BILLY MURRAY PAGES
Artist in Decline
Murray’s Comeback and Final Years,
from the Jimmy Martindale Letters
edited, and annotated by Allan Sutton
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.
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)
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. …
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
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.
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
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
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
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. …
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
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.
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 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.
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
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. …
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. …
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 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. …
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. …
Billy has not been feeling too good
the last week or so…
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
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.
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…
17 , 1954
Murray collapsed and died at while on an outing at Jones Beach, New York.
Note: 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,