Gamblin’ Ramblin’ Man
Gamblin’ Ramblin’ Man
A Q&A with Rick Murphy
Of Hollywood Nights
By Geoff Gehman
Rick Murphy went to the Spectrum in Philadelphia on Dec. 21, 1976 all ready to rock and roll all night long with KISS, his favorite musicians made up like the faces on Japanese fighter kites. The 11-year-old never expected to be blown away by opening act Bob Seger, who sang like a runaway train on fire.
“I thought that KISS was pumping iron but there was no end to the horsepower and the grit of that cat,” says Murphy of Seger, who was touring behind “Live Bullet,” his first hit album. “That’s what sold me on Bob Seger: his horsepower, and his grit. You just didn’t find a lot of singers with that passion and that power.”
Murphy already knew he wanted to rock the world. He had no way of knowing that 33 years later he would become the founding front man of Hollywood Nights, 10 musicians who perform songs Seger wrote and recorded with his Silver Bullet Band. Long haired and long bearded like a ’70s Seger, Murphy sings the likes of “Katmandu,” “Night Moves” and “Her Strut” with Seger-esque volcanic energy, bubbling soul and raw revival faith. He especially likes to blast through the core of “Let It Rock,” which he first heard the evening he was first floored by Seger.
On Sept. 5 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Murphy and his Hollywood Nights partners, including his singing wife, Robin, mother of their three daughters. Below, in a conversation from his home in Hainesport, N.J., he discusses a musical gift from his police-officer father, his previous life as a vocal impersonator, and why he hangs out with fans until they can’t hang out anymore.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: I’m a musician, which means that a lot of material has affected me immensely. The one song that had all the elements, that made realize I wanted to be a musician, was “Wonderworld” by a band named Elf with [lead vocalist] Ronnie James Dio. My older cousins turned me onto it when I was 11 years old. The piano and the drums and the strings and the guitar and the vocals and the ability to mix everything on top—that just did something to my core. Thinking about it right now gives me chills.
When people tell me they don’t know that “Wonderworld” exists, I tell them to listen to it on YouTube. Thank god for YouTube—and Smart TV. The best thing I did was buy a Smart TV a month ago. I love watching old gigs on shows like “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” You couldn’t do that back in the day. Back then you looked at the album over and over and over, waiting for the band to come to town.
Q: You got your first jolt of live entertainment electricity at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, N.J., where your police-officer dad worked overtime as a security guard. Why did that experience make you think: Hmm, that’s a party I’d like to join one day.
A: I can remember that crystal clear. I was six years old and my dad would be coming back from the casino with all these autographed pictures of famous acts. I’d beg him to take me to work with him and eventually he got tired of my begging and he let me come to the casino. I went backstage and peered out at the stage; I think the performer that night was Frank Sinatra but to be honest with you it might have been Engelbert Humperdinck. It didn’t matter to me; it was magical. I was playing drums a week later, my mom bought me a snare, and I was good to go.
Q: It was in 2009 when talent-agency owner Frank Kielb, who booked your long-term band, Wicked Cricket, suggested that you form a Seger tribute group to capitalize on your big voice and your big love of classic rock. What did you learn during the month you spent absorbing Seger’s music into your blood stream?
A: Man, I found that here was a guy I would give anything to just sit down and have a beer with and just talk. I felt that everything he did revolved around giving everything he had to give, around hard work and hard sweat. His lyrics reflected his philosophy; his words were so in line with my life.
The thing that scared me is that I knew right away I had to have 10 people minimum to pull this off. I wasn’t afraid of the hard work; I just thought that putting 10 people together would be too difficult. Eventually I got over my hypocrisy. Seger’s words actually made me say: If you want to succeed, you can’t give up.
You know, I spent four years in the Navy but I never stopped playing; I always dug deep into the music. I always wanted to be that guy who had that bus with the wife and family on tour, who walked into the arena before the show, with the roadies all around, and looked out onto the stage and felt lucky that I was making people happy. That was going to be my life because I felt that I wanted it for all the right reasons.
