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Blues

Mr. Excitement

Meet Detroiter Bobby Murray, a guitar hero you've never heard of

Photo: Tim McBride
Bobby Murray: "People identify with the blues more than ever."
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Published 4/29/2009

"When I was a kid, we moved about every three years, so it kind of prepared me for the life of a touring musician."So says Bobby Murray, who finally settled down — at least in a sense — in Detroit more than a decade ago, although he's not as well-known as many other prominent local musicians. Murray, you see, has been playing guitar and touring alongside the incomparable Etta James for 22 years, appearing on her Grammy-winning albums Let's Roll and Blues to the Bone, as well as on such live television performances as Austin City Limits, Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. (He also can be heard, by the way, trading licks with childhood pal Robert Cray and the legendary B.B. King on "Playing With My Friends" from King's Grammy-winning Blues Summit LP.

Born in Nagoya, Japan — his father was in the U.S. Air Force, his mother is a Japanese native — Murray has been living in the Motor City since 1996. In that time, he's recorded three solo albums (The Blues Is Now, Waiting for Mr. Goodfingers, and Live and Lowdown) and — when he's not working with Ms. James — he can frequently be seen and heard at Memphis Smoke in Royal Oak and Callahan's in Auburn Hills. (He was also one of the local musicians who took part in the 12-day music marathon concert at AJ's in Ferndale in support of autoworkers.)

"I met my wife-to-be in the lobby of a co-headlining Etta/B.B. King show we did at the Fox Theatre, so now I've been shoveling snow in the winter," he explains. "But the good part is there's no shortage of great musicians to work with here.

"My current band [apart from Etta] includes vocalist Lenny Watkins — who used to play with the guy who's now known as Keb Mo at Marta's Memory Lane in Los Angeles — keyboardist Mark Thibodeau, bassist James Lloyd, and drummer Renell Gonsalves. He's the son of Paul Gonsalves, who's famous for taking that tenor sax solo — like 27 choruses — with Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956.

"It's a wonderful scene with all these idioms. I think 85 percent of the jazz world is from Detroit. But you've also got people like [blues guitarist] Johnnie Bassett, who plays like T-Bone Walker with a capo and cross-tuning. There's a ton of talent in Detroit. There's just no active labels."

Before joining James' band, the now-55-year-old Murray backed a small galaxy of blues, R&B and soul legends, including John Lee Hooker, Johnny "Guitar" Watson (he was briefly Watson's musical director "for about five minutes, until I asked him why his band all still had to have day gigs; he said, 'I love you, but ...'), Charlie Musselwhite, Taj Mahal, Percy Mayfield, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Clay, Irma Thomas, Carla Thomas and Sugar Pie DeSanto. That's just for openers.

"I got my first guitar after seeing Ricky Nelson in [the movie] Rio Bravo, and I started playing surf music," say Murray, whose first record purchase was the Rolling Stones' debut album. "I even had some classical lessons in Okinawa, but the teacher threw me out for showing the other students how to play Ray Charles' 'What'd I Say.' When I was 15, my family then moved to Tacoma, Wash., where I met Robert Cray. We formed a rock band called Steakface and we actually got Albert Collins to play our senior graduation party.

"We wound up becoming good friends with Albert as a result, and I sat in with him off and on for years. He gave me the best advice: 'Nobody can be you better than you, so have your own style. 'Cause after that, it's all apples and oranges.'"

Murray followed Cray to Oregon, then relocated to San Francisco in 1976, where he joined ex-Butterfield Blues Band keyboardist Mark Naftalin's Revue — playing behind many of the abovementioned stars — as well as backing veteran R&B vocalist and cult hero Frankie Lee.

"I grew up on Albert and B.B. King, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters. But that's where I really learned how to play soul rhythm guitar like Jimmy Nolen from the James Brown band — and that whole other guitar style, like Curtis Mayfield or Sam Butler, that comes from gospel music," Murray says.

All of which made Murray the perfect guy for Etta James.

"Stevie Ray Vaughan was getting really big, and Etta wanted someone who could play like that," he says, "so my friend Jim Pugh from the Robert Cray band recommended me. She saw me playing with Lowell Fulson at the Monterey Jazz Festival — she was hanging out, watching, nodding her head — and offered me the gig.

"I showed up the first night looking like one of those guys she sings about on her 'Mellow Fellow' single — new French suit, Italian shoes, a lotta gold jewelry — and I think she liked that. She used to call me 'Baby T-Bone' 'cause she thought I sounded like T-Bone Walker. Then she started calling me 'Mr. Excitement' 'cause I used to be a real party boy, missing planes and stuff like that. But that's all in the past," Murray laughs.

"But after 20 years of this, I still pinch myself — 'cause when you're playing with Etta, you're with the rarest of the rare. I mean, she knew Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X when they were still Cassius Clay and Detroit Red! John F. Kennedy Jr. used to come to see her in New York; she liked that because she liked his dad. She's met Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Miles Davis and all those people from the jazz scene. So she has no problem working in different bags: R&B, soul, jazz, rock. And she'll go out of her way to watch other acts that she respects. She'd always catch Ray Charles or Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. And she still loves to see B.B. King, who supposedly wrote 'Sweet Sixteen' about her."

But he also has tales of the singer's legendary feistiness: "I remember we were playing the Hollywood Bowl and Lou Rawls was the headliner. He had an album of standards out and one of the songs he was doing was 'At Last.' So he comes backstage, and in that famous voice of his, asks Etta if she'll do him a favor and come out and sing it as a duet with him to close the show 'cause his record company would really love it and it's showbiz and you know how it is. Etta tells him, 'No problem.'

"And as soon as he leaves the room, she turns to us and says, 'We're opening with that motherfucking song tonight.' And you should've seen his face when we did!"

"I asked Etta if she would sing when I got married in Las Vegas and she got up and did 'Stop the Wedding' and 'All I Could Do Was Cry' like I was the character in those songs," Murray laughs.

Stories like these — or the one about the guitarist who was a star quarterback in high school, which somehow led to involvement with a woman who wanted peaches thrown at her bare ass — just pour out of Murray, who turns out to be a great student of history. And not just of music. The conversation twists and turns from Audie Murphy and Andrew Jackson to Tallyrand and Homer.

As for the state of blues today, Murray says, "Things have changed, but they're still kind of the same. Every so often, somebody like Stevie Ray Vaughan comes along and that's good for everybody. Hasn't been anybody like that in a while, but that's OK. It's like Lowell Fulson once told me, 'You might not get rich playin' the blues, but you're not gonna starve either, 'cause there's always a demand for it.'

"And in this current market, people identify with the blues more than ever, 'cause they respond to the honesty and the feeling that we're all part of the same tribe with the same ups and downs. They're not the only person who's been laid off. We're all in this shit together."

Bobby Murray & Friends will be the opening act before he performs with Etta James on Saturday, May 1, at the Sound Board in the Motor City Casino & Hotel, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-237-7711.

Don Waller writes about music for Metro Times. He authored The Motown Story, the first-ever Motown Records history. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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