Matt 'Guitar' Murphy & friends

By Tom MacIntosh

Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy (December 29, 1929 – June 15, 2018) was such an elite guitarist, he was invited to play with a ton of greats who eagerly sought his nimble talents. It’s a long list starting off with Howlin’ Wolf as early as the late 40s to his appearance in The Blues Brothers 1980 hit movie with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. In this piece we’ll take a closer look at some of the tasty collaborations he plied up during his illustrious career.

He was one of a very few guitarists who, back in the day, mastered the two styles that were popular on Beale St. in Memphis at the time, upscale jazz, played by the likes of Phineas Newborn Sr. and Tuff Green, and the blues, squeezed out by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B.King. He was a main cog in what became known as the ‘electric bluesmovement, and sat in with such names as Memphis Slim, Bobby Bland, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and James Cotton, to name just a few.

Here are a few memorable performances:

It was one of the greatest piano-guitar blues teams ever to take the stage. They played together in the 1950s in Slim’s House Rockers, which was something rather different for Slim because he generally didn’t take to guitarists, but Murphy’s touch impressed him enough to ask him to join the band. Slim was already selling plenty of records but with the inclusion of ‘Guitar’ things took off exponentially. They recorded for United Records from 1952-54, then for Vee Jay in ‘58-’59, and again for Strand in 1961. One marvelous recording of their inspired relationship is on Together Again One More Time - Live from Antoine’s that features classics such as Juggie Boogie, Black Cat Blues and Moving On...

Harmonica or harp wizard James Cotton enlisted Murphy to join his James Cotton Blues Band and were a force in the 70s rock and roll/blues scene. Murphy’s crisp clean finger work would go note for note with Cotton’s wicked harp and is especially tasty on the 1974 release of 100 % Cotton, which landed in Billboard magazine’s top 200 albums; something very rare for a blues record. Check out the fireworks on Boogie Thing and Rocket 88, two standouts that show off the driving blues, and boogie woogie of the day. He also played on records released by Etta James, Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Chuck Berry, Billy Boy Arnold, and Otis Rush.

In a career that spans six decades, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy started off as a Gibson man, using a hollowbody 335 or 345, played through a Fender Twin Reverb and sometimes a Quad Reverb. He’s also been seen ripping through material on a Godin Multiac Spectrum SA, and a Guild A 150-B (in the movie), but his favourite axe, which would become his signature guitar was the Cort MGM I, a Korean make with a sunburst or honey finish.

Matt Murphy was often heard but not seen or well known in the public eye until in 1980 he was recruited by Belushi to lead The Blues Brothers in the movie of the same name. He also starred as Aretha Franklin’s husband in the sequel Blues Brothers 2000. He continued playing with the Blues Brothers into the early 2000s, but had a stroke and had to rest for a couple of years but right back at it soon after.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
in May 2012, and he turned 88 las December 29, 2017.