Inducted: April 16, 2016
Born May 25, 1877 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, William Thomas Murray and his family moved to Denver five years later, where he spent most of his early years expressing an interest in show business. Following a stint as part of a “rube” song-and-dance act with neighborhood pals, Murray’s 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 joined the Al G. Field Minstrels around the turn of the century, and it was there the title performer gave Murray the nickname “Billy,” since it sounded more like a comedian’s name.
Murray found his way to New York, where he would achieve success in the rapidly emerging field of phonography. His first recordings were made in 1897 with partner Matt Keefe. In 1903, he secured an engagement with Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company, and his solo recordings, released and marketed nationwide, became immediate hits. Murray did not have an exclusive contract with Edison, freelancing his voice to several major recording companies including Columbia and Victor. Often, he recorded the same songs for each label. 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. He was soon dubbed “the Denver Nightingale.”
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,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Over There,” “Casey Jones,” “Pretty Baby” and “That Old Gang of Mine.” In 1909, Murray signed exclusive ten-year recording contracts with both Victor for albums and Edison for cylinders. 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 being “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Murray also led his own group, The American Quartet and recorded duets with popular female artists of the day.
In spite of his breakthrough success as a recording artist, Murray did not garner as much fame as other singers of the time, due mostly to his preference of the recording studio over the stage. His name did not become affiliated with the music, as it did with other performances such as Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra in the 1920s. By this time, cylinders were in decline, and Murray signed another contract with Victor for recording albums and remained with the label until 1927. Murray remained a prolific artist throughout the ‘20s.
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 for children’s stories and film cartoons including the now famous Betty Boop show.
Murray introduced the public to the music of George M. Cohan (“You’re a Grand Old Flag”) and a host of other familiar tunes. All the while, he became the most successful recording artist of the early acoustic era into the 1920s.
He enjoyed retirement for 10 years until his 1954 passing. Colorado Music Hall of Fame inducted Billy Murray in the 2016 “20th Century Pioneers induction class.
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 other familiar tunes.
Give My Regards to Broadway
1905 – Under the Anheuser Bush
1909 – Oh, You Kid
1920 – You’d Be Surprised
1915 – Gasoline Gus
1904 – Teasing
1905 – Everybody Works but Father
1908 – In My Merry Oldsmobile
1903 – Up In a Cocoanut Tree
He Goes to Church on Sunday
1906 – Sweet Anastasia Brady
1915 – Goodbye Girls, I’m Through
1905 – Yankee Doodle Boy
1910 – She Sells Sea Shells
1913 – On the Old Fall River Line
1906 – You Look Awful Good to Father
1919 – The Worst Is Yet to Come
1923 – Barney Google
1920 Oh! By Jingo
1906 – Cheyenne
1904 – Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis
1926 – I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight
1909 – Shine On Harvest Moon
1906 – Not Because You’re Hair is Curly
1922 – In My Heart, On My Mind
1916 – Pretty Baby
2002 – Anthology The Denver Nightingale
1924 – You May Be Fast but Your Mamma’s Gonna Slow You Down
1919 – Can You Tame Wild Women
1906 – The Grand Old Rag (Flag)
1920 – Rose of Washington Square
1906 – College Life
1914 – He’d Have to Get Under
1906 – It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch
1908 – It Looks Like a Big Night tonight
1916 – Hello, Hawaii, How Are You
1919 – The Alcoholic Blues
1924 – Charley, My Boy
1906 – I’m Afraid to Come Home in the Dark
© Colorado Music Hall of Fame
© Colorado Music Hall of Fame