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Mark Murphy: Hip Parade/Playing the Field

Some argue, justifiably, that Mark Murphy’s stellar career didn’t really commence until he signed with Riverside and, in 1961, sculpted the superlative Rah! from pure jazz ice. But it’s tough not to be fascinated by Murphy’s formative years when neither he nor two major labels knew quite what direction to point him in. His 1956 and ’57 debut albums for Decca, shaped almost exclusively around pop and jazz standards, clearly hinted at emerging genius but failed to transform him into 52nd Street’s answer to Sinatra. So he hitched and hiked to California, nearly starved and in 1958 was finally thrown a lifeline by Capitol.

His first Capitol outing, the soft-swingin’ This Could Be the Start of Something, suggested Murphy might hold his own against übercool labelmates Peggy Lee and June Christy, but it failed to sell. What to do? How about recasting Murphy as the hipper answer to Philly boy-toys like Frankie Avalon and Fabian? Result: the laughably titled Hip Parade, with Murphy covering contemporary hits that ranged from good (Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and “All the Way”) to fair (Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star,” Johnny Mathis’ syrupy “It’s Not for Me to Say,” Nat Cole’s “Send for Me”) to lamentable (“Lloyd Price’s “Personality,” Avalon’s “Venus”). Several decades later, Murphy wisely reasoned that “people who wanted those songs didn’t want to hear me, and people who liked me didn’t want those songs.”

Still, Hip Parade proved Murphy’s ability to turn a sow’s ear into at least a sateen purse. Far better, and far more indicative of his future greatness, was 1960’s Playing the Field, including a sizzling ride through “Put the Blame on Mame,” a terrifically loose-limbed “As Long As I Live” and a superbly spare, tender “I Didn’t Know About You.” He even managed to make the labored “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” swing. But Field, too, made a quick detour to the discount bins. Capitol dropped Murphy. Kapp considered him but opted instead for vanilla-flavored Jack Jones. Kapp’s loss was Riverside’s brilliant gain.

Originally Published