Spud Murphy

Big-band composer and arranger
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The Independent Online

Spud Murphy was an exceptionally versatile jazz and swing musician, who played several instruments, wrote over a hundred instrumental compositions, led his own orchestra, and made swing arrangements for bands such as those of Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson and Bob Crosby.

An important figure in the shaping of the big-band era, he also created a signature theme for the Three Stooges, and his work in films included scoring Walt Disney shorts and devising a dance arrangement for Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. He is also remembered for a system for composing that is still widely used by professional musicians, and dance bands worldwide are still playing many of more than 200 stock arrangements that he created for leading music publishers.

Born Miko Stephanovic in Berlin in 1908, he was taken to the United States by his mother when he was four years old, and brought up in Salt Lake City, becoming Lyle Murphy, nicknamed "Spud". His flair for music was soon apparent and as a child he began taking lessons on the upright alto horn from the father of the famed trumpeter Red Nichols. He was to prove adept as a player of the trombone, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and bassoon. Leaving home at the age of 14 to find work as a musician on the West Coast, he tried to join a band on a cruise ship but was turned down because of his age, and for several years he played with obscure groups before becoming a "sideman" and arranger with the Dallas-based band Johnny McFall and the Honey Boys.

The first band to record one of his arrangements, the lively "I Got Worry", was the Jimmy Joy orchestra in 1928, and as his reputation grew he was hired to play an instrument (usually clarinet or trombone), arrange and compose for the bands of Art Landry, Russ Gorman, Bob Crosby and others. In 1935-36 he scored over a hundred numbers for the Let's Dance radio broadcasts of the Benny Goodman band, including the hits, "Ballad in Blue", "Get Happy", "Jingle Bells", "Diga Diga Doo", "Restless" and "The Glory of Love". Some of these numbers can be heard on an album of broadcasts made by the band from the Congress Hotel, Chicago. He also wrote distinctive arrangements ("charts") for Glen Gray's Casa Loma band.

Colleagues at the time described Murphy's typical week as a chart a day for Goodman from Monday to Thursday, two charts for Gray on Friday, and two stock arrangements on Saturday, with Sunday a day off. Asked recently what made him a successful arranger, he replied that, if the melody of a tune was good, he would use it - if it wasn't, he'd use very little of the melody and make up the rest. In Hollywood, he scored some Walt Disney cartoons, and wrote arrangements for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra (in 1936) and the Seger-Ellis band (1937).

In 1937, his book Spud Murphy's Swing Arranging Method (the first of 26 books he wrote on composing and orchestrating) was published. He formed his own band in 1938, and it had moderate success, recording such numbers as "Cherokee", and some Murphy originals such as "Just a Phrase" and "Dance of the Doinks", until 1941. In his 1967 book The Big Bands, the historian George Simon described it as "an avant-garde outfit that fascinated the musicians who heard it, but failed to attract any appreciable segment of the paying public".

Murphy then played trombone with the Charlie Barnet orchestra (and can be heard on several of Barnet's recordings on the Bluebird label), after which he was hired by Columbia Pictures. There he conceived a witty arrangement of the children's song "Three Blind Mice" as a theme tune for the comedy team the Three Stooges, who were making shorts for Columbia.

His most prestigious assignment was to orchestrate the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer song "Shorty George" as a song-and-tap number for Astaire and Hayworth in the musical You Were Never Lovelier (1942). An unusually jazzy tune to have been composed by the veteran master melodist Kern, it paid tribute to a jitterbug-style dance step of the time involving loose arms, limp knees and a shuffling walk.

Murphy's light, bouncy arrangement serves the couple well, and Xavier Cugat conducts the accompanying orchestra, which gets the number off to a swinging start before Astaire launches into his rhythmic vocal, demonstrating the step (named after the Harlem dancer George "Shorty" Snowden) to a seated Hayworth, who joins in the vocal (dubbed by Nan Wynn). As the vocal ends, Hayworth rises to join a surprised and delighted Astaire in one of the most captivating of the rhythm duets he performed with a partner other than Ginger Rogers, benefiting from what John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing (1985), describes as "a superb arrangement of the music by big-band composer Spud Murphy".

Shortly after the film went into production, Murphy enlisted for service in the Second World War, but at war's end he returned to Columbia and settled in Hollywood. He also studied 12-tone harmony and composition, and with selected musicians, in the early 1950s he made three long- playing albums, Four Saxophones in Twelve Tones, New Orbits in Sound and 12-Tone Compositions and Arrangements by Lyle Murphy.

He spent his later years mainly teaching his composing and arranging process, which he called the Equal Interval System, and among the noted musicians who trained under him were the pianists Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock and Gerald "Wig" Wiggins, the trumpeter Quincy Jones and the flautist Buddy Collette. David Blumberg, who wrote arrangements for the Grammy- winning Ray Charles album Genius Loves Company, teaches courses on Murphy's method, which he describes as "a simple way to deal with 12 notes by using six intervals. And that use of six intervals, when mastered, would allow anyone to write any style of music freely." The method, says Blumberg, "is an encyclopaedia of musical tools that you can use all your life".

Tom Vallance

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