Nashville Songwriter, Producer and 'Door Opener' to Fellow Canadians Ralph Murphy Dies at 75

Ralph Murphy
Grant W. Martin Photography

Ralph Murphy at the 2019 SOCAN Awards with the SOCAN Special Achievement Award.

Kind, wise and generous with his time are the recurring sentiments used to describe songwriter, producer, educator and author Ralph Murphy who died yesterday (May 28) of pneumonia in Nashville. He was 75.

Willingly opening doors for newcomers to Nashville, the British-born Canadian, who had lived in Music City since the late 70s and was known to some as "Da Murph," produced platinum-selling albums for April Wine, and wrote or co-wrote songs that were covered by Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Sir Cliff Richard, Ronne Milsap, Ray Price, Crystal Gayle, and more. He was publisher and co-owner with Roger Cook of Picalic Group of Companies.

A few weeks ago, Murphy was in Toronto at Canadian Music Week, chatting with friends and admirers, who were often one and the same.  Not too long before that, on April 1, he was in town to accept a special achievement award from The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada at the SOCAN Awards "for his prodigious achievements in songwriting and his lifetime commitment to passing along his great wisdom to aspiring music creators."

The SOCAN member and one-time vice-president of The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Nashville and former president of Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) frequently spoke at schools, camps, conferences, classes and workshops around the world about the craft of songwriting. In 2013, he released Murphy's Laws of Songwriting: The Book.

On his website, he wrote: "This book represents a voyage of discovery. As a child, watching the joy/solace/comfort/pure pleasure people took in singing songs, I wanted to write the words and music that became 'their song'. I wanted to hear those songs sung in the clubs, on the street, in the car, and in grocery stores. I wanted people dancing, falling in love, falling out of love, skating, or doing dishes to them. In other words, I wanted hits. Not just hits but big hits...hits that would last."

Murphy was born in Saffron Walden, England, but his love of music and songwriting began in Canada; his family had settled in the small community of Wallaceburg, Ontario when he was a kid. He returned to the U.K. in his late teens, heading to Liverpool, home of The Beatles. Playing in a club there, as a duo with Jack Klaeysen, the Kinks walked in and told them that London was the place to be. The pair got dropped off there by the roadies and a few months later signed a record deal with Pye (home of The Kinks, The Searchers) and Murphy a publishing deal with Mills Music. As the Guardsmen, and later as The Slade Brothers, they opened for The Byrds, The Walker Brothers, The Hollies, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, The Kinks, The Troggs, and Martha and the Vandellas.

Murphy’s first No. 1 (with Klaeysen) was in Europe, a song called "Call My Name," covered by James Royal. In 1969, he moved to New York -- just close enough to Ontario, Canada -- where he produced April Wine’s On Record, which included the hits "You Could’ve Been a Lady" and "Bad Side of the Moon" and was hired to do the follow-up, Electric Jewels, as well as other Canadian bands, such as Brutus and Mashmakhan.

Around this time, he had a No. 2 country hit with Jeannie C. Riley's "Good Enough to Be Your Wife," which won an ASCAP Award in 1972.  He flew down to Nashville for the first time, loved it, and relocated permanently by '76, creating the successful Picalic. Among their hits, Milsap's "He Got You" (Murphy/Cook); and Gayle's "Half The Way" (Murphy/Bobby Wood) and No. 1 "Talking In Your Sleep" (Cook/Wood).

In the past three decades, in addition to songwriting, Murphy has held many song-related industry positions, such as president of The Nashville Chapter of the Recording Academy, a NARAS national trustee and president of the NSAI, vice president for the international and domestic membership group of ASCAP, as well as sitting on the southern regional writers advisory board of ASCAP,  the Songwriters Guild of America regional advisory board and was a member of NSAI, NARAS, CMA, CCMA, SAC, SGA, and ASCAP.

"Ralph always fought for what was best for all songwriters and I will miss his unique perspective and incredibly valuable insights," said ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews. "Ralph was a loyal ambassador for songwriters whose heart was always in the right place. All of us at ASCAP have lost a great friend and one of our best advocates. We will miss his story telling, his humor and the warmth and love he shared with so many."

