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Eddie Murphy Q&A: 'Even If I Was Dead Broke, I Would Play My Guitar'

Eddie Murphy

In a rare interview about music, Murphy opens up about his upcoming album "9," plus plans to return to the live stage, future releases and how Rick James did everything on "Party All The Time"

If you're reading these words, chances are Eddie Murphy is making music. "I never stop," he says with a laugh -- one of the most famous laughs in world history. It's what Murphy's been doing for much of the past five years -- a time when he's chosen to focus on his lifelong passion for recording music in his home studio over starring in movies. 

Yet to those of us who've been watching Murphy since he first exploded as a superstar on "Saturday Night Life" in 1980, music has always played a significant part in his comedy, from his musical parodies on that show, right through to his Academy Award-nominated turn in "Dreamgirls." Indeed, Murphy's recorded three albums of music, starting with "How Could It Be" in 1985, which hit No. 26 on the Billboard 200 and featured "Party All The Time" -- his collaboration with Rick James -- a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Today, he's invited Billboard into his home studio to discuss the place of music in his life and his upcoming album "9," being released independently on Feb. 9. Murphy's first new album since 1993's "Love's Alright" is already off to a promising start: "Red Light" -- a classic-sounding reggae jam featuring Snoop Lion -- was released along with a video in September. He followed that up with "Promise (You Won't Break My Heart)" -- a pretty piece of vulnerable, Quiet Storm soul -- which is fast rising on Billboard's R&B Singles charts, entering this week at No. 33 on the Adult R&B airplay chart without any major label push.

As Eddie Murphy explains here, his passion music is even bringing him back to the idea of performing live for people again as he explains here:

Eddie, what was the first music to really connect with you growing up?
The Beatles. I love the Beatles. The very first song in my memory is "Do You Want To Know A Secret?" (EDDIE SINGS THE CHORUS) For years, I thought John was singing that song, but then I realized it was George. I remember standing by a radio and just listening to that song. Growing up, I liked all the stuff that everyone else was listening to, like Motown, but the biggest group of all was The Beatles.

Did you go to concerts growing up?
My first concert makes me sound like a real old man. My very first concert was Jackie Wilson. I was eight years old at the RKO Albee in Brooklyn in like 1969. My mother took me to see Jackie Wilson. The bill was Jackie, The Five Stairsteps and The Sandpebbles. That was a first concert.

That's a very soulful start. When did you realize that you could sing?
You know what's a trip? Music has always been around with me.  Like I had a band before I did standup. I had a band when I was like 15 in high school. The name of the band was EMMK. It was the Eddie Murphy Mitchell Keiser Band. Mitchell Keiser was the guy who was my first comedy partner. We formed a band because we could both do impressions, and we were like "You know what would be really cool -- if we could do Beatles impressions and get a real band playing." So we got a band together and played behind us while we did Beatle impressions. Eventually, it turned into a real band.

Were you writing songs back then?
No, we were playing stuff like The Commodores' "Sweet Love" and Earth, Wind & Fire songs. If you look back on the funny stuff that I've done over the years, there's been a lot that had music in it. I was always singing parodies, but if you listened to it, what would make it funnier was that the singing would be kind of cool. I did all these different impressions and could do all these things with my voice because I have a really wide range when I sing.

Do you get something different from music than you do from comedy?
You know what? I do music all the time. Just when I'm around the house, I have my guitar and stuff with me all the time. I don't do jokes all the time. (LAUGHS) It's like one thing is constant, and the other is something I make money for doing. I'm not shitting on comedy. I love to make people laugh. But even if I was dead broke, I would play my guitar, but I would not be writing jokes.

Have you shared this music with lots of people in recent years?
No, I've been tracking and shelving it.

So what made you think that this is the time to put out an album, especially at a time when the whole idea of albums is being challenged?
I guess this all started when we tracked "Red Light." We were so excited with it. We thought we should just put this really strong reggae track out, but not make a fuss, do it independent. Somehow that turned into, "Why don't we put a whole album out?" Because we had a lot of strong material. We could put out a double album. If this album finds an audience, we have another album all ready.

Were you encouraged by the positive reception to "Red Light"?
Yeah, that's what they told me. I haven't seen it. I don't be going on computers and all that stuff, and I really don't be reading reviews. What if people said it sucked? That would hurt my feelings. So I don't read that stuff.

Now "Promise (You Won't Break My Heart)" is the second single and it's already debuted this week in the Top 40 on Billboard R&B chart. How did that song start?
"Promise" started with me just playing the little guitar licks for about a month. Trent who helped me produce the album was like "You should write something to that." Then that first line popped out. Sometimes it comes out all at once, and other times just in pieces.

Is guitar your main instrument?
Yeah, I play a little bit of piano, but mostly guitar.

