RIP Matt “Guitar” Murphy: Chuck Berry, “Bye Bye Johnny” (1960)

Aretha and Matt-Murphy in BB movie

(Above: His guitar playing was much better than his cooking.)

Word circulated this weekend that Matt “Guitar” Murphy passed away at the age of 88. My first exposure to Murphy’s work, like many people, was through his role as a part of the Blues Brothers band in the film of the same name. I don’t doubt that you’ll see the clip of Aretha Franklin yelling “Think” at him in the diner from the movie in conjunction with memorials. But Murphy’s career run much, much deeper than that.

Murphy worked for about seventy years in music. He moved to Chicago in 1948 from his home in Mississippi, and immediately found work playing guitar in Howlin’ Wolf’s band. In fact, the list of acts that Murphy served as sideman for reads like a “who’s who” of the Chicago blues scene: Little Junior Parker, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Etta James, and so on. In fact, Murphy was so regarded as a sideman that he never put out an album of his own until 1990 – he had so much work with others.

Enter Hollywood. In 1979, as The Blues Brothers gained popularity from appearances on Saturday Night Live, casting for a film began. The musicians that provided the tracks for Jake and Elwood all got to do a little acting as well. Matt Murphy was, well, let’s remember him as a much better musician than as an actor. (“Listen – you’re the woman, and I’m the man, and I’ll make the decisions concerning my life.”  Utter that in a wooden fashion, and you’ve got it.) The records were huge hits, though – “Soul Man” was a #1 single in 1978, the Briefcase Full of Blues LP went double platinum and topped the Billboard LP chart, and the soundtrack for The Blues Brothers launched the cover of “Gimme Some Lovin'” into the Top 20. You couldn’t *not* hear The Blues Brothers at that time, and it meant even more work for Murphy.

I could have written a piece on Murphy’s work with the Blues Brothers and called it a post, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. And that’s when I was reminded of Murphy’s work with Chuck Berry. Matt Murphy was in the house at Chess Records in 1960 when Chuck Berry cut several tracks. One of them was “Come On,” which remains one of my favorite tracks of his. The same period of time yielded “Bye Bye Johnny.” It was recorded at Chess on March 29, 1960 in a session that also yielded “Worried Life Blues,” “Our Little Rendezvous,” “Run Around,” and “Jaguar and the Thunderbird.” Murphy was in the studio with Willie Dixon, Lafayette Leake, and Chuck Berry laying down some fantastic rock and roll history, and it’s that work that I wanted to remember.

You can hear Matt “Guitar” Murphy on “Bye Bye Johnny” by clicking here.
 

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