At a time before radio ruled the waves and recording technology remained primitive, Billy Murray’s success gave the fledgling recording industry the credibility to develop into a popular form of entertainment. He became the most sensational record seller of the entire pre-1920 pioneer era, recording as a solo artist, in duets with Ada Jones, and on group hits with the Haydn Quartet, American Quartet, and the Heidelberg Quintet. In all, he sang on 30 #1 songs. The recording careers of Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley pale in comparison.
“While he received star billings on Vaudeville, he was best known for his prolific work in the recording studio, making records for almost every record label of the era.” EE “In an era dominated by the operatically-influenced singing style, he helped to popularize a more natural approach. He was an incredibly versatile artist who performed blues, Broadway songs, children’s songs, classic barbershop quartet songs, comic dialogue, minstrel songs, crooner songs, dance numbers, dramatic recitation, Irish ballads, Jazz, minstrel songs, operetta, ragtime, romantic ballads, storytelling.” JL His “records serve as excellent representatives of the music and events of American culture – the styles, technology, events, and popular trends. He has captured the essence and personality of the times onto record, giving a unique look into a bygone era: World War I, prohibition, the Great Depression, politics, popular trends, and so forth.” DN
Early Years/Personal Life
“Murray was the second of five children to Irish immigrants Patrick Murray and Julia Kelleher.” DN Somewhere around 1882-83, “the family moved from Philadelphia to Denver, Colorado…where Murray spent most of his childhood. A problematic child, young William exhibited overly audacious behaviors. He almost drowned a number of times, and once ran away from home at age thirteen with the intention of becoming a horserace jockey. But it was in Denver that Murray got his first exposure of the entertainment scene. At age sixteen, his parents allowed him to join Harry Leavitt’s High Rollers as an actor, and afterwards continued to sing in honky-tonks, medicine shows and small-time vaudeville venues.” DN
The First Recordings
“In 1897, Murray traveled to San Francisco with aims at securing employment as phonograph artists for Edison cylinders.” SH “Murray made his first wax cylinder recordings for Peter Bacigalupi, the local Edison distributor. His first cylinder, The Lass from the County Mayo, was a duet with his partner, tenor and yodeler Matt Keefe. Unfortunately, none of these early Bacigalupi cylinders are known to have survived, and no primary documentation on the titles and releases has surfaced.” DN
In 1902, Murray “joined the Al. G. Field Greater Minstrels, with whom he toured and performed in blackface.” JL “When the season ended in May 1903, Murray went to New York to look for work as a phonograph singer. It was during this year that Murray released his first cylinders for Edison’s National Phonograph Company, I’m Thinking of You All of de While…and Alec Busby, Don’t Go Away.” DN
Murray “started recording regularly in the New York City and New Jersey area in 1903, when the nation’s major record companies as well as the Tin Pan Alley music industry were concentrated there.” EE “Edison released Murray cylinders in 1903. Murray started recording fairly regularly at that time, first for Edison, and then for Columbia and Victor.” JL
The Acoustic Era
Murray became a star in the acoustic era. “Anyone who bought his records knew whatever he did would be colorful, funny, and enjoyable. Almost anything he produced would prove to be a great seller, which is why all of the major phonograph manufacturers of the decade hired him: Edison, Victor, Columbia, Zonophone, Leeds and Catlin, American, Indestructible cylinders, and the International Record Company. It was during this time that he was coined the nickname ‘The Denver Nightingale’ by Sam Rous, who would use it in various catalog notes and record descriptions for the Victor company.” DN
Murray “had a unique way of making his songs come to life – delivering his material with personality and character that matched up perfectly with the subject he was singing about.” DN He had a “more conversational delivery than common with bel canto singers of the era. On comic songs he often deliberately sang slightly flat, which he felt helped the comic effect.” EE Murray’s “clear enunciation and distinctive style” DN made him sound “natural while singing loudly into the recording horn used in the acoustic recording process.” JL “Journalist Jim Walsh would later write in the Hobbies magazine that ‘Billy Murray’s records were the only ones so clear you could catch every word on first hearing. This was partly because there was a certain ‘ping’ to his voice that cut sharp into the wax and he was smart enough to nasalize certain syllables to make important words and phrases stand out.’” SH
Acoustic recording was the way of “the industry from the 1890s, until the late 1920s when most companies converted to electric recording with the microphone.” DN “When electrical recording became the standard in 1925, Murray had to adjust. He had to sing more quietly to avoid overdriving the microphones and amplifiers, and as a result, his tone and expression suffered. The public’s tastes in music were also changing (largely due to the influence of jazz), and Murray’s popularity declined rapidly at this point.” JL
The Cohan Interpreter
“At first, Murray recorded mostly the sort of material he had performed in blackface, but he rapidly branched out into other types of songs.” JL He established himself as songwriter George M. Cohan’s official song interpreter. Cohan wrote 20 Broadway musicals for which he was the producer, director, and often the star. Murray seemed to record the definitive version of nearly every Cohan song from 1905 on.
Murray’s recording with the American Quartet of Cohan’s World War I classic Over There, peaked at #1 for 9 weeks in 1917. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named the song as one of the 365 Songs of the Century.
Cohan’s You’re a Grand Old Rag became Murray’s biggest solo hit, topping the charts for 10 weeks and becoming the biggest-selling record of Victor Records’ first decade. The song title was changed to “‘Flag’ when people objected to calling the American flag a ‘rag’, although Cohan’s intentions were patriotic – in his musical George Washington, Jr., the song illustrated a soldier carrying a flag that had been tattered in battle.” JL
Give My Regards to Broadway was named by National Public Radio as one of the 100 Most Important American Music Works of the 20th Century).
