If there is one general explanation for why great talents are lost to history, we might say that it is an unfortunate configuration of time and space. The artist in question could find themselves working in the right place, but at the wrong time (consider Connie Converse, a woman who in 1950s New York predicted the folk singer-songwriter trends that by the mid-60s would dominate the city’s music scene). Equally, the artist could be working in the right historical moment, but were simply in the wrong place to fit within any larger movement (one imagines what might have happened to the proto-punk band Death if they had left Detroit for New York or London in the mid-1970s). Or, worst of all, they could have worked in the wrong place and the wrong time, which we might say of saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy.
As explained in the liner notes to Sacred Bones’ lavish new reissue, Murphy’s Sax on the Beach was released in 1976 on the small Springfield, USA label, Embiggen! Records, and was to be his only studio album before he died in relative anonymity 1995 at the age of 59. While little is known about Murphy, who would have been forty when Sax on the Beach was recorded, this album assembles compositions developed and perfected throughout a sad, lonely lifetime committed to jazz (the notes explain that he performed regularly from the mid-1950s to the late-1980s, leveraging a performance on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show in 1956 to haunt Springfield’s Jazz Hole club for decades).
Everything you need to know about the man and his exceptional talent can be found here: the intense depth of feeling of “I Never Had an Italian Suit Blues”; the destructive, passionate yearning of “Fables of Fabergés”; the immense sense of lack in “The Chuckling Scrubs”. This was clearly a man who lived the blues and suffered for his art, and who possessed the remarkable dexterity to turn his suffering into music.
Given the ways in which jazz had developed in the decades prior to this record’s release — with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and so many others working prolifically and adventurously — Murphy’s comparatively modest blues-forward approach might have seemed somewhat square and conventional at the time, despite its effectiveness. It is also, frankly, thoroughly miserable, which could explain both the record’s moderate commercial success and its lack of historical staying power. Furthermore, Murphy’s life was spent languishing in Springfield’s unhip music scene, which has merely given us a Grammy-winning barbershop quartet and the umbrella-playing bandleader Blind Willie Witherspoon — hardly the place for a musician to thrive.
It’s a crying shame that Murphy’s genius was neglected and squandered in his prime, yet it also such a gift that we can encounter the man and his life’s work outside of the time and space that failed him, on a record that wallows in such magnificent sadness.
9 out of 10
What is the language of the soul? Some might say French, others Sanskrit, though both those suggestions would be wrong because it’s actually Bleeding Gums Murphy playing the saxophone. The man once hailed by Miles Davis as ‘the coolest cat I’ve ever met’ was a generational talent, and he only needed one LP to prove it.
Merging jazz lounge suavity with airport lounge sadness, Sax on the Beach is the twilight hours sobbing companion you never knew you needed. Decades on from its release the record still simmers with raw, often obscene saxual energy. From the title track to “Love on the Rocks with a Twist” (a personal favourite) the music is miserable, yes, but also sophisticated and deeply moving.
The short-lived Springfield Bum Notes backing band sets the cold, dank back alley scene while still giving Murphy the room he needs to bring your mood down, and boy does he. Look no further than the 28-minute sax solo in “St. Donickus”, which is as deflating a spell of blues as you’re ever likely to hear anywhere. Masterful.
Although it is regrettable that Murphy slipped into obscurity soon after the album’s release and died young, to me that sprinkles in the final seasoning of sadness needed for his work to age as well as it has. You can’t fake the blues, baby, and few records are better at making you feel worse than Sax on the Beach.
8 out of 10
As the first and only release from Bleeding Gums Murphy, Sax on the Beach is the lasting legacy for a forgotten master of jazz. Bitterly blue, it’s said that this was the music that stopped Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” for an entire year! It’s not hard to see why when you dig into this tracklist.
With fan favourites that Gums played live like “I Never Had an Italian Suit Blues” and “Altissimo Rupture”, to deeper cuts like “Blue Moon Jazz” and “Love on the Rocks with a Twist”, this album exemplifies the perfect gloom he was able to impart on his audience. For the lucky few who saw him live, seeing these moments in real life was no doubt achingly beautiful. On record, Bleeding Gums’ hard life is laid bare. From brotherly estrangement to Fabergéal financial ruin to dental calamity, the soulful howling and gravelly tone is magnificient.
It’s a damn shame the greats go before their time. Bleeding Gums Murphy deserved a long career of making other people feel as bad as he did, even if just for a moment. The skills he possessed are on full display in this album, making for a scintillating listen. I’m not at all surprised to hear that an incorporeal Billie Holiday is said to have commented that she ‘wouldn't have kicked Gums out of bed in a hurry’ and if you want to get a taste for why I implore you to seek out this record.
9 out of 10