In 2012, Murphy was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. He also received the Jo Walker-Meador International Award, presented in Nashville by the Country Music Association for supporting "Country Music's marketing development" internationally.

Two weeks ago, in his childhood hometown, the Wallaceburg and District Council for the Arts held an event for Murphy at the Jeanne Gordon Theatre, "celebrating the life and music of one of [its] own."

His long-time friend, Richard Flohil — a publicist and show promoter who met Murphy back in the 70s or 80s when he worked at the defunct performing rights organization CAPAC — was at the event. He describes it for online Canadian music biz trade FYI Music News in his obituary for Murphy: "The celebration in his hometown was heartfelt. His friends and neighbours heard some of his songs, sung by Thomas Wade and John and Michelle Law and Jamie Warren. And this writer offered a keynote speech, a tribute to Murphy and to the art of writing songs — and how important that gift is to the world, and how it preserves stories and reflects the lives of the writers and their audiences."

Flohil noted Murphy was "recovering from cancer radiation that had mostly robbed him of his voice," and was "obviously weak," speaking "sparingly, but he greeted friends, some of them going back to his childhood, with warmth and grace."

In the hours since his passing, there have been many tributes online to Murphy from songwriters, publishers, and other industry types, young and old, expressing their sadness and reflecting on a kind man who always had time, listened with interest, gave good hugs and was willing and able to make any introduction. Many are glad they got to see him this year at functions that honoured his legacy, his commitment to his craft and his generosity with what he had learned over 50 years in the business.

Below are some tributes:

Randy Bachman (The Guess Who, BTO): I've known Ralph for over 50 years. We met in London 1967 and stayed friends forever. He was an amazing guy and friend [and] was every songwriter's friend. We shared many adventures together and, in the aftermath our divorces, we were sharing our broken hearts and shattered lives in London. In the middle of our conversation, he looked at me and said, "It's just part of life. One day you wake up and ‘The Dance is Over.' I said, ‘Wow! What a title! Let's write it.' So we did. It's one of the best songs I've ever co-written and no one's ever heard it. So I'm going to post it on my website so people can hear the other side of Ralph. As a tribute to Ralph, give it a listen. I got a sweet note from Leigh Hiller about what a great reunion Ralph is now having with Tony. Two of my greatest friends and now they're both angels. 

Myles Goodwyn (April Wine): Ralph Murphy died yesterday.  I heard the news on the way home from a performance where I sang a few songs that Ralph brought to April Wine to record almost 50 years ago. "You Could Have Been a Lady," "I'm on Fire For You" and "Bad Side of The Moon." He was a song man and I learned a lot working with him. "Write everyday," he once told me. Ralph had a great sense of humour, a giving person...genuine and passionate, a songwriter in every sense of the word.  A few weeks ago I sent him a country song that I'd written recently, to be included on my new blues recording, Myles Goodwyn and Friends of the Blues 2. He said, "I love it. I will be listening to it again, again and again." Thank you for all your inspiration and your friendship. He will be missed by all that had the good fortune to know him. Rest in peace Ralph.

Paul Williams (ASCAP president and chairman): Ralph Murphy was a giant in music. For more than five decades and across several continents, his bountiful gifts as a songwriter, performer, musician, producer, author, educator and music advocate touched millions of people around the world. As a long-time member of the ASCAP family, he was a relentless champion of ASCAP's mission to nurture each new generation of music creators to master their craft and fulfill their potential. He would often ask songwriters: "Have you told the whole story?" We'll never know what stories Ralph had left to tell. But we do know that his legacy will enrich the lives of music creators for years to come. To some of us he was simply ‘Da Murph,' a title that seems to best describe a true gentleman, world traveler and remarkable friend.

Michael McCarty (chief membership and business development officer, SOCAN): Ralph was a proud SOCAN member and as an ASCAP executive, he was SOCAN's greatest link to them. He was the Godfather of Nashville, our unofficial ambassador, door opener, and revealer of the secrets to Canadian songwriters and publishers trying to crack the Nashville code. I vividly recall the day I met Ralph in the mid '80s. As a music publishing rookie working for Frank Davies at ATV Music Canada, Frank took me on my first trip to Nashville. Our first stop on Music Row was Pic-A-Lic Music Publishing, where Ralph was a partner. Frank literally said "I'm going to introduce you to the only person in Nashville that you'll ever really need to know.” The Ralph I met that day was the same one I knew ever since — welcoming, friendly, open-minded but skeptical at the same time, and above all eager to hear the latest song or songwriter, and brainstorm on how they could be helped. We will all miss him.

