nice recognition," he said of the mayoral nod. "I know they thought it up at the last minute, but I still plan to milk it for all it's worth, maybe some lifetime free passes. I'm not usually one for festivals, but that thing was pretty nice last year. I got to hear Eddie Palmieri and some pretty hip bands for free in the street, and they sounded great."

You can't blame Murphy for wanting to get the most exposure for his honor. In today's overcrowded music scene, good recognition is hard to find. With a career that spans so many musical generations and styles, Murphy seems to have befuddled local listeners, many of whom perceive him as stodgy old blues guy, rather than the analytical R&B rebel he is.

But that could change now that Murphy has released his first full-length album of original music in almost 10 years. "Monkey in the Zoo" is a profoundly personal life's work for the combative, chameleonic funk rocker.

Though he's considered a native West Banker, Murphy, 52, grew up around 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis. It turns out he helped build the Little Tijuana Mexican restaurant, where we met to talk last Thursday. "This area was the bohemian district way before the West Bank," recalls Murphy, who played house parties around Whittier with bluesman Dave Ray, and gigged steadily with R&B bands in such Lake Street clubs as Mr. Lucky's and Magoo's.

After producing "Spider" John Koerner on the classic "Running Jumping Standing Still" and Bonnie Raitt's Warner Bros. debut in 1971, Murphy turned down a full-time producer gig with Elektra Records to concentrate on his groundbreaking band, Willie and the Bees. From 1971 to the end of 1984, the political, poetical multi-racial group mixed reggae, jazz, funk, R&B and rock to set the standard for local bar-bands to come.

"The whole idea," says Murphy, "was to have a big R&B band that plays original music. But in those days, R&B was a very broad term. There was stuff like Charles Brown and the Watts 103rd Street Band ('Express Yourself'); then Beatles influenced everybody and vice versa. We put poetry in the middle of a song, changed songs, changed tempos. . . ."

The Bees made just two LPs in their 14 years. Their debut, "Honey from the Bee" (1976), remains a wicked funkadelic scorcher, with horn charts that dart around like the band's namesake bumblebee. Some Bees live tapes and numerous unreleased gems may soon be released on Murphy's Atomic Theory label. "I couldn't believe how good the old tapes sounded," says Murphy. "I play them for my band now and say, "See, this is what we're supposed to sound like."

Ah, but things ain't what they used to be for the onetime Bee. After years of playing solo piano gigs at the old 400 Bar in the late '80s, Murphy found it's not as easy to keep a big original band together these days. "At least once a month some club owner will call and say 'Hey, I got this great idea; Did you ever think of putting the Bees back together?' My standard reply is, 'I did put the Bees back together, I just changed the name.' "

The personnel have changed too. The Hipsters are a young bunch of hot players, including Liberian bassist Marbue Williams, and -- when he can afford it -- a killer horn section with ex-Wallet Max Ray, Rochelle Becker and trumpeter Tim Glaze. Unfortunately, increased competition and lower pay has led to less regular, and less consistent gigs for Murphy -- a real frustration for the bandleader who once made the incredible look easy.

"I'm going nuts with people who have to switch bands and can't make this a priority" says Murphy, who does some commercial work and production work to make up for low-paying club gigs. "You wonder why all the really good musicians all play in five bands, and why they all play the same songs? Well, those two questions answer each other. So now when you go around the clubs, everybody's playing 'Cold Sweat.' "

Longtime friend and associate Dave Ray, of Koerner, Ray & Glover, sympathizes with Murphy's dilemma. "He's an intellectual and he applies intellectual principles to his music, but he doesn't let the beat and the pulse take a back seat to lyrical content. . . . I think the lack of attention paid to his recordings and the paucity of work for his bands is indicative of the poet-in-his-own-land syndrome."

Like Parliament-Funkadelic conceptualist George Clinton, Murphy creates aggressive, thought-provoking fun music that acknowledges few boundaries.

This year, Murphy has uncorked an intensely original work of funky urban fight songs, and mellow poetic reflections and romantic odes that combine jazzy twists with stark lyrical realism and the unguarded emotion of a confident pop poet. For instance, "The World is a Neighborhood" draws connections between poverty in his own Phillips neighborhood with poverty around the world, while urging listeners to "Throw away that remote/and take some real control."

Clearly, this former Bee and enduring idealist still has some sting left in him. "I have a strong anger about the way things are in the world," says Murphy. "I thrive on it, and I have a great emotional release for it in playing music."

Murphy says that giving up drugs and alcohol in 1979 has helped clear his thinking, while the passing of time has raised his commitment to the study of history and its effects. He's particularly inspired by post-Modern theorist Frederic Jameson.

"He really challenges this notion that if you're gonna be a political artist that you should disguise it. I never bought that either. People say my new record is kind of polemical, but if you feel that what you're writing is interesting, I think you should say it as directly as you want to."

Blunt as he may be , Murphy also has the courage to reveal his fear and vulnerability at times throughout the disc. The longing for peace is palpable on the daydreamy "Just Wanna Be," or the heart-tugging "Open Letter (to a Politician)," a response to Reaganites declaring ideological victory over the '60s radicals. Disguised as a love song, the tune's understated soul groove makes room for some of Murphy's most impressive vocal work to date. "I'd been screaming for years with the
Bees," he said. "When I went solo, I found my low, softer voice again."

Murphy will need all the new expressive tools he can muster in his current battle to create a new audience for mature rock 'n' roll. His faith that there is a hunger for true and original "adult music" is what keeps the Mayor of Mill City in the running.

"It's really tough to grow older and lose your audience when your friends stay home," says Murphy, "it's still gratifying when people say a song really hit home . . . It's just nice to have people know that I'm still here."

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