For a testament to the enduring importance of the beloved R&B and funk band Willie and the Bumblebees, look no further than the introduction to their appearance on a local television station back in 1982: “My next guests have been part of the Twin Cities music scene almost as long as there’s been a Twin Cities music scene.”
Fronted by the inimitable Willie Murphy, who cut his teeth playing in north Minneapolis soul bands like Dave Brady and the Stars and rose to national prominence touring with Spider John Koerner in support their breakout blues album Running, Jumping, Standing Still, Willie and the Bumblebees came together in 1970 when Murphy had the radical idea that he could not only assemble an eight- or nine-piece R&B band, but that they could blaze a trail through the West Bank playing original music instead of covers.
“There was a big impetus, out of the ‘60s, that you could play original music—and play it in bars. We were one of the first ones to do it, and we played in clubs where other people didn’t do that,” Murphy says, sitting on a couch in his south Minneapolis home surrounded by piles of old books, musical charts, and old Bees publicity photos. “We also were interracial—not that that was particularly innovative—but in Minneapolis, there were a lot of places you couldn’t play still, believe it or not.”
Murphy recruited musicians that he knew from his days at Minneapolis Central High School and artists he had met around the bustling West Bank scene, and before long Willie and the Bumblebees were the toast of the neighborhood—starting out at the Joint (a property that would expand in 1974 to include the Cabooze) and bouncing around to the tiny stage at the Triangle Bar, the People’s Center, and the Firehouse, which was located in the building that now houses Mixed Blood Theater.
“We had concerts there a lot,” Murphy remembers, cracking a smile. “And these were wild dances where people took their clothes off and everything. Back then, people did that. I got backlash from certain people who didn’t like that, but it wasn’t my fault.”
When they weren’t playing shows, the members of Willie and the Bumblebees could be seen shooting pool and hopping around to what Murphy describes as the “hippie bars” that were overtaking the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Before long they had earned just as much of a reputation for their over-the-top partying as they had for their intoxicating cocktail of danceable funk, soul, R&B, gospel, and rock ‘n’roll—a point driven home by a 1971 profile of the band from Insider Magazine that was lovingly titled “Boozing with the Bumblebees.”
“We were arguably the drunkest and most outrageous band to ever come out of the Twin Cities or Minnesota,” says Maurice Jacox, who sang with the band from the very beginning and played baritone sax and flute. “Going to a Bee gig was an event. People wanted to see who still would be standing at the end of the night.”
When asked how he would describe his band, Willie Murphy doesn’t miss a beat. “A bunch of drunks,” he says, smiling wryly and pausing for effect. “Well, a bunch of ex-drunks now, most of us. But we used to be a bunch of drunks.”
Despite the antics, Jacox says that it was the obvious talent of the players in the group that kept him interested in and energized by the band for its entire 15-year run. “Both Willie Murphy and [Bees keyboardist] John Beach were extraordinary songwriters. And I still to this day believe that Willie Murphy is one of the best living songwriters in America. His lyrics and music are absolutely astounding.”
Murphy’s songwriting abilities were so sharp in the late 1960s that he attracted the attention of another aspiring young artist, Bonnie Raitt, who would make it a point to see Murphy and Spider John Koerner every time they came through Boston while was there attending Radcliffe College. Raitt would soon be signed to Warner Bros. and given an advance to record her debut album, and it was Murphy who she tapped to produce Bonnie Raitt.
“I talked her into coming out here—the record company did not like that,” Murphy remembers. “Bonnie came out here and stayed at my house—we actually slept together in the same bed and went out every morning looking for a good place to put the studio to make the record. And we were lucky, we found this big summer camp at Lake Minnetonka, which was vacant, and it was perfect.”
Raitt, Murphy, and the rest of his Bumblebees were soon living out at the camp, which was located on Lake Minnetonka’s Enchanted Island, forging friendships along with musical partnerships and fostering the warm sense of camaraderie that can be heard on Bonnie Raitt.
“I think we were out there for over a month,” Murphy remembers. “People would get up in the morning and fish off the dock. After a couple of weeks of more or less horsing around—but I was actually kind of getting the music together—Bonnie said, ‘Don’t you think we should start recording?’ And we did. And I think it’s a really good album. That’s why people in Minnesota still love her. She has roots here.”
Over the years the Bees would go through a few incarnations—Murphy says it can be broken into two general time periods with two different configurations–and Friday night’s reunion show at the Cabooze will span the band’s entire history. Murphy estimates that a total of 13 musicians will perform nearly two dozen songs over the course of two sets, and he’s enlisted his longtime collaborator and friend Spider John Koerner to open the show.
“Rehearsing has been kind of exciting,” Murphy says, smiling. “I must say, most of the people in the band haven’t changed at all, personality wise and everything. We’re not drunks anymore, most of us, but other than that we’re all kind of the same in many ways.”
Willie and the Bumblebees play their first show in 12 years tonight (Friday, October 10) at the Cabooze as part of the club’s 40th anniversary season. 8:30 p.m. doors, 9:30 p.m. music. More info at cabooze.com.