Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(Lyle 'Spud' Murphy, b Miko Stephanovic, 19 August 1908, Berlin, Germany; d 5 August 2005, Hollywood, California) Multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer, teacher. He was brought to Salt Lake City, Utah at the age of four by his mother. He took lessons on alto horn from Red Nichols' father, and was a prodigy, learning to play nearly all the wind instruments, both reeds and brass. He went to the West Coast at age 14 and tried to get a job on a cruise ship but was turned down because of his age. He worked as a sideman and an arranger in dance bands, including Johnny McFall and the Honey Boys in Dallas, Texas. His first recorded arrangement was 'I Got Worry' by the Jimmy Joy Orchestra in 1928. He wrote stock arrangements for music publishers, he worked for Art Landry, Ross Gorman, Bob Crosby and others; and in 1935-7 he wrote over 100 arrangements for Benny Goodman at a time when Goodman was broadcasting constantly, and wrote over 70 in the same period for the Casa Loma Orchestra, directed by Glen Gray. He said that Goodman came to hear the Casa Loma band to make sure that Murphy wasn't selling him the same arrangements.

At one point, Murphy said, he was playing all the reeds, and it became too difficult hauling around an assortment of saxophones as well as trunks of arrangements and manuscript paper, so he gave them all up except the clarinet. Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and many others were his close friends; the Casa Loma's clarinetist Clarence Hutchenrider was his roommate on the road. Murphy was as responsible for the sound of the Swing Era as anyone; Jerry Gray, Edgar Sampson, Casa Loma's Gene Gifford and both Henderson and his brother Horace were influential, but none was as prolific. And the arrangements were fun: musicians liked his clever writing, which for the most part avoided the stereotyped 'jeek-jeek-a-jeek' of the trumpet section and the mooing sound of some of the Swing Era's reed sections. Asked how he did it, he replied that if the melody was good he'd use it, but if it wasn't he'd use very little of it and make up the rest. Altogether he wrote nearly 600 arrangements.

Fletcher Henderson's version of 'Sing, Sing, Sing', recorded in 1936, was long ascribed to Horace, but apparently was Murphy's work. In 1937 he published the first of 26 books, Spud Murphy's Swing Arranging Method. In 1938 he formed his own band, which recorded six sides for Decca and eight for Bluebird in 1938-9, including some of his own originals such as 'Just A Phrase' and 'Dance Of The Doinks'. Also in the 1930s and '40s, in Hollywood, he arranged a jaunty version of 'Three Blind Mice' as the theme for the short film comedies of the Three Stooges, scored some Walt Disney cartoons, and wrote for the Seger-Ellis band. One of Murphy's most interesting assignments was arranging the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer tune 'Shorty George' for Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in the film You Were Never Lovelier (1942). The tune, named after the Harlem dancer George 'Shorty' Snowden, was played in the soundtrack by Xavier Cugat; the scene has Astaire demonstrating the dance to a seated Hayworth, who to his delight jumps up and dances with him. The success of the sequence was ascribed in part by John Mueller (in Astaire Dancing, 1985) to Murphy's 'superb arrangement'.

Murphy served in the armed forces during WWII, then settled in California. He recorded 22 septet and octet tracks on two LPs in 1954-6, one for Gene Norman Presents and one for Contemporary, with such sidemen as Frank Morgan, Buddy Collette, Curtis Counce and Shelly Manne, Murphy himself playing celeste. The Gene Norman material was issued on two different LPs called Gene Norman Presents Four Saxophones in Twelve Tones and New Orbits In Sound, also later on Fresh Sound (Spain); an edition on Vogue (England) was called West Coast Jazz Scene Vol. 2, and there was yet another edition on Jazz Selection (France). The Contemporary tracks were issued as 12-Tone Compositions & Arrangements By Lyle Murphy, later retitled Gone With The Woodwinds! Murphy directed an obscure session in 1970 which yielded two tracks, 'Minor Bird Nero' and 'Calle de Niños'.

He had studied harmony and composition, and developed a method of teaching composition based on a division of the 12 tones into a system with six equal intervals. In an interview in 2003, he explained that composition was usually taught either according to the standard rules, which date from about 1750, or Schoenberg's modernist way, which results in what sounds like total dissonance to most people, neither of which was useful to a working musican, Murphy thought. His method was intended to be adaptable to any sort of assignment a composer or arranger might encounter. Asked what was different about his Equal Interval System, he replied, 'It's easy. Any idiot can learn my method. Even me!' Among his students were Collette, Counce, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock and Gerald Wiggins. David Blumberg, who wrote arrangements for the Grammy-winning Ray Charles album Genius Loves Company, teaches courses based on Murphy's method, and describes it as 'an encyclopedia of musical tools that you can use all your life.' 

A West Coast dance band, Mora's Modern Rhythmists, led by pianist Dean Mora, has made an album of Spud Murphy's arrangements from the 1930s called Goblin Market, available from CD Baby, Collector's Choice and other outlets. Some of the information in this article came from the latest edition of the Bruyninckx jazz discography, a radio interview of Murphy by Dave Radlauer and an obituary in the British daily newspaper The Independent written by Tom Vallance. An obit from the Associated Press printed in the New York Times was embarrassingly poor.

The arranger should not be confused with Claude "Spud" Murphy, who played trombone in the Charlie Barnet band from December 1939 until August 1942.