January 15 – Dee Murray, Elton’s First Bass-man

Creating musical masterpieces is rarely the work of just one artist, even most of those on which only one name appears. Thus it is with Elton John. As talented a singer, piano player and composer as he is, there was more to his success than just that or even the frequent addition of Bernie Taupin’s great lyrics. When he was at his best, he was backed by a very solid band to bring his creations to fruition and today we remember one of them, Dee Murray. Murray passed away on this day in 1992 at a young 45.

Murray was the bassist for Elton during his most successful period. He and his friend, drummer Nigel Olsson had been members of the Spencer Davis Group briefly at the tail-end of the ’60s before being recruited by Elton. They both first appeared on Elton’s live 11/17/70 and the Tumbleweed Connection studio albums, doing session piece work basically. However, by 1972, both were regular members of Elton’s band, appearing on all the tracks and being a part of his touring entourage. Dee added backing vocals to several Elton songs, including “Rocketman” and was present on all of Elton’s smashes upto and including Captain Fantastic…

Then, somewhat inexplicably, Elton fired Dee and most of his band, citing a desire to go in a different musical direction (which he did with Rock of the Westies right afterward, although few thought the new sound was an improvement.) Perhaps because of diminishing sales, or perhaps because he listened to his favorite producer Gus Dudgeon (who said he “hadn’t heard a bassist quite as good as” Dee), Elton brought Murray back by 1980 for the 21 at 33 album and the massive Central Park concert and the pair worked together regularly through most of the ’80s. In the interim, Murray kept busy doing session work for the likes of Shaun Cassidy and Yvonne Elliman and touring with Procol Harum and Alice Cooper.

By the late-’80s, Murray was doing less with Elton but had relocated to Nashville and was in demand as a country music session worker. Sadly he’d had skin cancer before and died there as a result of the cancer and as well as a stroke he suffered in ’92. According to the New York Times, he was survived by a wife and three kids, and Elton helped out by playing two benefit concerts at the Grand Ole Opry to raise funds for them.

Although he tended to get lost behind the glitz of the “Rocketman”, Murray was a solid bassist other musicians recognized. Bass Player magazine ranked him as the 74th best bass player of all-time and No Treble complimented him at length. “Accompanying a master like Elton John is no small task,” they wrote, “and Murray shines… he implements a classical approach to soprano-bass counterpart, playing a specific bass note to compliment the vocal melody.” It added “his fills are remarkably fearless.” It’s a shame the sun came on him all too soon.

26 thoughts on “January 15 – Dee Murray, Elton’s First Bass-man

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    Billy Joel got rid of his band at one time also. I can somewhat understand but in another way…it’s not like Dee and the others couldn’t adapt to a new style. They were pros. Whats the old phrase? If It “ain’t” broke…don’t fix it.
    I’m glad the producer said that but Elton should have known. If it was personality I could understand a bit more.

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    1. definitely. From what I know of it, with Joel it was a bit of that, personalities, but largely still just a “time to shake things up” and it didn’t work especially well, with Elton it’s more mysterious as to what inspired him to dump those guys…. probably too much coke inflating his already big ego. I was fairly impressed with that ‘isolated bass’ video of Murray’s.

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      1. I remember first time I saw the Steely Dan doc on making ‘Aja’ and I found it astonishing how they isolated tracks to point out little instrumental flourishes in the background and so much going on that I didn’t really notice listening to the album.

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      2. badfinger20 (Max)

        In some isolated tracks you hear drummers hitting their sticks by mistake or guitars that are flawed…but they work in the mix…that is all that counts.

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      3. badfinger20 (Max)

        Yes! Sometimes mistakes add something to it…BUT…bands like Yes, Boston, etc…would never do that.
        I would hate to listen to some of my isolated tracks lol…but it works as a whole

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      4. it’s hard to know where to put the line and it would depend on the type of music (something like Black Crowes might require less note by note perfection than say Emerson Lake & Palmer, for instance). I found it fascinating that John Mellencamp seems to be a contradiction… he’d get really mad if he thought someone wasn’t playing well or holding their own, but he also was one to kind of do four or five takes maximum, and figure that had to give ’em enough to work with.

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      5. badfinger20 (Max)

        You are correct! It depends on the song…It depends on the personality also. Like you said about Melencamp… I have a guitar buddy who is like a Phil Spector….drives me bananas! You can polish the soul out of a song….that is what Don Felder said they did on some songs…especially The Long Run album.
        The Beatles recordings have all kinds of mistakes but….and it usually went this way for them…they worked.

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    1. wow, that’s a story in itself, seeing him that early on. He did indeed have good backing musicians through his peak popularity time. Back then I never noticed it (I was a kid) but I wonder how many of his diehard older fans even did.

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      1. that would probably have been a great show! Smallish club, I’d guess? Odd thing is that after I came down here, Elton ended up playing an arena in my hometown in Canada twice! REally weird because our suburb was not that far from Toronto but he seemed to like the city of 150 000 and its 2000 seat arena better than the city of over two million and it’s big venues by that time. I kinda was p.o.’d he hadn’t done that a year or two earlier!

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      2. His show was at Fair Park Music Hall, which host mostly musicals and plays, so it was a smaller venue with better acoustics and sound. The band didn’t play too loud and the audience could hear every note and nuaiunce. He has played DFW many times over the years, but I had moved on by then. I still, to this day, believe Tumbelweed Connection to be his finest work, unlike the movie which was dreadful.

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      3. I had no idea there was a ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ movie! The album was very good… it was one of the first LPS I bought retroactively, aka probably in 75-76 because I was a huge fan of his by then and started working backwards through his collection. First song I recall hearing by him was ‘Rocketman’ but I was only something like 5 at that time.

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      4. Sorry, I meant the movie Rocket Man was dreadful. Somewhere out there is a video of him singing a song from Tumbleweed Connection filmed around the train station that was used on the album cover. I saw it years ago and then it vanished. The station itself is in the UK, not the old west.

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      5. Ahh, yes, I wasn’t especially impressed by the movie , though it was a fairly good overview I guess (although little things bugged me like how there was no mention of Long John Baldry, who was the ‘John’ he got his name from, not Lennon, but conversely there was no mention of his friendship to Lennon in the 70s which probably should have earned a scene or two).

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      6. Somehow I still haven’t seen that one… I did want to see it when it came out, but somehow just never got around to it. I like Elton more than Queen but might not have seen ‘Rocketman’ had someone not given me a DVD of it for a gift (although it was also on my ‘to see’ type list so who knows)

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