Let's talk about some of the songs on the album. "Mellow Miss Mary" – which Snoop is also on -- sounds like a really moving love song to a particular popular weed.
Yeah, on the surface it sounds like you're talking about a girl. That song originally started out back with Rick James, but then Rick kicked out. Rick loved that song. That's how old that track is. It was supposed to be the new weed anthem.

Eddie and Rick

Do you think when you were working all those years ago with Rick James made people assume he did everything?
When I did that track "Party All The Time" with Rick, he really was doing everything. In the early days of "Party All The Time" and some other tracks I did with people like Larry Blackmon, I would do whatever they said. Rick did all of "Party All The Time" and other stuff we did together. I was supposed to fly in for one day, then a snowstorm hit and we got snowed in and stuck in Buffalo for two weeks. One of my best early memories is that time with Rick James. The whole way I record, I learned from Rick James. I learned how to produce music from hanging around Rick James.

As one of the writers of the "Eddie Murphy: One Night Only" tribute to you last year that aired on Spike, we were thrilled when you made a little music onstage with Stevie Wonder.
Oh, that little improvised moment? That was the moment of the night.

Was Stevie one of the musical role models for you?
Steve is like our African American national treasure. Everybody loves Stevie. He's almost like a relative to all of us.

Do you get satisfaction from simply making the music without even putting it out?
I get everything out of just doing it. I haven't put out a record in years and years because I didn't want to get put in that weird place. Every now and then an actor puts out a record and it looks strange. The record is weird. It looks bizarre. And I didn't want to look like that, so I just stopped.

 

NEXT PAGE: Eddie On His Return to the Stage and Why a James Brown Biopic May Be Out of the Question 

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Do you think being one of the top comedians of all-time got in the way of your musical identity?
I don't even think people know about this side of me. If they know anything, it's "Party All The Time." And that's a small group of people. I wouldn't say that ever got in the way of making music, because I never stopped doing it. And it wasn't like I was trying to keep the lights on making music. So I just stopped putting music out, but I never stopped doing it.

This is a beautiful home studio. Can you do whatever you want here?
Yeah, now you don't even need all this shit. All you need is a computer and you can crush it.

This house is beautiful too.
Thanks man, I built this crib like eight years ago. This was supposed to be my second home. We were out here so much; it was like let's get a house instead of renting houses. We built it for four years, and just as it got finished, my wife wanted the divorce. It was like you put the key in the door, and the house exploded. It was a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But it's all good now. It worked out perfect.

Do you like the musical process where you can create something from start to finish without too much outside influence?
Yeah, that's what I do. I haven't really made a movie in almost five years. I did a couple of weeks on that movie "Tower Heist" because I was a producer of it.

How aware or concerned are you with the changes in the music industry?
I never really was in the record business. What I like now is that we could track something, shoot something and just put it up on YouTube the day you cut it. I love that. I could track that new track "Temporary" the other day, shoot a video and put it up Friday. I like that. And you can put a blast out and let people know you have something new and not have to wait for radio.

Do you miss being onstage?
It's been so long since I've been on the stage, I can't say I miss it. But I'd like to do it again. But if I get back onstage, I want to do something really, really special.  Do some shit  I haven't done. I'll tell you, I had a band Psychedelic Soul with Larry Graham about eighteen, twenty years ago, and we did some dates. We did like the Montreux Jazz Festival, and that was a lot of fun. So doing music and comedy together would be really great. 

People are going to get very excited by this. So you really might return to performing onstage?
This whole thing is leading to get back on the stage again. And if I get back on the stage, I want to really do everything. If I did stand up again, I couldn't see doing a show where I just do standup. If I get on the stage again, I want to do everything. So let me do some music. Then I'll go out and get my standup, and then I'll go out and have a show like no one has ever had a show.

Do you think this will happen in the next year or two?
As soon as I get my little music thing together. First, I'm going to put this record out. I'm putting a band together and we're going to go out and do some little club stuff, and get my band super tight.

Would the musical Eddie Murphy open for the stand up Eddie Murphy?
I've thought about how it would be structured. You know how you go to see a show, and in between the songs there's this little banter. I think my banter would just be a little longer and much funnier than most people's banter.

Can you sing all the "9" material live?
Oh yeah, I can sing and play and do my stuff just like on a record. First, it's going to be just music live, but maybe in a year or two, it will be everything.

Would you like to make more movie musicals? Obviously, people loved "Dreamgirls."
I don't know. "Dreamgirls," I loved being in that. But then when they were trying to get together that James Brown movie thing together, I was thinking about doing that, but now I'm too old.

You don't look too old.
I'm 52. I can't do no splits -- even if I look like I could do one. I wish I'd been at the show when James Brown did his last split. There had to come a time when James realized, "I can't do that split no more. That's the very last split there." I bet James called a meeting after, and said, (IMITATING JAMES) "There ain't going to be no splits no more! You're going to have to double up on the cape thing!" [LAUGHS]