Mark Murphy often seemed to be the only true jazz singer of his generation. A young, hip post-bop vocalist, Murphy spent most of his career sticking to the standards — and often presented radically reworked versions of those standards while many submitted to the lure of the lounge singer — during the artistically fallow period of the 1970s and '80s. Marketed as a teen idol by Capitol during the mid-'50s, Murphy deserted the stolid world of commercial pop for a series of exciting dates on independent labels that featured the singer investigating his wide interests: Jack Kerouac, Brazilian music, songbook recordings, vocalese, and hard bop, among others.
He grew up near Syracuse, New York, born into an intensely musical family (both parents sang). Mark began playing piano as a child, and studied both voice and theater while at college. He toured through Canada with a jazz trio for a time and spent a while back home before he moved to New York in early 1954. A few television appearances gained him a contract with Decca Records, and he debuted with 1956's Meet Mark Murphy. He released one more LP for Decca before signing to Capitol in 1959. Though label executives often forced material (and an excessively clean-cut image) on the young singer, he managed to distinguish himself with good sets of standards, musical accompaniment furnished by West Coast jazz regulars, and a distinctive vocal style that often twisted lines and indulged in brief scatting to display his jazz credentials.
He eventually released four LPs for Capitol, but never reached popular audiences the way the label intended. In 1961, Murphy recorded his first album for Riverside, a set of standards and bop vocals named Rah! that gave a first glimpse at his ambition. Though the twentysomething Murphy seemed a little young for a saloon-song chestnut like "Angel Eyes," he performed quite well on side two, styled after a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross LP with vocal covers of bop standards including "Milestones" and Annie Ross' "Twisted." It and its follow-up, the themed LP That's How I Love the Blues, included a top-notch backing group including jazz heroes such as Clark Terry, Snooky Young, Al Cohn, Bill Evans, and Blue Mitchell. The records also displayed Murphy's penchant for trawling the entirety of the 20th century popular/jazz repertory for songs ranging from the slightly overdone to the downright forgotten.
By the mid-'60s, Murphy had begun to recognize his sizable European fan base. Along with scores of American expatriates, he spent many years in Europe and didn't even issue his LPs in America during the rest of the '60s. Instead, he recorded LPs for British labels including Fontana and Immediate (the latter run by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham). Murphy also collaborated with the Clarke-Boland Big Band for 1967's Midnight Mood. His frequent nightclub performances and intimate stage presence also earned rave reviews from jazz and vocal critics. By the time of his return to America in the early '70s, Murphy had become a major name in vocal jazz.
With a contract from Muse in hand, Murphy began recording what would become close to two dozen albums for the label, ranging from earthy '70s dates with the Brecker brothers to Jack Kerouac tributes complete with spoken word readings to a two-volume Nat King Cole Songbook series. During that period, Murphy was one of the only straight jazz vocalists (other than old-guard names like Sinatra and Tormé) to actually make a living out of his craft. He toured relentlessly as well, and remained as hip a name to drop in 1999 as he was in 1959. After the '90s, Murphy released a handful of albums including Some Time Ago in 2000, Memories of You in 2003, and Love Is What Stays in 2007. He died in October 2015 at the age of 83. ~ John Bush