On November 8 I will be inducted as a member of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame and, needless to say, I’m thrilled. I will join the ranks of Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett along with many others who contributed to the world of music and who shared the same local origins. As for me, I lived on Long Island all of my childhood and so many of the events, both wonderful and tragic and everything in-between, that shaped me as a songwriter happened to me there. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the largest island in the contiguous United States, Long Island is a fish-shaped landmass that reaches east from Manhattan into the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Montauk Point. I don’t know exactly how long it is but it’s a good three-hour drive lengthwise with no traffic – which there rarely never is. People who live there are always on the move, either getting into the city or out of it, or heading out east for beautiful beaches.
Believe it or not, I was born in Rockville Center in Mercy Hospital. Sounds like a line stolen from a Muddy Waters song but it’s true. European journalists doubt my veracity when I tell them this and ask, you mean, in America there’s a town named after rock music and you were born there? And I would like to tell them Of course man! but I don’t think that’s the truth. But I did grow up in Garden City, an upper-middle class town in the middle of Nassau County and where once upon a time, in 1927 an aviator named Charles Lindbergh took off from a foggy airfield to cross the Atlantic in the first solo flight from the USA to Europe. He landed in Paris. I took the same route in 1989 but in a much bigger jet. And I’ve lived in Paris over 28 years now.
I come from a Long Island show business family. Throughout the nineteen-fifties, my father, Elliott Murphy Sr., produced an outdoor spectacle on the site of New York’s 1939 World’s Fair in a sprawling outdoor amphitheater and he called it The Aquashow. That’s where I got the title for my first album. Duke Ellington and Cab Callaway jazzed up his show, big band style, as fireworks lit up the Flushing, Queens sky. My father taught me a lesson that I have carried with me, that in show business luck runs much of the show. If it rained, nobody came. He also bought me my first electric guitar, a Red Kent with three pickups and made in Japan at Manny’s Music Store in the city. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.
My dad, Elliott Sr., came from Brooklyn and my mother, Josephine (who is now 92 years old) came from Baldwin, a town on the south shore of the island, so my Long Island roots run deep. My father’s restaurant, The Sky Club, located in Roosevelt Field (which is where Lindbergh took off from) featured an amazing blind organist named Hank Faller who played standards on a Hammond B3organ, ironically, the go-to keyboard of rock ‘n roll. Hank Faller talked my father into buying a Hammond B3 Organ for our home in Garden City which was filled with musical instruments – pianos, organs, trumpets, accordions and later guitars – and I was encouraged at an early age to make music anytime I felt the urge. Although it may have been evident to my parents that I was undoubtedly a musical prodigy, my talents were not spotted when I was a student at Stewart School, the local grammar school, where we had a weekly music class, and where I suffered the cruel fate of being deemed a listener by a music teacher with no ears. I’d like to say that everything I know about music I learned outside of school but that’s not entirely true. When I was a senior in High School, I took a course in “rudiments of music” with Mr. Konowitz whose face I still remember, and I wrote a jazzy piece for flute called “Clouds.” He gave me an A on my report card but that may have been the last piece of self-composed music that I actually wrote out on staff paper. Rock ‘n roll tends to be more a head chart process, which means you just show other musicians how to play a song by playing it yourself and they catch on.
But I also studied music during my year and a half at Nassau Community College, also on Long Island, and I learned a lot there as well. If I wanted to stay out of Vietnam and the military draft, I had to stay in college those years when the damn war was raging and to do that I had to study hard, probably learning most all of the music theory and harmony and rhythm that I know today way back when. What do I remember? That in classical movement parallel motion is a no no whereas in rock ‘n roll its par for the course. Please don’t ask me to explain!
But my actual education as a working musician began when I started going to clubs and bars and see other bands perform. Long Island always had a thriving live music scene which was ironically very disconnected from the actual music business of recording records and getting them played on the radio located just over the East River in Manhattan. I had so many bands with names like Stud, Bullfrog and Bang-Zoom that played the college bars that lined Hempstead Turnpike. We’d do five or six sets a night and I would usually only sing a few songs, at that time being more of a guitarist then a singer. My favorites to sing were “Words” by the Bee Gees and “Like A Rolling Stone” by you know who and, later on, when Eric Clapton became my hero, Cream songs like “Spoonful” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” I believe I had the first Marshall Amp on Long Island that I know of. Got it from a musical instrument shady dealer who said it fell off a truck …
When I was 12 my mother and I started taking guitar lessons at Quigley’s Music Center in New Hyde Park and the guitar and me was love at first sight. I took to the instrument like I had taken to ice cream or, some years later, to sex. Let’s just say, it felt good right away! I went on to study jazz guitar at the Garden City Music Center with a cool teacher who was always hung over from his cocktail lounge gigs the night before. In truth, like most rock ‘n roll musicians of my generation, most of what I learned I taught myself, playing 45rpm singles over and over until I could figure out the chords and the words. Today, any song my son wants to learn he just has to Google its name and there it is, verse, chorus and guitar chords, while I must have worn out more than a few 45’s of “Louie Louie” trying to find the hidden dirty words. All the mystery shot to hell!
