A TV Singing Star Champions The Pop Standard

Dec 18, 2011
Originally published on December 18, 2011 6:32 pm

Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. caught a lot of people off guard when he opened his mouth to sing at his televised audition for America's Got Talent. The dreadlocked former car-washer is 6'4" and in his late 30s, but when he belted the first notes of the pop standard "I've Got You Under My Skin" like a certain blue-eyed crooner, audiences and judges alike delightedly voiced their surprise.

Murphy's own social circle was harder to win over. He tells NPR's Guy Raz that at first, his family members laughed at the thought of him singing Sinatra.

"They were like, 'Why don't you sing Motown?" Murphy recalls. And I was like, it's the only thing that's missing now: Everybody's doing Motown, everybody's doing R&B, everybody's doing hip-hop. It's flooded with so many people ... [Crooning is] a lane all your own if you can get in it."

Murphy's affinity for pop standards is more than just strategy. He describes that repertoire as "blue-sky, puffy-cloud music," good for lifting spirits and bringing people together.

"I'm bringing back so many great memories for all my elders, and I'm showing the youth that's to come after me what being musical is all about," Murphy says. "A lot of the music that's out here is losing the essence of instruments and great vocal skills."

But Murphy insists he doesn't mind when people remark that he's gone against the grain with his music, or that his appearance doesn't match his voice. Of all who have witnessed his success, Murphy himself may be the least surprised.

"Going through all the stuff that I went through in my life at an early age — my parents splitting up, being homeless, having a son — all those things kept me grounded. I've been to the gutter ... [Now] my feet are just planted solid in the cement."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, time for music and another great battle: this time, how a man fought back against homelessness to become a millionaire, all thanks to Frank Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

LANDAU EUGENE MURPHY JR.: (Singing) I did it my way.

RAZ: Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. grew up in Logan, West Virginia, population 1,800, where climbing out of poverty usually means crawling deep into the coal mines. He moved to Detroit where he found himself homeless at the age of 19. After returning to West Virginia, Murphy washed cars for years to support his family. All the while, he practiced his true love: singing the music of Frank Sinatra.

He worked up the courage to go to New York City and audition for the TV competition "America's Got Talent."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S GOT TALENT")

JR.: (Singing) I've got you under my skin.

RAZ: Despite a look that's more Rastafarian than Rat Pack, the judges fell in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S GOT TALENT")

HOWIE MANDEL: Your life is never going to be the same. I'm telling you, you just changed your whole...

RAZ: Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. would eventually win it all: a recording contract, a concert series in Las Vegas and $1 million. And he says his love for the music of Frank Sinatra came from an unlikely source.

JR.: As a teenager, I started watching "Married...With Children."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN")

JR.: And the theme song for that show was "Love and Marriage."

RAZ: Yeah. "Love and Marriage." Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARRIED WITH CHILDREN")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Love and marriage, love and marriage...

JR.: It was just something that I would sing while I was walking through the house or anything like that. And then it went from there to the basketball court. I'm 6'4", so I love to play basketball. And I would dunk on people and sing "Fly Me to the Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JR.: I mean, really. I would be like, boom...

(Singing) fly me to the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")

JR.: (Singing) In other words, hold my hand.

And then, you know, I'd cross somebody over or shoot a jumper in somebody's face and backpedal up the court like...

(Singing) I've got you under my skin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT YOU) UNDER MY SKIN")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) I've got you deep in the heart of me.

JR.: And they loved it. A lot of the guys or the bullies in the neighborhood would just - instead of jumping on you or pulling out there guns and shooting at you for embarrassing them, they would run back down the court with me like, hey, man, you really sound good singing that. You ought to try doing that, you know? So it was just something that stuck with me, and it kind of like made me feel good.

And once I turned 21, able to get into bars, I would go into these local bars and sing "My Way" for people. And it became an every weekend-type thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN")

JR.: (Singing) But so why should I try to resist when baby I know so well that I've got you under my skin.

RAZ: Landau, for people who don't know you or your music or haven't seen you on "America's Got Talent," let me just describe the way you look, because you don't fit the stereotype of somebody who would be singing Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rat Pack stuff.

JR.: Right.

RAZ: You are 6'4".

JR.: Yes.

RAZ: You are in your late 30s, you're African-American. You have long dreadlocks.

JR.: Yes.

RAZ: And if you didn't know that, right, and you just heard you singing Frank Sinatra, people might assume you were, I don't know, say, in your mid-50s...

JR.: Yeah.

RAZ: ...white, wearing a tuxedo, right?

JR.: Yes.

