Billy Murray (singer)

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Billy Murray
Murray in May 1911
Murray in May 1911
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Thomas Murray
Born(1877-05-25)May 25, 1877
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
OriginNew York City
DiedAugust 17, 1954(1954-08-17) (aged 77)
Jones Beach, New York, United States
Years active1893–1944
LabelsEdison, OkeH, many others

William Thomas Murray (May 25, 1877 – August 17, 1954) was one of the most popular singers in the United States in the early 20th century.[1] While he received star billing in Vaudeville, he was best known for his prolific work in the recording studio, making records for almost every record label of the era. Murray was the best-selling recording artist of the first quarter of the 20th century, selling over 300 million records during the phonograph era.[2][3]

Life and career[edit]

Billy Murray was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Patrick and Julia (Kelleher) Murray, immigrants from County Kerry, Ireland.[4][5] His parents moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1882, where he grew up. He became fascinated with the theater and joined a traveling vaudeville troupe in 1893. He also performed in minstrel shows early in his career. In 1897 Murray made his first recordings for Peter Bacigalupi, the owner of a phonograph company in San Francisco. As of 2010, none of Murray's cylinder records with Bacigalupi are known to have survived.[5] In 1903, he started recording regularly in the New York City and New Jersey area, where major record companies in the U.S., as well as the Tin Pan Alley music industry, were concentrated.

In 1906, he recorded the first of his popular duets with Ada Jones. He also performed with Aileen Stanley, the Haydn Quartet, the American Quartet (also known as the Premier Quartet), and Elsie Baker; as well as performed solo work.

Nicknamed "The Denver Nightingale", Murray had a strong tenor voice with excellent enunciation and a conversational delivery compared with bel canto singers of the era. His delivery was so precise and pointed that his vocals were easy to understand and enjoy. This is why he was the favorite vocalist of Thomas Edison, whose impaired hearing made it difficult for him to appreciate recorded songs.

On comic songs, Billy Murray often deliberately sang slightly flat, which he felt helped the comic effect. Although he often performed romantic numbers and ballads which sold well, his comedy and novelty song recordings continue to be popular with later generations of record collectors.

Murray in a newspaper ad from 1919

Murray was a devoted baseball fan, and he is said to have played with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) in exhibition games. He also supposedly sometimes called in sick to record sessions to go to the ballpark. Murray recorded "Tessie, You Are the Only, Only, Only", which became the unofficial theme of the 1903 World Series, when the words were changed from "Tessie, you know I love you madly" to "Honus, why do you hit so badly?"

Murray's popularity faded as public taste changed and recording technology advanced; the rise of the electric microphone in the mid-1920s allowed vocalists to sing less loudly and more intimately and expressively. Murray's "hammering" style, as he called it – essentially yelling the song into an acoustic recording horn – did not work in the electrical era, and he had to learn to soften his voice.

Though his singing style was less in demand, he continued to find recording work. Some of the lower-budgeted recording companies were slow to convert to the new microphone technology and continued to record acoustically, which offered further opportunities for Murray's full-voiced singing. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the music from his early days was considered nostalgic, and Murray was in demand again. He did voices for animated cartoons, especially Max Fleischer's popular "Bouncing Ball" sing-along cartoons and the Fleischer character Bimbo.[6] He also did radio work.[7] In 1929, Murray and Walter Scanlon provided the voices for the Fleischer short animated film Finding His Voice, produced by Western Electric.

Murray made his last recordings for Beacon Records on February 11, 1943, with Jewish dialect comedian Monroe Silver. He retired the next year to Freeport, Long Island, New York because of heart problems.

Variety estimated he made between 6,000 and 10,000 recordings in 45 years under a range of different pseudonyms, selling up to 300 million records, a record at the time.[8]

He died at nearby Jones Beach of a heart attack in 1954 at the age of 77. Murray had married three times; the first two marriages ended in divorce. He was survived by his third wife, Madeleine, and is buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, New York.[5]

In popular culture[edit]

Decades later, in 2013, "You're a Grand Old Rag" and "Shine On, Harvest Moon" would be heard in BioShock Infinite, the former being heard faintly in one of the reveal trailers, and the latter being heard in The Fellow Traveller Pub.[citation needed]

His single "Stumbling" was used in the 2016 horror game Layers of Fear.[9]

On May 4, 2020, musician John Mayer covered Murray's "Just As We Used to Do" with his dummy Cecil as part of his Sunday night IGTV show Current Mood.[10]

Selected song discography[edit]

"You'd Be Surprised", on OkeH, 1919
"Oh! By Jingo", on Lyric, 1919

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Billy Murray". Allmusic. Retrieved October 14, 2011.
  2. ^ Walsh, Jim (January 9, 1957). "Bing Crosby's 130,000,000 Disk Sales Makes Him Champ of Modern Era". Variety. p. 239. Retrieved June 12, 2019 – via
  3. ^ "Billy Murray Biography, Songs, & Albums". AllMusic. Retrieved April 17, 2023.
  4. ^ US Census, 1880, 24th Ward, District 21, Philadelphia, PA
  5. ^ a b c "Billy Murray: A Biography". The Official Website of Billy Murray (1877–1954). Phonostalgia. Retrieved October 14, 2011.
  6. ^ "The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia: 1930". The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 24, 2011.
  7. ^ Barna, Ryan. "BILLY MURRAY'S RADIO PROGRAMS: Walter Scanlon and Marcella Shields". The Official Website of Billy Murray (1877–1954). Phonostalgia. Retrieved October 14, 2011.
  8. ^ Walsh, Jim (January 9, 1957). "Bing Crosby's 130,000,000 Disk Sales Makes Him Champ of Modern Era". Variety. p. 239. Retrieved June 12, 2019 – via
  9. ^ "Layers of Fear [Full Game Longplay Walkthrough No commentary PC HD]". YouTube.
  10. ^ "John Mayer on Instagram Live- Current Mood with Cecil – Montana- May 3,2020". YouTube.
  11. ^ "BILLY MURRAY DISCOGRAPHY: Victor Records (1903–1913)". THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE OF BILLY MURRAY (1877–1954). Archived from the original on April 6, 2012. Retrieved October 7, 2011.

External links[edit]