Portrait of the
Artist in Decline

Billy Murray’s Comeback and Final Years,
from the Jimmy Martindale Letters

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Allan Sutton

Jimmy Martindale — a prominent New York legal publisher — befriended Billy Murray in the late 1930s and, along with columnist Jim Walsh, was closely involved with Murray's various attempts at a comeback. Martindale accompanied Murray to several recording sessions, assisted him in finding radio work, and even attempted (without success) to sell Murray's life story to Paramount pictures. His many letters and cards to Walsh, now in the possession of the Library of Congress, provide a rare first-hand glimpse of Billy Murray in his declining years.

Billy Murray (second from right) with (from left to right) Will Oakland, Jimmy Martindale, and Jim Walsh. The occasion
was John Bieling Day, September 9, 1950, a gathering of veteran recording artists and their fans.
(Jim Walsh Papers, Library of Congress)

September 22, 1938

This early letter to Jim Walsh sets the scene, with Murray unemployed, in financial difficulty, and unable to adapt to new trends in entertainment.

Have seen a lot of Billy since arriving back and although he is all right from a physical standpoint mentally I have seen a change in him just since I went away in July. This is due to the fact that he is worried to death because he is not working and is having to get along entirely on what Madeline (his dear wife) is able to make doing piece work in a hat factory. Their income is very meager and at times that have difficulty in making ends meet… Billy is not skilled in any trade, as you can appreciate, and is possessed of absolutely no business acumen… Radio is a tough game, as you know, particularly here in New York and there doesn’t seem to be much an any place for old timers unless they can adapt themselves to the modern style and methods of entertainment. At time poor Billy seems to be in a daze over the while modern scheme and feels that the world is passing him by. …


February 3, 1939

In this letter, Martindale refers to Murray's performance on the "National Barn Dance" broadcasts, for which Murray had first been scheduled to appear on November 6, 1938. It was soon clear, however, that Murray would not be a permanent fixture on that show. He did perform on many later "National Barn Dance" broadcasts, but only after Henry Burr's death, bearing out the suspicions Martindale voices here. See Billy Murray on the Radio for full details of these broadcasts.

In answer to your query about Alka-Seltzer [sponsors of the National Barn Dance] I am afraid that they haven’t held out much hope of taking Billy on permanently yet. I think there is some politics out there that might stand in the way of such a possibility for our pal. To my way of thinking the big stumbling block in this connection is Henry Burr. Although he has been with the Barn Dance now for four years I figure he is of the opinion that if Billy were taken on for four or five successive shots he might quite reasonably displace him (Burr).

June 26, 1940

By this time, Martindale was working to secure a new recording contract for Murray, whose last releases had been some negligible children's records for Brunswick several years earlier.

Had lunch yesterday with Billy, Monroe Silver and Irving Kaufman. Do those names sound familiar? … It looks pretty hopeless for the old-timers in the recording field. They seem to want what the call “kids” for this work. It may be that the present-day record buying public want even their old time selections performed in a more or less modern style - - I’m sure I don’t know. It’s a cruel game in any case.

July 15, 1940

Martindale's persistence paid off in July 1940, when Murray was scheduled to make his first Victor sides since 1929, singing the vocal chorus with an RCA house group that would be credited as "Harry's Tavern Band." Martindale's guess that the sides would be assigned to the prestigious Victor label was wrong; they were issued (as were all of Murray's subsequent RCA sides) on Bluebird, RCA's popular budget label.

Billy & myself went to the Victor on 24th Street here in NY last Friday the 12th and Billy recorded with the house band under Leonard Joy, “IT’S THE SAME OLD SHILLELAGH.” The and opened with the chorus Billy sang a verse & chorus and then the band finished with two more choruses. The play back was thrilling — I thought I was dreaming — Billy sounded identically the same as he did 30 years ago. … Keep an eagle eye out for the release. Victor or Bluebird, but I think surely Victor. Isn’t that the nuts? Write Billy & tell him to keep after Victor — not to let it get cold.

August 31 , 1940

Martindale waxes optimistic following some initial positive reaction to Murray's first Bluebird release. A deal with Decca, however, never materialized.

Enclosed is a clipping which should help a great deal as well as a letter from Len Joy which looks decidedly encouraging. Billy has also gotten promising words from Dave Capp [sic] of Decca — so it really does begin to look as though there might be something in that “comeback” business, and all the prayers we said for our Buddy. There was also an item on the front page of “Variety” of Aug 21st about Billy’s comeback

October 1, 1940

The proposed Time interview mentioned here, if it ever occurred, was not published. The RCA session — this time with Murray as soloist and Harry's Tavern Band in just an accompanying role — was moved to October 15 and produced two more issued Bluebird sides.

The enclosed letter from Len Joy [of RCA-Victor] to Billy is self-explanatory and Billy didn’t want to go ahead on this interview with Mr. Balliett of “Time” until such time as you had been advised of the situation and could let us know if everything is on the “up and up” in this connection. … Billy has five numbers to submit to Joy and Len himself enclosed one to Billy as you can see by the last line of the letter. He expects to have Billy for a date week of October 7th. …

July 10 , 1940

With Murray's Bluebirds not selling well, Martindale expresses his discouragement over procuring additional recording work. However, Murray was indeed called back by RCA in December 1940 and February 1941, for additional Bluebird sessions.