RAZ: Were you kind of an odd - I mean, you grew up in West Virginia, and you grew up singing this music around kids then. I mean, were you seen as a complete oddball?

JR.: Yeah, always. But I was born and raised in Logan, West Virginia, but in about '85, I guess I was about 11 years old, my mom moved me to Detroit, Michigan. So I was really an oddball, you know. You know, I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Did kids say - would kids say, what are you singing? Who is this?

JR.: Right. I mean, they laughed at me. I mean, a lot of my family members thought I was, like, losing my mind. They were like, why are you ever singing Frank Sinatra, man? Why don't you sing Motown? Why are you going on the show to sing this and that? I was like, the only thing that's missing right now - I mean, everybody's doing Motown. Everybody's doing R&B. Everybody's doing hip-hop.

And I was thinking that the only crooner that we had left was Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross, you know, as far as the black community is concerned, after Nat King Cole. You know, it's a lane all of your own if you can get in it, you know? And...

RAZ: What is it about this kind of music that speaks to you?

JR.: It's blue sky, puffy cloud music. It doesn't degrade anybody. It makes you feel good. It's something you can listen to with your mother, your grandparents. I mean, at the same time, while I'm doing this and being in this business, I'm bringing back so many great memories for all my elders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU")

JR.: (Singing) I get no kick from champagne. Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all. So tell my why should it be true I get a kick out of you.

RAZ: My guest is Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. He's the latest winner of the TV competition "America's Got Talent." His debut album is called "That's Life." Landau, talk to me about your upbringing a bit. You were literally homeless at the age of 19.

JR.: Yes. Yes. That was in Michigan. You know, my mother and my brothers and all of them, they moved back to West Virginia. But at that time, I had a girlfriend, and she ended up getting pregnant. And I didn't want to walk away from that, so it got me in a bind, you know? The stepdad that I was living with, you know, he got a new girlfriend, and I guess she wanted me out, and they put me out, you know?

So I was just basically living out of my car, you know, sleeping under bridges. And it was really hard, but my sisters kind of figured out that I wasn't living over there anymore, and they asked me what was I doing, and I was just like, I'm sleeping in my car. And they was like, you better get your butt in here, you know? So they kind of like, took me off the streets, man, and I thank them so much.

RAZ: I want you to think back to the moment you first took the stage of "America's Got Talent." The lights and the cameras, every eye in the house...

JR.: Wow.

RAZ: ...is trained on you. It had been a long journey for you to get to that point. What were you feeling at that moment?

JR.: This is it. You know, I tied that knot in my rope, and I was hanging on. I was just like, it's right now or never. You know, either I'm going to work a nine to five for the rest of my life or wash cars or be a coalminer or I'm going to follow my dream. And this is my moment.

RAZ: You were washing cars. You were literally washing cars...

JR.: Right.

RAZ: ...up until you auditioned to go on that program.

JR.: Barely making, you know, $400 every two weeks. So it was just like I was working for nothing. I'm 36 at the time, and I was just like, I've got to do something. So, God, or whatever you want to call it, just spoke to me and said, you need a bigger stage.

RAZ: You, of course, ended up in the finals, ended up winning in the end. They called out your name.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S GOT TALENT")

MANDEL: Landau, you did it. Yes, you did it your way.

RAZ: A lot of people around the country saw that moment and felt so proud of you for how far you have come. I was listening to your version of "That's Life" on this record, and I just - I've got to assume that it has a lot of meaning for you. I mean...

JR.: Yes.

RAZ: ...I thought of quitting but my heart just ain't going to buy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S LIFE")

JR.: (Singing) That's life. You know I can't deny it. I thought of quitting, baby, but my heart just ain't going to buy it. If I didn't think it was worth one single try, I'd jump right on a big bird, then I'd fly.

RAZ: It's really amazing because there's so much in that song that seems to be about you.

JR.: That's right. I changed, actually, the end of it. It wasn't originally written that way. And the guy who wrote it reached out and sent me an email and told me how much he appreciated the way that I'd done it. He was like, I didn't even write it that way, but you did an amazing job. So - I mean, that was cool to get that from him.

RAZ: What did you sing in the end?

JR.: I said, I'd jump on a big bird and then I'd fly. But it was supposed to be I'd roll up in a big ball and die. And I just don't think about dying (unintelligible).

RAZ: That's Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. His debut album is a collection of standards. It's called "That's Life." We've got a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., thank you so much. And congratulations on your win and all your success.

JR.: Oh, thank you so much for having me. And for anybody out there who loved me on the show, you're going to love my CD because I made it just specially for you guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.