Brian Hetherman (founder, Curve Music): Man, I can’t even measure the sadness. There’s not even a word for it. It just hurts a lot....Ralph Murphy was so many things to me, to all of us in the music business. If you didn’t get a chance to meet him, I’m very sorry that you didn’t  because you missed out on so much.Ralph was a teacher; he was a leader; he was a mentor; he was a listener; he was a cheerleader; he was so, so much more, but mostly he was my friend, and he was one of the best at that.I have a thousand Ralph Murphy stories but every one of them ends with him being one of my favourite human beings ever!

There isn’t a single time I remember that greeting Ralph Murphy wasn’t met with a giant hug from him, and me (or anyone saying) "great to see you Ralph," as it was always followed by "great to be seen.” If I’m being brutally honest, the truth is I thought about this day a lot in the last two years. People don’t live forever, even your most favourite people that you think will, so when Ralph got sick, I paid more attention. His private illness I took to heart and I communicated in a way to him that he was comfortable with. We talked a lot through that period. Later when he was better Ralph said, "Come to Ireland" And so I went. When Ralph said "Meet me for a pint," I did.

For the most part I tried to be there whenever Ralph said, "Let’s meet," and that always meant for the most part getting on an airplane....but I still feel like it wasn’t enough. I still feel like I missed out, but truthfully I didn’t miss out at all really, but I just want more time with Ralph......I mean, in reality. I was so Goddamn lucky to meet Ralph at all. I was so blessed to spend as much time with him as I did and it was nothing short of a miracle to be able to call Ralph Murphy my friend!!

There’s no better lyrics than the line from Steve Earle "Every place I travel through I find, Some kinda sign, that you've been through." Ralph Murphy, you’ve left a lasting impression on my life, as a music man, as a mentor, as a traveller and perhaps most importantly as a friend. In your passing I look forward to always "seeing some kind of sign that you’ve been through.”

Jodie Ferneyhough (founder, CCS Rights Management): It's a sad night for the songwriting world. A great mentor, writer, friend has passed and we are all a lot less whole without him. I had the good fortune to pay tribute to him at this year's SOCAN awards and a day later he sent me a note saying how touched he was. I told him it was from the heart and I meant it. He took me under his wing; he believed in me; he taught me how to be a publisher; he valued me. We have been his sub-publisher for years. I will go to MIDEM this week and I am sure hear many stories from his friends from around the world and toast his memory over and over. Thanks Ralph for being my friend thanks for believing in me. I will miss you!

Frank Davies (Let Me Be Frank, and founder of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame): I spent a lot of time with Ralph spanning many years. We first met around 1975 when he was producing Brutus, a band featuring Walter Zwolinski, and the band Shooter, both on GRT, the distributor for my Daffodil label at the time. Unbeknownst to me, we'd both been in the UK business in London at the same time from the mid to late 60s, before I came to Canada, but we'd never run into each other back then. By 1975 he'd already produced several of April Wine's early albums including their first two big hits "You Could Have Been A Lady" and "Bad Side Of The Moon".

Though he was English-born, Ralph grew up in Canada and always had a soft spot for the country and Canadians involved in music, after moving to the States by the 70s. Most Canadians, including me, that headed to Nashville from the late 70s onwards owed him a big debt of gratitude for making introductions for us to all the Nashville players — creators and publishers, labels and managers — setting up meetings, collaborations and other opportunities when we were new to that town. He was particularly supportive to Canadian songwriters, publishers and artists. 

Ralph was a wealth of information about that Nashville community and country music, and his 'rolodex' was unending and vast. He was a hit songwriter, producer, author, teacher and publisher himself too, so he could relate to pretty much anyone in the music industry and spoke with knowledge, edge and humour of how it all worked.  Ralph did a lot for Canadians and ensured we were always considered and represented at the Nashville events that mattered and was proud of our successes down there, as we were of his. I was so pleased to see him honoured earlier this year with the SOCAN Special Achievement Award.

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