Mickey Murray – Soul Journeyman

Mickey Murray on stage at the Cedar Cultural Center. Photo by Ben Clark

In some ways, the story is familiar. A promising artist is signed to a major label, but the label is sold, or the signing agent leaves the label, or another act’s hit overshadows the new act, leaving the act without a champion or the support of the label. The promising act gets sidelined, goes back home, and either retires, or continues as a journeyman artist.

Mickey Murray’s story has some of that narrative, but it is also unique. Murray had already had a million-selling hit, Shout Bamalama, a song written and originally recorded by Otis Redding in his pre-Stax years. Murray was then signed to King Records, which was looking for an artist to bolster their lineup since James Brown was about to leave.

It was 1968. Soul music had captured the hearts and feet of American teenagers, and quite a few adults. Murray’s dynamic performance of Shout Bamalama resulted in him opening for Aretha Franklin, performing at the Apollo, and touring with Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, and others. It also made him a contender for keeping King Records on the charts. He signed with them in 1969 and recorded the album, People Are Together.

The title song was to be the first single, released in 1970. When the song was taken around to taste-making black disc jockeys around the country, they wouldn’t play it. The lyrics, “Take a pinch of white man, wrap him up in black man,” were too provocative for the time. Deejays were afraid of being fired by the white owners of their stations.

King Records was sold shortly thereafter. The new owners lost interest. Too bad. The album is a solid performance of funky music, occasionally lightened by the smile in Murray’s voice. Murray’s rasping voice and the album’s solid arrangements simply epitomize Southern Soul.

With no backing from the label, Murray accepted his fate. He returned to his hometown (North Augusta) and continued to perform. The album eventually achieved legendary status among soul music fans, going for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.

Then the crate-digging owners of the Minneapolis indie record company Secret Stash got involved. Their specialty is limited-edition vinyl releases of forgotten gems, many from other countries, and a few funk ‘n soul numbers from the United States.

In January they re-issued the album in vinyl, their specialty, and brought Murray, who is now 73, out of retirement to perform at the Cedar Cultural Center. Backed by a six-piece band, which included Secret Stash owners Eric Foss on drums, and Cory Wong on guitar, Murray performed with passion, vigor, and excitement. Murray would often take some unexpected turns as he got into each song, repeating words or phrases, to create tension and release, and calling for solos from the band. It was classic soul. His enthusiasm and energy was contagious, to the delight of the audience, many of whom weren’t born when he recorded.

Mickey Murray backstage with a fan - DeeJay Father Time . Photo by Ben Clark

Afterwards, he regaled fans and friends with stories of being on the road. I had a chance to talk with him in the Cedar’s green room. Still excited over the performance and his reception, Murray’s words tumbled out and around as he humbly talked about his background and his involvement with Secret Stash.

LE:  When did you first realize that music was going to be an important part of your life?

MM:  Music has been in my life ever since I can remember. Me and my brother Clarence started out in grammar school singing gospel music. Then we started singing around Augusta, and North Augusta. Then every summer when we’d get out of school, when I was in high school, our manager would go down to Brunswick, Georgia, and set up a house for the summer for us. And we’d work out in the different rural areas like Saint Palmas Island, Jacobs Island, Jacksonville, Florida, Saint Augustine, Florida. Come out through Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina. Every summer.

LE:  How old were you when you were doing that?

MM:  I was in high school, so I’d say I was fifteen, yeah.

LE:  When did you switch from singing gospel music to more secular music?

MM:  In 19…  59. Mr. Raymond Dean, the band teacher at Jefferson High School took an interest in me. He had a band that was practicing…  School was out for the summer, and he would take a band down there two or three times a week, and practice them. And he liked me and he’d come by and pick me up, and take me down there and practice me up. Since I’d been singing gospel, I didn’t know nothin’ about these type songs. I didn’t know how to set the tempo, I didn’t know how to do this, do that. He explained everything. And then one day, he told me, he said he had a man (ed note: Sam Gantt) interested in me, and he told me he wanted me to come down to school at night and go through my little routine, and I saw this man in the corner. And when I got through doin’ my thing, he begged for me to come over, and when I went over, he didn’t even introduce himself to me. He said, “You wanna sing with a band?” and I said, “Yeah.” From there I went with the Zippers band.

LE:  The Zippers?

MM:  Yeah. They’re the band that played behind me on Shout Bamalama.

LE:  When you went with the Zippers, did you tour with them for a while?

MM:  Oh! I went with the Zippers in ‘59, and by ‘60, ‘61, they had us on Broadway. We was on Broadway, for.. Really I don’t know because I was so young, time didn’t matter. I didn’t keep close check on it. I know that we was up there for a while at the Times Square Hotel.

LE:  You were playing at that hotel?

MM:  Yeah, and then from there, me and my band, during the football season, we’d play at after-parties at Georgia Tech, Emery, all down through Alabama, Tuskegee, all the time. And then we’d play all the military bases at least once a month. Then we’d play at Fort Gordon. When we was in town we’d play that every Wednesday night.