Murray As a Solo Artist
As a solo performer, Murray’s first hit was Tessie (You Are the Only, Only) which became the official song of Boston Red Sox fans in the first World Series in 1903.
In 1904, Murray’s third hit, Bedelia, became his first #1 song. He reached the top three more times that year, most notably with Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis, a song inspired by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. The song spent nine weeks at #1.
Come Take a Trip in My Air-Ship, a song inspired by the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, hit the top for 4 weeks. The seven-week chart-topper In My Merry Oldsmobile was inspired by the first transcontinental auto race, which was won by an Oldsmobile.
The Haydn Quartet landed 62 songs in the top 10 between 1898 and 1914. Billy Murray sang lead on many their biggest hits, such as 1908’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game. That song spent seven weeks at #1 and become the most popular recording of the national pastime’s anthem. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named the song one of the 365 Songs of the Century.
Duets with Ada Jones
In 1906, Murray first recorded with Ada Jones, the most popular female singer of the entire pre-1920 era. Their duets made them the king and queen of the era’s popular recordings and possibly the most popular male-female vocal pairing in recording history. Their patented “conversational” duets possessed enormous appeal due to their mutually breezy, light-hearted styles. They landed 44 top 10 songs from 1907 to 1922. Six of their songs went all the way to the top of the charts. Their biggest hit was 1907’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk, a chart-topper for six weeks.
“In 1909, during the height of his popularity, Murray signed contracts to record exclusively for Victor and Edison. From 1909 to 1925, he was the lead singer of the American Quartet (also known as the Premier Quartet on Edison).” DN During that era, the group landed 66 hits, of which only two missed the top 10.
1910’s Casey Jones, a song based on the 1900 Illinois Cannon Ball Express train wreck, would be their biggest, spending eleven weeks at #1 and selling an estimated 2 million copies. It was the biggest song to which Billy Murray was attached as either a solo performer or a group member.
In anticipation of Valentine's Day 2001, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) announced the most-performed love songs of the 20th Century. Oh, You Beautiful Doll, which the American Quartet took to the top of the charts, was named one of the top five songs of the 1910s.
The Heidelberg Quintet
The American Quartet recorded with counter-tenor Will Oakland as the Heidelberg Quintet. The group landed eight songs in the top ten from 1911 to 1915, including two #1’s which each peaked for six weeks – 1912’s Waiting for the Robert E. Lee and 1914’s By the Beautiful Sea.
A New Era
“Murray renewed his Victor and Edison contracts every few years until 1919, at which point he returned to freelancing for all major record companies. The records he made during this period also proved to be good sellers, which is probably why Victor convinced him to re-sign a five-year contract with them in July of 1920. However, these would not…prove to be his greatest years.” DN
“In 1925, Victor began making commercial recordings electrically with a microphone. It was from this technology that a new, soft style of singing came in, called ‘crooning.’” DN “Murray – now a longtime veteran of comedy songs approaching his fifties – did not seem to fit in well with the young picture.” DN
The 1920s would also see the rise of the Jazz Age. “Instead of the humorous matrimonial and ethnic dialect songs that Murray was long affiliated with, the new bestselling music consisted of romantic tunes, jazz, and dance numbers.” DN Murray “continued to work, his singing style was considered ‘dated’ and less in demand.” EE He “was mostly confined to brief vocal refrains for dance bands [including Jean Goldkette’s and Paul Whiteman’s], and duets with younger singers such as Aileen Stanley and Ed Smalle.” DN His duets with “Stanley on the Victor label…[consisted of] many types of material, including romantic songs. They even recorded songs in which Stanley plays Murray’s ‘mother,’ which is odd considering that Murray was quite a bit older than Stanley.” JL
When Murray’s Victor “contract expired in 1928, it was not renewed. He continued to record for Victor on a freelance basis, but it appeared that his days as a bestselling artist were over. Murray returned to freelancing for mostly minor labels, singing solos, vocal refrains, and duets with Walter Van Brunt (known as Walter Scanlan) – another famous artist who had fallen on harder times. Murray and Scanlan also made radio broadcasts, provided voices for film cartoons, and continued to make records until 1931. Throughout the 1930s, Murray made occasional 78s and played minor roles on radio dramas. He made a brief comeback on RCA’s Bluebird label in 1940, and made appearances on the WLS National Barn Dance as early as 1938.” DN
“Murray’s health started to deteriorate in the mid-forties.” JL He made his last recording, Casey and Cohen in the Army, with Monroe Silver in 1943 and then “retired to Freeport, Long Island, New York in 1944” JL “due to heart conditions. He continued to receive comeback and appearance offers, including those from Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, Decca records, and a film proposal, but they were never fulfilled.” DN
“His death came suddenly on Tuesday, August 17, 1954 at Marine Stadium in Jones Beach, Long Island. He and his wife with two friends decided to attend Guy Lombardo’s production of Arabian Nights. He bought his friends tickets, but then began to feel uncomfortable. He told them, ‘You take your tickets and go in. I’ll join you in a minute’ …He went into the restroom, and within a few seconds, had passed away on the floor. The cause on his death certificate was given as an acute coronary thrombosis due to myocardial heart disease.” DN
Billy Murray lived and died in fairly humble circumstances. He never made much money from his recordings and spent the Second World War years working in an aircraft factory. He was a private person who didn’t seem to want to talk about his family or recording career. He was married three times, and had no children. His siblings had no children, either.