Eventually I learned that it’s not good enough to just be a good craftsman. You have to be a good businessman, too. If you believe in yourself enough, people will believe in you and give you a chance. And that’s what I keep telling younger musicians: Surround yourself with good, humble people. Keep working. Keep selling. Stay humble. And don’t cry over spilled milk.
Q: Had anyone said you sounded like Seger before you began singing his songs in public?
A: [Long pause] Not that I can remember, to be honest with you. I actually grew up thinking for a while that I’d be a comedian. I was doing a lot of impersonations in front of my family when I was a really young kid. When I was 12 or 13 I rolled what I learned about impersonating into singing. Later on, I had semi-successful cover bands where I sounded like Steve Perry [of Journey], Geddy Lee [of Rush} and Rik Emmett [of Triumph]. When I began singing in Hollywood Nights, I put the impersonator behind me. I’m not manipulating my vocal cords to be Bob Seger. It’s just me, Rick Murphy, singing Bob Seger material. That’s why I can do three gigs in a row and still have the horsepower at the end.
Q: You must have been relieved to sing within your natural range, to sing with your natural attack, to build a nest in Seger’s vocal wheelhouse.
A: It was great to finally sing with the voice you’re born with, to blow hot air full bore. When the sound guys tell you that you have the same power on the first song as on the last notes of the last song, “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” you know you’re bringing it right.
Q: What did you do to look more like Seger in his ’70s heyday? I read along the way that your wife was initially not too fond of the Seger-like beard you grew.
A: I used to have a little goatee but generally I was pretty clean shaven. She was not entirely pleased when I grew the beard [laughs]. What I realized is if I can sound a bit like Bob Seger, if I can move a little like Bob Seger, and if I can look a little bit like Bob Seger, maybe all those elements can make the experience more enjoyable for an audience. Maybe it can make them think, when they go home: “Man, that took me back.”
You know, I have a friend who can sing Journey songs better than anyone I know. He joined a Journey tribute band after the lead singer left due to a death in his family and he blew everybody away. The problem was, the band couldn’t get used to seeing someone who sang like Steve Perry with bleached-blond punk hair.
Now, if I’m a Seger fan and I’m coming to hear someone sing his songs in a band like Hollywood Nights, I don’t think I’d like seeing somebody who’s clean shaven, somebody with no hair. Whereas if you see a long-haired, bearded guy, somebody who looks like Bob did in the ’70s, well, you may have better memories. I don’t know if it’s working. But for me to make any changes now would be unproductive.
Q: It makes perfect sense that you perform crowd favorites like “Hollywood Nights,” “We’ve Got Tonight” and “Turn the Page.” But how about playing earlier, less popular Seger tunes like “Long Song Comin’” and “Gets Ya Pumpin’”?
A: We’ve played pre-Silver Bullet stuff like “Rosalie” and “Back in ’72.” The question is: Do you risk playing a song for three people, or do you take care of the masses? What do you do when that lone wolf yells out: “Play ‘Two Plus Two’!”? Do you sacrifice that home run for the deep cut in the catalog? My job as a front man is to understand what the audience is feeling, and liking, through the night. Sometimes I’ll change the set list during the show; sometimes I’ll make corrections to bring the temperature up.
We all have our version of what we think the ideal Bob Seger experience should be; that’s the funny thing about music. The bottom line is that we as musicians have to believe in what we’re doing. When a song doesn’t go over as well as you think it should, that sometimes can mess with a band’s head. And you don’t want a band to lose faith.
Q: How closely do you follow Seger’s career and life; how closely do you pay attention to his night and day moves?
A: I follow his career but I’m not top of things; I’m not the smartest navigator. From what I’ve read and heard he seems to be a very low-key guy. He stays under the radar; he doesn’t come up for air that much. He likes to golf. He’s definitely a good father. At one point he left the [music] business so he could raise his daughter. My hat’s off to him: raising a daughter is our first priority.
Q: What do the folks in Seger’s camp think about you guys playing tunes minted by Seger and the Silver Bullet Band?
