Sojourner’s Truth Staff
Clifford Murphy, icon and legendary bassist in the group, The Murphy’s, was a major influence in both the local and international jazz communities. He played with some of the best musicians in the business including Claude Black, Ray Brown, Jon Hendricks, Kenny Burrell, Joe Henderson, and Wynton Marsalis.
Joan Russell, Clifford Murphy’s partner for 38 years, a music producer in her own right and the business manager of Murphy’s Place, was instrumental in transforming it into a club nationally known as the place that “everyone who was anyone” wanted to play.
Murphy’s Place was an inspiration. Located on Water Street during its later years, the club’s physical layout was unique. The stage for The Murphy’s was on the lower level and the audience surrounded the musicians on three sides – tables and the bar on that lower level, additional tables on upper levels on both sides. It was an intimate setting for all in attendance.
The musicians, whether seasoned pros like Murphy and Brown or young neophytes from the Toledo School for the Arts or the University of Toledo, were always outstanding. For audience members, the nights were exceptional. The music and the ambience meant that an evening spent in the nightclub was an evening well spent.
Regrettably, Russell’s death in 2011 brought an end to Murphy’s Place.
Twenty years ago, The Truth sat down with Clifford Murphy and chatted with him about his musical and personal journey.
From December 2002
Clifford Murphy is a Toledo jazz legend. Arguably he might have been the best jazz musician this city has produced since Art Tatum. Like Tatum, Murphy was born in Toledo. He graduated from Scott High School in 1952 and went straight into the armed services, just in time to put in his stint in the Korean War.
“Once I was out, I started playing bass,” said Murphy. And fortunately for jazz aficionados, he hasn’t stopped yet. Murphy said Louis Payne fronted the first band he played for. “I was on the road with him for a couple of years,” recalls Murphy. “Back then I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. I got married and divorced. The family thing didn’t work,” he says. But that marriage did produce the Murphy’s Quintet – his five kids: Kathleen, Deborah, Jacqueline, Sherry and Kevin.
So, Murphy packed up his bass and came back to Toledo. He played at the old Club M&L, where the house band trio included Cindy Johnson and John Mast. But then the road bug hit him again and this time he traveled with the Glenn Covington group for about three years. “We played Florida, Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, all the big resorts. And then we later wound up playing a lot of Southern venues, places like Mobile and Arkansas. But those were always good audiences,” says Murphy.
“That’s one of the reasons why I finally decided to open my own club. U was always going to so many different places,” he adds.
That dream came closer to becoming a reality when Murphy met Joan Russell, who was a teacher at Maumee Valley Country Day School.
“She had the business management that I needed,” says Murphy. Murphy played at the old Digby’s on Water Street for five years before he and Joan opened the first Murphy’s Place on Madison. When they had to move, the location they found to house the new Murphy’s Place was the site of the old Digby’s.
The Murphys, who are the permanent house attraction, now comprise Claude Black on piano, Wendell Robinson on drums and Murphy. “We’ve been blessed,” says Murphy.
And so have been Toledo jazz fans who have heard guest stars like Joe Henderson, guitarist Kenny Burell and Nicholas Payton perform at the club, which is located opposite Promenade Park. Murphy is vey much attuned to the younger kids who have taken up jazz. In fact, Murphy’s Place hosts a regular Monday night student jam session to showcase their talents.
“Some of these young people coming up are really playing well,” he says.
Neighborhood Health Association (NHA) and the City of Toledo will honor jazz icons Clifford Murphy and Joan Russell by renaming the corner of Jefferson and Summit in their honor. The street, to be called Murphy’s Place, is located on the same block and carries the same name as the club that came to be known for its first-class jazz, the mentoring of young musicians and for being the stomping ground for some of the best musicians in the business.
“There are those people who almost instinctively know how to inspire others, to make them know that they can do anything. Joan and Clifford were those people. Murphy’s Place was this warm and wonderful place where the love of music was the great equalizer. It is critical that we remember and honor those who have contributed to the growth of this community in such a profound way” said Doni Miller, NHA CEO who, along with local musician Scott Potter, organized the event.
The street renaming will occur at the corner of Summit and Jefferson at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 17, 2022. An afterparty featuring performances by a number of local musicians will be held that evening at TolHouse, 1447 Summit St. in Toledo, Ohio.
Toledo City Councilwoman Vanice Williams will present the families of Clifford and Joan with Resolutions in honor of their contributions to local and national jazz culture.