Obituary: Joaquin Murphey

THE STEEL guitarist Joaquin Murphey was among the most dazzlingly innovative musicians to have emerged from the great western swing bands of the 1940s. The architect of a series of astonishing single-string solos that adorned the finest sides cut by bandleaders like Spade Cooley and Tex Williams, he dynamically expanded his instrument's range before disappearing into a sudden self-induced retirement.

Tommy Morrell, one of the many "steelies" to have fallen under Murphey's influence, has commented,

He was the first real sophisticated jazz steel guitar player. That's the best way I can describe it and he was a lot better than anybody else - he was fast. He was kind of like Charlie Parker was to the saxophone players. He was playing things that nobody had ever heard and playing them really well.

A native of Hollywood, he was born Earl Murphey in 1923 and took up the steel guitar as a teenager. He auditioned for a position with Spade Cooley in late 1943 and amazed the listening musicians with his youthful virtuosity.

Murphey joined the band and, courtesy of Cooley's manager Foreman Phillips, found himself tagged "Joaquin". Phillips believed that giving band members names that reminded fans of their own roots would prove a popular gimmick; Murphey's came courtesy of the San Joaquin Valley. In December 1944 he participated in Cooley's first recording session, contributing effective solo work behind the vocals of Tex Williams and Smokey Rogers on "Shame On You", a number that went on to become the biggest country hit of 1945.

Other notable sides from his time with Cooley included "You Can't Break My Heart" (1945), "Crazy 'Cause I Love You", "Detour", "Three Way Boogie" - which he co-wrote - and "Oklahoma Stomp" (all 1946). The band also appeared on film, starring alongside the Three Stooges in Rockin' in the Rockies (1945).

In 1946 Tex Williams, the band's featured vocalist, left in a dispute over money and took several key bandmembers, Murphey among them, with him. He formed the Western Caravan and developed a tight ensemble sound modelled on that produced by his former boss. Murphey, who performed briefly with Andy Parker and the Plainsmen when he left Cooley, joined them as they cut a clutch of stunning sides for Capitol.

On numbers like "Joaquin Special" and "Tennessee Wagoner" (both 1948) and "Fiddle Time", "The Campbells are Coming" and "Steel Guitar Rag" (all 1949) Murphey pushes his instrument to new harmonic and melodic limits. His contribution to the Caravan's adaptation of Stan Kenton's "Artistry in Rhythm", "Artistry in Western Swing" (1948), continues to startle in its originality.

In 1947 Murphey's impact on his instrument's development took a more practical turn when he commissioned a new steel guitar from an amateur inventor named Paul Bigsby, thus kick-starting the career of one of the great names in custom guitar design.

He left Tex Williams in the late Forties and played with T. Texas Tyler before rejoining Cooley. By the 1950s he had effectively retired from music. In 1976, however, DeWitt "Scotty" Scott persuaded him to record a now-rare album for the Midland label and in 1980 he was inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.

Paul Wadey

Earl "Joaquin" Murphey, steel guitarist: born Hollywood, California 30 December 1923; died 25 October 1999.

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