A: We just played Detroit [ground zero for Seger Nation] for the first time about three months ago—a place called The Magic Bag. We had 80 people that night but every one of those people came up at the end of the night and said: “You are now our band.” Which was a big deal, because there are many Bob Seger tribute bands in the area.
A week and a half ago I had a three-way phone call with Alto Reed [Seger’s longtime saxophonist]. We had reached out to him to play with us for two and a half years. I thought the time had passed but our manager kept going and finally got through to him. He said: “I hear you guys made a pretty good mark in Detroit.” I was surprised to hear him say that, since the crowd was so small. “Well,” he said, “”there were some people from different camps you don’t know about and you made an impression; that’s why I’m calling you.” Turns out that little gig I didn’t think had made a big impression.made a big impression. .
Q: What do you understand and admire about Seger that you didn’t before you began singing his songs in public?
A: I admire that he never cried over spilled milk over signing away all the rights to “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” or giving away “Like a Rock” to the Chevy corporation without getting any money because he wanted to help unemployed people in the automobile industry, or packing up his act to raise his family. I tell people at the shows: You know, man, you have to give something back to your fellow human being, whether you’re the richest guy in your neighborhood or the middle-class guy or the poorest guy. I always had those qualities deep down but I was afraid to talk about them. I think Bob gave me the confidence to put that into my performance.
You know, I’m 50 years old and I’m blessed to be performing. I’m singing classic rock, I’m singing Bob Seger music, I’ve got it pretty good. It’s hard for me to get work for Hollywood Nights in New Jersey, even though I live here. We have no problem finding work in Ohio, upstate New York, Maine, Massachusetts or Connecticut. But I’m not giving up on New Jersey.
Q: So, Rick, what tops your Bucket List—besides spreading the Seger gospel throughout New Jersey?
A: Do you mind if I say something unattainable? It would be sitting with my wife in front-row seats, I don’t care where, listening to Frank Sinatra in his prime, when he was the king of all superstars. We’d be eating a prime dinner, drinking a nice drink, enjoying Frank sing his ass off about a freakin’ flower with the wind blowing. I mean, man, how many guys can sing about the wind blowing and make it sound so cool?
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Gossip. Fuck gossip, especially saying shit about people you don’t even know. If we said “Fuck you” to gossip, marriages would last longer, children would be healthier, and we wouldn’t have as many problems across the world.
Rick Murphy: The Scoop
He works as a line inspector for Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G), his employer for 26 years.
As an elementary schooler he fell under the spell of Ivan Rebroff (1931-2008), a German-Russian singer with a phenomenally broad voice. “Back in the early ’70s, when I first heard him, he could sing more octaves than any male singer in the world. I think he was the inspiration for my impersonations, stretching my range, manipulating my voice. Our bearded gentleman from Russia deserves some of the credit for who Rick Murphy is today.”
He named his Seger tribute band Hollywood Nights because he thought it would be more marketable and memorable than, say, Travelin’ Man, the name of a less well-known Seger song. “I’d rather have somebody pull off my toenails,” he says, “than name another band.”
His mother once wrote “What a handsome son I have” on Hollywood Night’s Facebook page. “She’s always chiming in. She was the one who bought me that first snare drum. She didn’t mind me banging that drum day after day, year after year.”
One of his favorite Seger videos on YouTube is a version of “Higher and Higher” recorded at a radio station with female background vocalists. “It’s all scratchy and from what I’ve read they did it in one take but, man, this girl who sang the verses was on fire. Bob says he can’t release those songs because they have to be redone. If I ever talk to him, I’ll tell him that, man, the songs you don’t think are good are good–they’re the true essence.”
He greets listeners long after the end of concerts partly because he wasn’t greeted by his early musical heroes. “I’m no superstar, but if somebody wants to talk to me, I’m not going to be that guy to let them down. I’m going to stick around until there’s no one else around to talk to me, until I wear everyone out.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Seger songs include “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” “Night Moves” and “Mainstreet.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.