Born May 25, 1877 in Philadelphia, Billy Murray and his family moved five years later to Denver, where he spent most of his early years expressing an interest in show business. Following his stint as part of a “rube” song-and-dance act with neighborhood pals, his parents allowed him to join Harry Leavitt’s High Rollers troupe as an actor at age 16. He spent the next decade honing his skills in a succession of minstrel shows and small-time vaudeville venues.
Murray found his way to New York, where he could achieve success in the rapidly emerging field of phonography. In 1903, he secured an engagement with Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company, and his initial recordings, released and marketed nationwide, became immediate hits. Murray’s ability to sing loudly, in full voice, was suited for making precise, vibrant records during the acoustic era of sound process, which employed recording horns rather than the electronic microphone.
Murray emerged as a huge solo recording star, introducing the public to the music of George M. Cohan (“You’re a Grand Old Flag”) and a host of familiar tunes—“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (written by Irving Berlin), “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “Over There,” “Casey Jones,” “Pretty Baby” and “That Old Gang of Mine.”
The labels had him record a wide range of styles, including material from Broadway musicals, sentimental ballads, comic fare, vaudeville sketches, “ethnic” and topical pieces. He served as guest lead vocalist for the Haydn Quartet, known for its spirited interpretations of ragtime and novelty numbers (the biggest was “By the Light of the Sil’vry Moon”), and became leader of his own group, the American Quartet. He also recorded duets with popular female artists of the day.
Murray remained a prolific artist throughout the 1920s; when the industry transitioned to electronic recording, he adjusted to a softer, crooning delivery for jazz and band-oriented dance numbers. During the 1930s, he recorded spoken dialogue to children’s stories and film cartoons. He retired in 1944 and passed away on September 17, 1954 in Long Island.