By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
In the summer of 1989, my brother came down to Bluefield to play his only concert in the city. Our concert was just one of the myriad of events taking place as part of that year’s Mountain Festival. It was the city of Bluefield’s centennial, and the events associated with the Mountain Festival were also centennial celebration events.
We performed at the Summit Theater, and only drew a crowd of about 10 or 12 people. Don Cuppett and his mom attended, so they could tell you it was a pretty good show. My brother made it a good show by telling me a simple rule that he always lived by. He said: “There are hundreds of musicians in West Virginia way better than us who are playing to empty houses today.”
I had promoted the concert as much as I could with the Chamber, this paper and The Observer, where I was working at the time. Before we started our show, I apologized to Stu for not being able to bring a big audience for him. He said it was OK. We had fun, and it was an historic event. After performing together from various stages from the summer of 1968 to the spring of 1989, the show still holds special meaning to me.
Twenty-three years have passed since that moment and it’s been nearly 21 years since my brother died. Last week when I did a telephone interview with Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. to promote his upcoming concert this Friday at the Bluefield Auditorium, I realized that his sincere humility absolutely comes from being in the same frame of mind that my brother was in when he didn’t complain about the house.
It’s easy for me to cheer for Landau Murphy. He’s a confident young man who can accept where he is because he knows how hard it was to get there. He laughs at silly jokes, but understands a world that has more layers than most people could imagine. The only way a singer can truly sing the blues is to know that tears flow when life’s layers are peeled away just like when you peel an onion. For him, talking about being blessed and being thankful aren’t hollow clichés like the ones that you hear at most award shows. True humility comes from knowing how to bow down, and when to rise up.
Had I known that the show in Bluefield back in 1989 was going to be the last concert my brother and I would perform together, I might have thought it was a bigger deal. We sang the old Vernon Dalhart songs, and the country songs we sang in our youth. The Wheeling country music station, WWVA, had successfully imprinted those songs and melodies in our souls just like the Pittsburgh stations imprinted Sinatra, our neighbors Perry Como and Dean Martin in our souls. During that one 90-minute set, we did everything we had always done, and put our hearts into it.
During my conversation with Landau, I talked about the great performers who had appeared on the Bluefield Auditorium stage through the years including the incomparable Edward “Duke” Ellington, the late, great James Brown and many more. I mentioned that local legend holds that a very popular entertainer from the 1960s walked off stage in protest to the fact that so few people had come out for his show. Landau got a kick out of that.
On Monday, Dec. 12, 1966, Duke Ellington and his orchestra packed the auditorium in a concert that coincided with his joining the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity of Bluefield State College. I was a senior in high school on that day. The closest I would ever come to experiencing a Duke Ellington concert was to perform “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train” on my trombone in our high school band. The show down here must have been great.
After I finished high school, I traded my trombone for a set of golf clubs, and a few months later, traded the golf clubs for a Sears Silvertone guitar that I gave to my brother. It was one of those guitars that had an amplifier built into the case. The next time I saw my brother, he was playing “Born to be Wild” on it, and making it sound good.
The community has already welcomed Landau Murphy with open arms during some incredible concerts at the Chuck Mathena Center. I hope that his first Bluefield show will have an audience that receives him with the same kind of warmth that the audience at the CMC as well as audiences through the state and nation continue to show toward him.
When he takes the stage, he’s carrying a lot more than just himself when he walks out there. He’s carrying all of us. He seems to bear that burden with pride and that’s a good thing speaking on behalf of all the great musicians in West Virginia who are playing to empty houses today.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.