Welcome back, Matt 'Guitar' Murphy

2010-06-11T00:00:00Z Welcome back, Matt 'Guitar' MurphyBY MOLLY WOULFE - Chicago Scene nwitimes.com
June 11, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A mini "Blues Brothers" reunion kicks off the free Chicago Blues Festival tonight in Grant Park.

Matt "Guitar" Murphy -- aka Aretha Franklin's henpecked hubby in the 1980 comedy -- backs harmonica great James Cotton at 7:20 p.m at Petrillo Music Shell. Bandmates include Pinetop Perkins, who pounded the keyboards for John Lee Hooker during "Boom Boom" in the Maxwell Street scene.

If it's a great day for "Blues Brothers" fans, it's a milestone for the long-absent Murphy, a Memphis transplant who helped pioneer electric blues at Vee-Jay and Chess studios here in the 1950s and 1960s. "It's been a while," the soft-spoken blues vet agreed.

Make that seven years to be exact. The lead guitarist -- he's played for Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Ike Turner, and Chuck Berry -- suffered a stroke on stage in 2003. His right side ("my strumming side") went numb during a Nashville show. Murphy, known for tight rhythm playing and sinewy flourishes, finished his set with one hand.

Then he retired from performing, quietly settling in Miami. Longtime girlfriend Kathy Hemrick and pals including Cotton were mainstays during his recovery.

Old bluesmen don't fade away. They face the music. Murphy, now 80, underwent therapy "for my whole body," he said. Happily, he could still pick chords with his left hand. "The left side was alright. I can maneuver," he said.

His sense of humor was spared as well. "I never drank, I never smoked, I never did drugs," he quipped. "Why did it happen to me? I wasn't doing anything!"

Cotton took note when his old friend began playing small Florida clubs two years ago with roots band The Nouveaux Honkies. Discussion ensued, and Cotton proposed Murphy make his comeback at the Chicago Bluesfest, then back him on a string of North American dates. Murphy didn't think twice. "I hadn't worked in a while. I was thinking, it would be a good thing to do, we get together and make some more fine music," he said.

For fine music this instant, search YouTube for Franklin's big "Think" number in "Blues Brothers." John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd recruited Murphy for the Blues Brothers Band after hearing him jam with Johnny Winter at a New York club. Belushi -- whom Murphy adored -- hand-picked him to play the meek owner of the Soul Food Cafe, the role that made the guitarist a household name. Watch closely; Murphy can't keep a straight face as the Queen of Soul jabs his chest during her five-star hissy fit.

"We had a lot of fun. Yes we did," chuckled Murphy, who reprised his role in "Blues Brothers 2000." "You saw it. I was having a ball."

To track the guitarslinger's progress, visit www.mattguitarmurphy.net.


Yes, that's Vince Vaughn steering a blue vintage Dodge Challenger past Grant Park. It's all in a day's work: He's shooting scenes for the Ron Howard comedy "Cheaters." The cast and crew were based Tuesday and Wednesday in Uptown, filming at the Green Mill jazz club.

Greasy, grimy trophy

The cash-strapped BP -- the company behind the massive oil spill -- is downsizing its trophy for the Crosstown Classic.

Hoofer update

Yes, that was Gary native Greg Blackmon, 19, making the first-round cut on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance." The Emerson grad was eliminated in callbacks, yet he's still upbeat: When he advanced to the Las Vegas leg of the competition, he was treated to a stay at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. "I was more upset about leaving Las Vegas than leaving the show," the self-described five-minute celebrity joked. "It was crazy ... It was so funny, to see all the little old ladies with cigarettes in their mouths at the slot machines. It was like, 'You're someone's grandma! You shouldn't be here!'" Blackmon, who trained at South Shore Dance Alliance, can dance rings around most people. He's a second-year student at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. Reach her at molly.woulfe@nwi.com or at (219) 852-4329.

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