Billy Murray, known in his heyday as "The Denver Nightingale," was one of
America's best-selling recording artists who entertained millions through
his records during the phonograph era. He recorded for almost every major
record company, and was one of the most prolific and versatile singers who
could adjust to various styles such as jazz, ragtime, comic songs,
vaudeville sketches, patriotic tunes, Broadway hits, love songs, and popular
trends. Murray recorded popular songs on a wide variety of different labels
and brands of 78rpm discs and cylinders, including songs that are now
considered to be classics such as "Yankee Doodle Boy," "In My Merry
Oldsmobile," "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Casey Jones," "Alexander's Ragtime
Band," "Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine," and many others. It's
interesting to note that he made records with such notable artists as Ada
Jones, George W. Johnson, Vernon Dalhart, Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbixbecke,
Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, etc.
The recording technology used during most of Murray's career was still in
its primitive stages. Until microphones were used for electrical recording
in the 1920s, recordings had to be done acoustically by the use of a horn.
Murray was a master at the acoustic process because certain qualifications
were required in order to achieve acceptable results. Soft sounds didn't
reproduce very well, so one had to have a clear, strong voice to achieve
acceptable volume during playback. Murray had powerful lungs, excellent
intonation, the ability to sing at a rapid-fire speed without taking a
breath, and delivered his songs with a distinctive style that's easy to
understand and recognize.
Born on May 25, 1877 in Philadelphia, his family moved to Denver in 1883. At
age 16, Billy joined Harry Leavitt's High Rollers as an actor when the
troupe visited Denver. He later left Leavitt and continued to perform
various engagements mostly on the West Coast. While in San Francisco around
1897, Murray, along with Matt Keefe, made their first wax cylinders for the
Bacigalupi Brothers, the West Coast distributors of Edison products.
Around the turn of the century, Murray joined the Al G. Field minstrels as a
blackface singer and dancer. When the troupe traveled East to New York City
in 1903, Murray attempted to obtain recording engagements. Murray soon
freelanced for any record company that was willing to pay for his services,
and soon became one of the most popular singers in the mid-naught years. His
recording career included many activities such as singing lead in the
American Quartet (also known as the Premier Quartet), holding exclusive
contracts with The Victor Talking Machine Company and Edison's National
Phonograph Company, and appearing with the Eight Popular Victor Artists,
which was a traveling show consisting of other Victor recording artists.
Murray also had interests in repairing automobiles and playing baseball. He
was a fan of the Highlanders (later known as the Yankees) and played right
field in their exhibition games. He also got to know many of the players in
the big leagues.
In the 1920s, new styles were coming into vogue. Microphones were beginning
to replace the early acoustic horns, and the soft whispering style of
singing, known as "crooning," became a favorite. Murray was more used to
singing in a full voice instead of toning it down. His popularity waned and
he made fewer recordings as a solo artist, contributing more to singing
duets and brief vocal refrains for dance bands.
Perhaps his most important session with legendary jazz musicians was on
January 28, 1927. He provided a vocal refrain for "I'm Looking Over a Four
Leaf Clover" for Jean Goldkette's Orchestra (Victor 20466). Three notable
jazz musicians include Bix Beiderbecke, cornet; Frank Trumbauer, saxophone;
and Joe Venuti, violin. The record is interesting to listen to since it
features great soloists, but the recording itself doesn't reflect Murray at
his best. Years later, Irving Riskin, the pianist of the session, commented:
"One of the reasons our records never showed off what we could do had to do
with this--they muddled our new, fresh sound and drive with dull name
singers who might have had much experience in recording but were out of
place with us. On one date . . . they even gave us the veritable Methuselah
of recording artists, old Billy Murray." (Quoted from "Bix, Man & Legend" by
Richard M. Sudhalter and Philip R. Evans, page 188.) It seemed as if
Murray's style had gone out of favor.
When his Victor contract expired, he continued to record for Victor and
other various record labels as a freelance artist, such as Banner, Cameo,
Edison, Harmony, Columbia, Brunswick, etc.
During the Great Depression, he also provided voices in cartoon shorts for
Max Fleischer. Murray's voice can be heard in some minor parts of
Fleischer's cartoon work, such as Betty Boop's "Dizzy Dishes," Bimbo's "Up
to Mars," and "Finding His Voice" (produced by Western Electric). His voice
can also be heard in a number of Fleischer's "Screen Songs," which were
animated sing-a-longs encouraging viewers to sing along with the "bouncing
ball" jumping over the words. Some of them include "In My Merry Oldsmobile,"
"I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark," "And the Green Grass Grew All
Around," "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," etc.
He continued to make radio appearances in the 1930s and occasional
recordings until 1943.
Murray's death came suddenly on August 17, 1954 at Jones Beach, Long Island.
He, his wife and two friends, decided to attend Guy Lombardo's production of
"Arabian Nights." He was breathing heavily, and told his friends to go
inside with their tickets while he used the restroom. Within approximately
fifteen seconds he was found dead on the restroom floor.
It has been fifty years since Murray's passing, and his records are still
treasured and listened to by vintage record collectors.