As the son of a coal miner, growing up in the small town of Logan, West Virginia, Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. first heard Big Band music while watching Looney Tunes cartoons. Now, at 42, the winner of NBC TV’s “America’s Got Talent” in 2011 will showcase his interpretation of the early 20th century’s most important American popular songs and jazz standards—AKA the Great American Songbook—at a Saturday, Aug. 19 swing dance in Glen Echo Park’s Spanish Ballroom.
“Winning wasn’t what I was trying to do,” said Murphy about his decision to audition for the competition. “I was just hoping to get an audience. I put it in God’s hands, and it all fell into place.”
Murphy’s road has not been easy. His parents split up when he was 12, and he and his mother moved from West Virginia to Detroit. The concrete jungle’s realities of urban violence and crime—absent from his rural upbringing–shocked him.
“The craziest thing I had witnessed before that was ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ (the 1980s television series). There were drugs, crime and gangs. When I had the opportunity to move back, I took it; I was so glad to because most of my friends in Detroit were dead by the time they were 20 or 21,” he recalled. “I’m 42. I feel I’ve accomplished a lot.”
However, the return to West Virginia was not ideal. With the arrival of his stepfather’s new girlfriend, Murphy was kicked out of his home at age 19. He now views his homelessness with a different attitude, saying it helped him develop as a musician and as a human being.
“When you’re sleeping in your car, all you can do is listen to music all day,” he said. “I hung out with people from the bottom of the barrel. It helped me realize how much I need to love life.”
After getting back on his feet, Murphy worked as a construction worker and later washed cars, so he could listen to music and sing while he worked.
That quiet life turned upside down when he appeared on and won “America’s Got Talent.” To the judges, Murphy’s singing ability and choice of Big Band music was a surprise due to his age and laid-back appearance. Judge Piers Morgan even chastised him for chewing gum on stage during an audition round.
Murphy went all the way to the finals, winning the audience vote as well as the $1 million cash prize. Since his 2011 debut CD, “That’s Life,” which was number one on the Billboard Jazz chart, Murphy has released one live album and two more studio albums. On the most recent, “Landau,” he included some of his own compositions along with Great American Songbook classics like “Come Fly with Me,” the 1957 song that Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote for Frank Sinatra.
When Murphy composes his songs, he said, “I think, ‘what if Frank Sinatra was singing’ It’s just me standing in my garage, all the thoughts running through my head. I record it in my smartphone, think of a melody and send it to some arrangers.”
Since then, he has maintained a busy cross-country concert touring schedule, and has raised more than $1 million for children’s and homeless charities. He said he talks to his fans whenever possible, at meet-and-greets before and after his shows, and tries to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. “I do autographs for the janitors, (and) just appreciate the fans.”
As for his upcoming gig at Glen Echo, Murphy said, “The audience can expect a great interpretation of the American Songbook, pictures, autographs, a wonderful big band and a great time.”
The Glen Echo Park Partnership will present a swing dance with live music by Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. on Saturday, Aug. 19 in the historic Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd. Tom and Debra of Gottaswing will teach a beginner dance lesson from 8 to 9 p.m., followed by dancing until midnight. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.glenechopark.org.