There was a folk boom going on in the early sixties and I loved the music of Peter, Paul and Maryalthough I had no idea who wrote “Blowing in the Wind.” One Christmas, my sister Michelle, gave me Bob Dylan’s eponymous first album as a present. She had been to see Bob perform in concert at Princeton University and although, according to her, the public had not been very enthusiastic and mocked his then scruffy appearance, she was completely enthralled. My favorite song on Dylan’s first album was “House of the Rising Sun” and when the Animals version came out a few years later I already knew how to sing and play it. And I still occasionally play it at my own shows over fifty years later. But I wasn’t a real folkie and Bob Dylan did not come back into my radar until he released Blonde on Blonde in 1966 and it touched my soul. I was 17 years old.
Like in every rock biography, I was putting together bands all through high school, most famously The Rapscallions who won the 1966 Long Island (and later New York State!) Battle of the bands. Our killer number was a cover of “Walking in the Sand,” which was recorded on Long Island at Ultra Sonic Studios in Hempstead. But in all my teenage bands, I was rarely the singer. My epiphany came when I sixteen, down in my band mate Tommy Tucker’s basement one afternoon, showing off my guitar skills for two fine looking girls our own age who kept begging me to sing something for them and promising kisses if I did. And so, I took a shot at the intro of Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” “Here’s my story it’s sad but true …” and each gave me a long kiss on the mouth and my future career path unfolded before me. It took me a while but gradually I grew comfortable with my own voice especially singing my own words.
The Rapscallions were promised a recording contract and to be part of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade which marched right down New York’s Fifth Avenue and a blue blazer. None of that ever happened … except the blue blazer. That was a fitting first introduction into the music business. When it came to songwriting, I first tried my hand at it in my last Long Island band, a heavy rock outfit called Bang-Zoom. Most of those songs were better off forgotten with names like “Die Baby” and “House With No Answer” but one of them, “Marilyn,” made it on to my first album.
In 1971, I took a Pan Am jet to Europe and traveled all over often playing in the streets and metros to earn some cash. For some reason this European sojourn unleashed a powerful muse and that’s where I wrote many of the songs (“Last of the Rock Stars,” “How’s the Family” and “White Middle Class Blues”) which would be featured on my first album. When I had a head and heart full of songs I headed back to Long Island with a bit-part in a Federico Fellini film under my belt. Needless to say, that trip changed my life.
With my brother Matthew we put together a band of Garden City guys – George Gates, Jerry Burchard and Greg Nickson and started playing showcases in the city and recorded a demo of five original songs in Port Washington, on the Long Island Sound, where once upon a time, my father kept his boat the Aquastar. When Matthew and I boarded the elevator at 1775 Broadway, with that demo in our hands, and walked into the empty Polydor reception area, we really didn’t know what would happen. The receptionist asked what we wanted, rather than who we were there to see and innocently enough, we said we wanted someone in A&R to listen to our demo … today. Now? she asked. We looked at each other. Well yeah … now, said Matthew sporting his best Jack Nicholson smile. Next thing we knew, we had a deal at Polydor Records.
So that was how it started, I’ve been on more record labels that Zsa Zsa Gabor had husbands … if anyone here remembers Zsa Zsa like I do. RCA, Columbia, WEA and I’ve worked with so many incredible musicians and producers and certainly a high point was when my fellow Long Island homeboy Billy Joel played on my album Night lights. I remember he got on the first take. Take a listen to Deco Dance and you’ll be amazed!
I’ve had a lot of good breaks and, like us all, some bad ones too. I moved to Paris twenty-eight years ago and built a life for myself. Now I have a French wife and our 28-year-old son, Gaspard, who is a fine musician – a better guitar player then me! The apples don’t fall far from the tree. I’m so grateful to be inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of fame because all my musical roots are here. The great writer Thomas Wolfe said, You Can’t Go Home Again, but here I am to prove him wrong.