Billy has not made any records since his last releases and, frankly, I do not know what the prospects are for the future. From what I have been able to glean it does not appear that his records have had any amount of exceptional sale or demand. As a matter of fact Joy intimated as much one day. I have inquired at a number of retail stores and in some there seems to be quite a healthy call in others none or very little. His name means nothing to the new tribe of record buyers and if his records sell it is purely on the basis of the appeal of the song.

August 5, 1941

Murray was called back to RCA on August 11, 1941. It would prove to be his last RCA session, however, and it produced no issued releases. Murray been suffering from a throat ailment, and despite Martindale's assessment, RCA judged his voice to be "too husky for recording."

Due to the fact that Len [Leonard Joy] had to go to Chicago the first three days of this week, Billy’s date was postponed to Monday August 11th at one thirty PM. … From what I can gather from dealers here and there his records are doing more than well. … He has quite recovered from his recent indisposition and seems to be in excellent health and voice.

November 17 , 1941

On November 15, 1941, Murray returned to the National Barn Dance for the first of many appearances. The RCA offer that Martindale was hoping for failed to materialize, however, and Murray continued to suffer from throat problems.

Saturday certainly was a “red letter Day” for us all, wasn’t it? You say in your card that Pete Lund says there is a possibility that our pal [Murray] may be made a permanent feature of the [National Barn Dance]. … This Saturday, the 22nd, they are to do a minstrel show that should give Billy a natural opportunity to do his stuff. … Everything seems to come out at once and the day before Billy left for Chicago Len Joy [of RCA-Victor] called up and wanted to see him. If he [Murray] becomes established in Chicago it will be very easy for him to hop to New York for recording and get back in plenty of time for Friday rehearsal of the Barn Dance. … Billy had been to several “specialists” as to his condition and they fiddled around and told him not to use his voice at all.


February 11, 1943

On this date, Martindale accompanied Murray and Murray Silver on what would be Murray's last recording date, for Joe Davis' new Beacon label. The record was dismissed by a New York Times reviewer as dated and "not funny."

Billy and Mike Silver made a double faced record for the “BEACON” label this afternoon. The title of the disc is “CASEY AND COHEN IN THE ARMY.” I went over to the studio and lent my support with some sound effects. …

October 6, 1943

With his Beacon issue experiencing negative reviews and slow sales, and with no prospects for further radio or recording work, Murray took a stock-clerk job at the nearby Grumman aircraft plant.

... the Boss has gotten a good position at the Grumman Airplane Plant on Long Island. He is working in a stock room and seems much elated with his work. … We did a heap of work on the Paramount picture possibility from the Chicago end as well as Hollywood but I am afraid to no avail. … I have just finished talking to the Boss. … He says they are running him ragged down there with requests to sing at various get-togethers, etc. He says he hasn’t used his pipes so much in years and says it is remarkable how the young folks go for the old songs. …

January 17, 1944

Murray and Martindale still hold out hope for further radio work.

Billy wanted me to ask you not to mention to anyone the fact that he is employed in the defense work — most particularly to Pete [Lund] of Wade in Chi[cago]. As he fears that if they are appraised [sic] of the fact they may not have him out there for [radio] work. In the event that they had a spot for him on the show he could easily get the time off to take it but they might not know that.

March 26 , 1944

In March 1944, Murray suffered a heart attack that put an end to any hopes for a quick comeback in recording or broadcasting. It signaled the start of Murray's long physical decline, which Martindale's letters document nearly up to the day of Murray's death.

... the Boss is feeling fine and resting well in the hospital. The progress of recovery in such heart cases as his is a long and tedious one and it has been decided that it will be best for him to remain as he is right in the hospital until such time as he is actually able to walk out under his own steam. …

August 2 , 1944

Did I tell you that Billy is back on the job at the Gruman [sic] plant? He has been on the job for about three weeks now and everything is going fine for him. They have been extraordinarily nice to him and make things as easy as possible at all times. They make him lie down and rest for about an hour twice a day — keep admonishing him to take it easy — and show him the most unusual consideration. …

April 28, 1951

Billy has not been feeling too good the last week or so…

May 27, 1953

Billy’s condition seems to follow the pattern of so many heart cases — he is up one day and down for two or three. He suffers from recurring “spasms” which invoke extreme shortness of breath & a certain amount of pain. I was out to see him yesterday and found him in a pretty depressed state of mind…

August 8, 1953

I was most happy to be able to report that the Boss is very much on the mend and is getting about the house quite normally again. Of course he is far from well and gets almost daily disturbances in his chest.

January 5, 1954

Murray's condition continued to deteriorate through the spring and summer of 1954, and much of Martindale's remaining correspondence is a variation on the theme of this letter.

The doctor told Maddy [Madeline] the other day to be prepared for anything at any time. He said that Billy was “slipping fast,” as he expressed it. The Boss is not confined to bed and keeps up a very good, brave front…


August 17 , 1954

Billy Murray collapsed and died at while on an outing at Jones Beach, New York.

The copyright status of Martindale's letters is uncertain. We believe the excerpts reproduced here — comprising only a negligible percentage of Martindale's extensive correspondence with Walsh — constitute fair use. However, persons wishing to quote this material should realize that it has not been conclusively established as being in the public domain. If quoting, please make certain to cite the source of the original documents (The Jim Walsh Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC).

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