The following is an article by Danny Pelfrey from the Winter 2004 issue of “The Score” magazine, published by the Society of Composers and Lyricists:
A Composer’s Inheritance:
My teacher and friend, Lyle “Spud” Murphy
by Danny Pelfrey
In a career which has spanned over six decades in the music business, Lyle “Spud” Murphy has influenced generations of composers and arrangers. Playing and arranging for some of the most influential bands of the century, Spud wrote 102 arrangements for Benny Goodman (his best known for Benny was “Get Happy”) and 74 for Glen Gray. He is internationally recognized for his over 200 stock arrangements, which are still in use around the world more than sixty years after they were written.
As the arranger at Columbia pictures for jazz and vocals, Spud worked on over 50 films with some of the screen’s most dynamic stars, from arranging dance routines for Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth to arranging for Marilyn Monroe. Even The Three Stooges were graced with Spud’s arrangement of “Three Blind Mice.” Studying with Ivan Boutnikoff, the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bolshoi Ballet, Spud conducted both his own orchestras and a national music program for NBC radio. His programs featuring his own compositions ran for three years in both New York and Los Angeles.
A multi-instrumentalist, Spud has written 26 books on music theory and instrumental technique. His most valuable creation is the development of an extraordinary course in composing, arranging, and orchestration called The Equal Interval System. Divided into 12 volumes and over 1200 pages long, it contains the fruit of Spud’s vast experience and research.
When I realized I wanted to study music again, a series of phone calls led me to Lyle “Spud” Murphy. Although I had studied arranging at the Berklee College of Music, orchestration with Dr. Albert Harris, and conducting with Dr. William Schaefer, my previous experience hadn’t prepared me for my journey with Spud Murphy.
When I first asked Spud how he got his start, he said, “Red Nichols gave me this beaten up brass instrument and said, ‘Here, you want to be in a band? Take this.”‘ Always an adventurer, Spud landed his first job in one of the hot nightspots just across the Mexican border during prohibition. “My friend had to borrow a saxophone from the music store and tell them that if we got the job he’d pay for the instrument; if not, we’d bring it back,” Spud laughs. They got the job: $5.00 per day with room and board. The band consisted of a banjo and a sax. “Imagine how that worked!” he remarked.
A self-educated man, Spud taught himself geography and astronomy, and remains an avid traveler; for a time, he was even a Merchant Marine. On one of his many trips, Spud delivered saxophone quartets to the King of Thailand. He had written the quartets for the king himself, who is an accomplished player. The performance was subsequently broadcast from the royal palace.
Stories abound concerning Spud’s abilities. Gifted with a remarkable memory and absolute pitch, Spud has always been able to transcribe music from records, remembering a piece in its entirety and, if necessary, writing the notes down later. Once Spud needed to arrange part of The Firebird Suite for the Tracey Brown Band. Cranking up the record player, Spud listened to piece once, then broke down all the parts and made the arrangement. “What’s disgusting is that the score was available in printed form,” Spud remembers. “But how was I to know that? In Laredo we had to take everything from recordings, knowing we could never get our hands on the original.” Fellow musicians remember that Spud wrote second or third parts first, so that slower players could catch up. If a trumpet player was having trouble, Spud would stand in front of him and say, “You blow, I’ll finger it.” If it was a trombone player, he did the same with the slide.
As a teacher, Spud tends to concentrate on concrete procedures which are organized and logical. Each lesson presents a tremendous number of possibilities for generating music, most of which involve sounds and textures I never encountered in more formal halls of learning. Spud has a way of inspiring confidence in a student’s ability to present ideas clearly and quickly. The most important thing he taught me is that nothing can take the place of persistence. At one point, Spud said I would be his last student, but thanks to his generosity it was a promise he couldn’t keep.
