Twin Cities music scene remembers life, work of Willie Murphy

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Photo credit Joyce Howe

Legendary musician and Minnesota native Willie Murphy recently passed away. Now, fans are keeping his music alive.

Murphy was best known as a singer and pianist in the blues band Willie and the Bees. For most of his life, Murphy lived for making music, so it’s fitting his friends and fellow musicians held an impromptu jam session at Palmer’s Bar in Minneapolis to remember him after his death.

“He’s always been ahead of his time, musically. Always been a visionary and I think the time will tell that Willie Murphy is one of America's truly great songwriters," said Maurice Jacox, a member of Willie and the Bees. 

Murphy became a fixture on the west bank music scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s after playing in mostly black R&B bands as a teenager. He recorded a cult classic folk and blues album with Spider John Koerner named "Running Jumping Standing Still," which led to Murphy producing Bonnie Raitt's first album here in Minnesota.

“Bonnie flew back here we all met we spent about a week talking about things on the west bank and at the end of that week she said, ‘yep, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to do,’” Jacox said.

Murphy went on to form Willie and the Bees, which was one of the most popular club bands in the Twin Cities in the ‘70s and early ‘80s - although his drunken antics got them banned from the city of White Bear Lake.

After the group disbanded in 1984, Murphy sobered up and continued to perform at local bars, releasing his last album on his 75th birthday, before dying of complications from pneumonia last month.

“We knew he had a close call. We knew he had been struggling, but no one expected him to die. We didn't get a chance to see him at the hospital, didn't let him have any visitors. We didn't really get a chance to say goodbye," Jacox said.

Murphy is a charter member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame along with Bob Dylan and Prince, and even though those artists are more well-known than Murphy, fans and fellow musicians say he left just as great a mark. 

“He’s possibly the greatest songwriter and musician you never heard of, unfortunately,” Jacox said.