LE:  And were you actually from Augusta?

MM:  I’m from North Augusta. See, North Augusta and Augusta are back to back. Augusta’s in Georgia, and North Augusta is in South Carolina. James Brown would call it Georgialina.

LE:  How did the opportunity to record come about?

MM:  Oh, from Miss Carter. I think her name was Mary Carter (Ed note: it was Blanche Carter). She wrote a record before I come along… a big hit, Devil or Angel. I’m not sure of the group, I think it was the Moonglows.

LE:  I believe it was the Clovers.

MM:  The Clovers. Yeah, yeah. My manager took me to her house to audition and she liked me. She told my manager Sam that she wanted to take us to Macon Georgia, and introduce us to Bobby Smith. Bobby Smith is the one that I believe produced Otis Redding in the beginning, a long time ago. She took me up there to introduce me to Bobby Smith, and ah, I did an audition for him, because she had a song that she wanted me to do. When we got to the audition, Bobby Smith told my manager and told her that he didn’t have nothin’ for me at this time. But he would be getting back in touch with Miss Carter later on.

Later on, I don’t know how long it was, I don’t know a week, month, a year, cause I was young, and not keepin’ up with time. Anyway, one day my manager called me and said, “Bobby wants me to bring you to Jacksonville, Florida – you and the Zippers, and he wants you to cut a record.” I got down there and he had Shout Bamalama. I told him I didn’t like Shout Bamalama, and I wasn’t gonna record it. (laughs) We got to talkin’ back and forth and I said, “Well my drummer, that’s his song. Let him sing it. That’s what he sings every night.” Smith said, “I don’t want him to sing it, I want you to sing it.” So, I wouldn’t agree with him, and he told my manager, “Talk to him, talk to him, talk to him.” Sam took me out, and we walked up and down the sidewalk, and everything, and I come to an agreement to do it. And I said, “Well I don’t even know the song,” and they went and wrote the lyrics on a blackboard. I ended up reading them off the blackboard.

LE:  So you had a big hit. You traveled around, opened for a bunch of folks, and then King Records wanted you. What label was Shout Bamalama on?

MM:  SS International – Shelby Singleton’s label.

LE:  After you did the record for King, and couldn’t get it played, what did you do?

MM:  Forgot about it. I didn’t really hold no grudge, or hard feeling toward King, the recording company, cause I would have done the same thing if I couldn’t sell the product and couldn’t get nobody to take it or present the product. There wasn’t nothin’ for them to do but back away from it.

LE:  Did you continue to perform?

MM:  Oh, hell yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

LE:  Did you try to get any other record contracts?

MM:  Well, I cut a couple of things, you’all got it up here too. I did a thing with a friend of mine John Peterson. We produced the thing together, in Nashville Tennessee. Then in ’88, me and Tony Cook, a drummer for James Brown, did Teenapopper, for London. I did Marvelous for London. I got a couple of other things… Ahhh, I did Full Speed Ahead for London. I got a couple of other things.. Sometimes I forget.  Another song is It’s Too Hot in Here. That was by James Brown’s bongo player. I did it with Tony and we did pretty good with it.

LE:  You said earlier that you hadn’t been performing for a while.

MM:  I got into the church. That’s a good thing. And I started singing in the choir. I sing at weddings, birthday parties, family reunions. I do that every now and then, but I don’t put on a show. At a birthday party I might go up there and sing a couple of songs, you know. Sing a song here and later on sing another song. But that’s about it. I ain’t been out there like I did tonight back to my old thing.

LE:  What did you think when Secret Stash contacted you?

MM:  I told them no, I wasn’t interested. I told them I was retired, enjoying myself. I love working in my yard. I love working in my little garden. I love going to church, and I love fussin’ with my wife (laughs). I told them I’m really satisfied. I just wanna keep my wife happy and I came home, and I’m used to her and enjoying her and wasn’t interested. But he (Eric Foss) kept on calling, and then he started sounding convincing. At first I said I got tired of messing with a bunch of crooks (laughs), but then he convinced me that he was straight. Then Will (Gilbert) started calling and started talking with me, and it become like a family thing and we became real close. They started calling every day and I looked forward to them calling and enjoying it. I told my wife, “I don’t know why but I really do enjoy them. They seem like they’re some straight people, and I ain’t seen none. They’re the first straight ones I’d seen.”

On stage with Eric Foss & Cory Wong of Secret Stash Records. Photo by Ben Clark

LE:  It certainly seemed like you enjoyed yourself on stage tonight.

MM:  I really did, but I always enjoy performing. My thing is, when I perform, I put it in me, I feel it. When I sing it and I feel it, I know somebody else got to be feelin it. I put in all the energy and if I don’t feel it, I don’t expect for you to feel it. When I’m on stage, singing, and dancing, and doin’ my thing, and see people smilin’ and clappin’ their hands and pattin’ their feet…. Oh man, that’s my reward. I’m happy as I can be

LE:  Thank you very much for your time.

MM:  Thank you.

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