By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
“America’s Got Talent” winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. can deliver a powerful nostalgia kick.
The throwback jazz crooner from Logan County, W.Va., brought the Rat Pack days of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. back to life on Friday night for an audience of 430 at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre.
Murphy changed it up with some Motown tunes and comedy, and he brought up guest vocalists including his wife, Jennifer, and one of Roanoke’s own stars, Jane Powell.
But at the center of it all was Murphy’s strong, resonant and confident vocal style, with which he showed a mastery of pop music’s mid-20th century past. All of it together was more than enough to elicit a big response from the crowd.
But by the time it was over, the bigger musical question was: What will he do next?
Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall and Michael Buble have injected new life into old standards in recent years. Murphy, after his 2011 TV win, added his name to that list with his record, “That’s Life” (Columbia). It hit No. 2 on both the Billboard jazz and traditional jazz charts, according to Billboard.biz, and remains in the top 10 of each chart, 17 weeks after its release.
“That’s Life” is full of covers, including Sinatra-sung classics “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I Get A Kick Out of You.” He sang those and other tunes with the same power and control in Roanoke that he showed on the record and on TV. But as Krall, Buble and Connick found, there is a time to move away from those chestnuts and toward something newer.
Murphy may well get there himself. If he does, his versatile voice and fun-loving demeanor will not hinder him.
Powell, a jazz, soul and R&B veteran whose multi-octave voice has been her passport to international travel, looked impressed. As Murphy blasted through the line “I bought you a brand new Mustang” in the song “Mustang Sally,” Powell shook her head and mouthed the word “wow.” As he hit the closing notes of “My Way” on his encore, Powell watched him with a huge smile on her face, pointing repeatedly to him.
Murphy, who said he heard Powell perform long before he auditioned for the TV show, called her appearance with him “a great gift.” He even gave her the stage for a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” which sounded very fine with Murphy’s 17-piece The Sweet Lippz Big Band — including 10 horn players — blasting and grooving behind her.
The powerful big band included Stuart native Jay Flippin, a pianist and composer of national note, who these days is based in Kentucky.
If Murphy’s music career should stall, he might do OK as a stand-up comic. An impersonation of a backwoods, tobacco-chawing fellow singing “Under My Skin” cracked up the crowd. But he kept it clean, saying that his show is crafted in respect to his elders, who don’t have as many entertainment options as they deserve.
At the end, folks young, old and in-between rose to applaud him.
Extra notes, because 15 inches is never enough room
It was a sweet moment when Murphy called up his wife to duet with him on Nat “King” Cole’s classic “Unforgettable.” He had told the audience that when he went to audition for “America’s Got Talent,” he didn’t expect to win. But, he said, God told him that he would win, and this is what God expected in return from Murphy: No posse, no messing around with other women, and Jennifer Murphy was to make all the trips with him.
“Good guidance from my lord up above,” Murphy told the applauding audience.
They sang well together on “Unforgettable,” though Jennifer Murphy was more tentative. They danced during the song’s instrumental break, and the crowd loved it.
Speaking of instrumental breaks, this was a heck of a band full of outstanding soloists, not the least of which was the aforementioned Flippin. Another Logan County resident, Marty Ojeda, got wild on a couple of solos, too.
But back to Murphy and his dancing. He also shared a dance with Powell when they dueted on “Something Stupid,” after which Powell feigned the vapors.
Murphy dropped to his knees as they hit the song’s final note. When it was over, Powell said, “If I could get down there, I would, baby. But you’d have to pick me back up, and that wouldn’t be pretty. I’m just saying.” The crowd cracked up.
Before that song, a young stagehand brought out a music stand for Powell, who got the call for the gig at the last minute and did not know the lyrics.
“He’s too young for me,” she said. “I ain’t going to jail.”
Of the long and lanky Murphy, Powell said: “I’d put him on a leash and not let him off till it’s time to go onstage.”
Murphy, who had been cracking his own jokes throughout, loved it. “Just being onstage with her is so funny,” he said. “I feel like she’s gonna spank me.”
Finally, let’s address attendance. I wrote about the challenges Murphy might face in his career in the print portion of this review, before the Roanoke Civic Center sent me the crowd count. That small turnout might in one respect be a sign of just how difficult it will be to make consistent money touring with a big band and playing old pop/jazz numbers. But as I wrote above, his voice is versatile, even making such cliche cover-band songs as “Mustang Sally,” “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” sound kind of new.
So here’s hoping Murphy gets with some good songwriters or has a few tricks up his own sleeve.