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Community gathers to honor West Bank music icon

Musical performances and a memorial service were held over the weekend for Minneapolis native Willie Murphy.
A photograph of local rhythm and blues legend Willie Murphy at his memorial service on Saturday, Feb. 16.
Image by Miguel Octavio
A photograph of local rhythm and blues legend Willie Murphy at his memorial service on Saturday, Feb. 16.

Community members shared laughter and shed tears over the weekend while paying tribute to a West Bank rhythm and blues icon. 

Willie Murphy, a celebrated musician, songwriter and producer, died on Jan. 13 after battling pneumonia for several weeks. A memorial service was held on Saturday at the Augsburg University Hoversten Chapel while former bandmates and friends gathered at The Cabooze Sunday for a musical celebration. Murphy was 75. 

“I’m 80 years old now. I’ve had a lot of people who are no longer around,” said Spider John Koerner, a musician and longtime friend of Murphy. “I didn’t really expect him to die so soon … it’s just, something’s missing.”

Koerner released an album with Murphy in 1969 titled “Running, Jumping, Standing Still,” which has been cited as a favorite of John Lennon’s. Koerner said his time working on the album included his most creative moments. 

Murphy turned down an opportunity to work with a major record label to stay in Minneapolis. He was later lead singer of Willie and the Bees before performing as part of the Angel Headed Hipsters. Last week, the City of Minneapolis declared Feb. 17 Willie Murphy Day.

“Willie Murphy is possibly one of America’s truly great songwriters,” said Maurice Jacox, a former co-vocalist of Willie and the Bees. “I encourage anybody who is a fan of great songwriting to take a look at the lyrics.”

Jacox, who also attended Minneapolis Central High School with Murphy, said he showed his friends love, even in tough times. 

Murphy helped produce Grammy award-winning singer Bonnie Raitt’s debut album in 1971. He also joined Prince and Bob Dylan as an inaugural inductee when the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame launched in 1990. 

Former state Rep. Andy Dawkins, DFL-St. Paul, said Murphy was his favorite musician to watch at the now-closed 400 Bar on West Bank. Murphy played at Dawkins’ wedding in 1995.

“He could just get in there and everybody would start jumping up and dancing,” Dawkins said. “It was a joy. Everyone in the room [was] smiling.”

In 1998, Murphy released a track titled “Keep On Rockin’ the Boat” that included lyrics encouraging listeners to speak out against injustices in the world. 

Trumpeter Scott Snyder, a former bandmate of Murphy, said the political advocacy in Murphy’s music is an important part of his legacy. 

“He was just constantly railing at the system, the way we should be,” Snyder said. “It’s important for people to remember him and his music and the cause.”

Lucinda Kircher, a fan of Murphy since the 1990s, said she appreciates the environmental advocacy messages in his November album “Dirtball.” She frequented the recently-closed Viking Bar to watch him perform.

“There were times when I just danced alone on the dance floor just because I moved to the music,” Kircher said. “He was somebody I respect and [who] could bring joy into my life.”

Tributes continued Monday night with a blues jam event at Palmer’s Bar. 

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