Written by Dave Gil de Rubio Tuesday, 13 November 2012 00:00
When Elliott Murphy started strumming the first chords of the 1930s Josephine Baker smash “Jai Deux Amours” at the Hotel de Ville, (Paris’s city hall), it may as well have been his own personal anthem. With a main lyric that translates to mean, “I have two loves/my country and Paris,” the song’s theme of an expatriate caught between the City of Light and home is appropriate given the fact that Murphy’s childhood roots have their origins in Garden City.
“I’m totally American but I have found a home here,” he explained on the phone from Europe. “I’ve been here for 22 years. The French have always been very accepting of me and I have a very nice [fan base] here but I always thought I was a little bit below the radar here. This was just great recognition for me.”
Murphy’s reason for performing at the municipal heart of the French capital was his being awarded the prestigious Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris in recognition of his outstanding career achievements. Quite a heady accomplishment for a kid who got his start taking guitar lessons at Quigley’s Music Store, a since-shuttered New Hyde Park institution on Jericho Turnpike. It’s a time he looks back fondly on.
“My mother bought me guitar lessons when I was 12-years-old. I was not a good student. I was kind of a hyper kid and I think [my parents] thought it would calm me down,” he recalled. “Mrs. Quigley taught the lessons and I just loved it from that first lesson, learning [songs like] ‘Home On the Range.’ Of course, I never picked up a book in school from that day on, so it kind of backfired.”
Murphy’s exposure to show business came at an early age, thanks to his former actress mother Josephine and late father, Elliott, Sr., a promoter who used to run the Aqua Show. Held on the grounds of the 1939 Worlds’ Fair, this ’50s era quasi-multimedia show featured Esther Williams-inspired ballet swimming, clown dancers and visiting musicians including Duke Ellington and Count Basie. (It also provided the name for Murphy, Jr.’s 1973 debut.)
After the Aqua Show closed down in the early’60s, the younger Murphy and his two siblings had their exposure to fame stoked by his father opening The Sky Club, a Mineola restaurant/private club located at 600 Old Country Rd. that was frequented by numerous political movers and shakers including Bobby Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and then-RNC chairman Len Hall. Entertainment was often provided by the likes of The Ronettes and The Seeds.
The aspiring performer’s love of music was also fueled by a combination of the early ’60s folk boom and subsequent British Invasion along with a vibrant Long Island scene that included legendary venues (The Action House, The Barge) and local heroes (The Vagrants, Barnaby Bye).
“We used to play My Father’s Place even when it was still kind of half a bowling alley way back when. I used to also play with a band at a place called The 305 Lounge, which was right across the border in Hempstead. I used to sing “Like a Rollin’ Stone” and I remember somebody from Crawdaddy Magazine went out there to hear me sing,” Murphy said with a chuckle. “At that time, there were a lot of clubs on Jericho Turnpike where you could play. You’d have to do five or six sets a night. But it was really great boot camp for learning how to entertain.”
When Murphy was 16, his father died, turning the teenager’s world upside down. An early ’70s jaunt over to Europe resulted in a bit part in the 1972 Federico Fellini film Roma, followed by a return home. Plunging into a New York City music scene that saw acts and performers like The New York Dolls, Kiss, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith first starting out, Murphy landed a major-label deal with Mercury Records. When a Rolling Stone review of Aqua Show penned by friend and late rock critic Paul Nelson made a casual comparison to Bob Dylan, Murphy and a host of his other contemporaries (John Prine, Garland Jeffreys, Springsteen) would be saddled with the tag, “the next Dylan” for the remainder of the decade.
While the native Long Islander would be unable to shake that tag, eventually moving to Europe 22 years ago, he’s continued recording and also become a published author. When asked his feelings about getting saddled with the aforementioned label and the effects it had on his career, Murphy was circumspect.
“It’s a very ironic thing. They always called it the kiss of death but if you look at nearly every artist that was called the New Bob Dylan, they’re still working. So maybe it didn’t guarantee huge success, but it certainly has been the kiss of longevity,” he said. “I’m very grateful for those albums I put out in the’70s and the promotion I got. If it wasn’t for that, it would have been very difficult for me to re-begin my career over here in Europe.”