Spud originally developed The Equal Interval System as a technique for writing music. “The method was originally developed for my benefit,” he explains. “I based it entirely on the overtone series. I got my idea for this system because of the trumpet’s 6 valve combinations, and it’s overblowing of the overtones. I found that if you divided the chromatic scale in half, it was a lot easier to deal with six intervals than a diatonic system with 5 lines, 7 names, and 12 notes. By the way, my system is not in the slightest way related to any other systems involving 12 tones, especially ones by Schoenberg, Slonimsky, or Schillinger.”
The course leads the composer to expand concepts of chords and voicings, a system of progressions, harmony in seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, a complete modern diatonic system, a system of polytonality, and orchestration. From here it moves into advanced theory using innovative techniques of 20t h Century and 21st Century composition. At this point the composer is writing freely-moving horizontal lines which are in agreement with the overtone series and therefore sound fantastic.
Spud has a gift for clarity, for simplifying the complex in both music and life. He distills everything to its essence and simplifies what he teaches, so that by the time the student gets to the adventurous and complex parts of the course, it seems obvious and logical. This leads to simple explanations of concepts that have very complex interpretations and terminology when covered in other methods.
The course has evolved through the combined experiences of 50 years of students. Whenever someone asked a question that wasn’t answered in the course, Spud rewrote the text to include the answer. Consequently, I still haven’t been able to ask a question that wasn’t already answered! This is unlike a typical “emulation” method where everything is based on “famous composer” examples. In this scenario, the student is shown how Stravinsky, Ravel, or Webern did it, which – although interesting – may not lead the student to originality. With the EIS method, the composer learns how to write from patterns and the overtone series, using whatever style is desired or required. Even though we use the same principles, no two students sound the same because we all take our own unique approach.
Most of my time is usually spent on just getting the job, and then with budgets, technology, schedules, etc. Writing often takes a back seat to these other concerns. Spud’s courses have helped return me to the reasons I’m here: not just to serve the client’s needs, but to write music! Spud says, “People often ask me what’s so unique abut my system of music, and I explain to them that in arrangements and orchestrations, I don’t double lines. They always tell me I have to double, and I tell them there’s no need. When they continue to insist, I say okay just to calm then down. But you know me… I still don’t double! I might also proudly point out that my course is unique for another reason: it is full of examples from my various students. There is not another teacher or course of music that even attempts to do that.”
My experience has been shared by a roster of students and supporters which is truly remarkable: greats such as Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Gerald Wiggins, David Blumberg, and Jimmy Haskell have written praise about Spud’s method. Spud has served as a unifying point, a gathering place for some of the world’s great composers and players. And thanks to the Internet, Spud’s influence as one of the great teachers continues to grow.
As a member of the music community, Spud has made it his business to defend the rights of musicians to conduct their business in a suitable environment. He is a charter member of ASMAC (the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers), serving as its president longer than anyone else (1965-1977), and was also a Golden Score honoree in 1981. He has also served on the Board of Directors of Professional Musicians’ Local 47 for the last 26 years. During this time, he helped to create the music preparation department, separated orchestrating from arranging so arrangers could be paid for both jobs, and negotiated higher wages for arranging and orchestrating. He has recently protested the attempt to force composers to obtain business licenses for their home offices and studios, and is currently engaged in a lawsuit against the city on our behalf to have this law eliminated. Once again, thank you, Mr. Murphy!
Throughout his life, Spud Murphy has received the well-earned commendations of his peers. The Mayor of Los Angeles and the City Council said in 1988, “He should be commended for enhancing the quality of life in the City of Los Angeles.”
Spud Murphy has made a mighty contribution to the fine art of music. More than this, he has created a comprehensive system from which every musician and composer can benefit. Although he could have rested, confident in his legacy, Spud chose to light the way so that others may follow. It is this accomplishment for which I admire him most. When I asked him if he had any final thoughts or suggestions for longevity, he simply said, “Be yourself.” I’m just grateful he didn’t keep this whole thing to himself!
Spud has a favourite quote, attributed to Calvin Coolidge in 1872, and often shares it with all of his students: “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”