Billy Murray: The Denver Nightingale

Singer Billy Murray (1877-1954) was born on this day.

The son of Irish immigrants, Murray was born in Philly and raised in Denver and apparently not a close relation of the 20th century screen comedian. The original Billy Murray started out performing in vaudeville and minstrel shows, but made his real mark in show biz history by becoming one of the first big selling recording artists. As early as 1897 he had cut some sides for a San Francisco based entrepreneur named Peter Bacigalupi (source, one wonders for the name of the character Joe Kirk played on The Abbott and Costello Show?) In 1903, he began recording for the major labels in the Northeast and became one of the top-selling singers over the next couple of decades.

Unlike operatic singers like Caruso (still a widely popular style at the time) Murray popularized the vaudeville style, more in the Jolson and George M. Cohan mold, which was “conversational” and more American sounding. Billed as the Denver Nightingale he shouted songs, perfect for the crude (pre-electric) recording techniques of the time. In addition to Cohan’s songs, he had hits with familiar songs by Irving Berlin and most of the major Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths of the day. In addition to his popular solo recordings, he also recorded duets with Ada Jones, Aileen Stanley and Elsie Baker (a.k.a Edna Brown) and sang with the Haydn Quartet and the American Quartet (a.k.a the Premier Quartet).

Murray had a solid run of two decades of popularity until electric mics and crooners came in during the 20s. After that, he continued to sing and record through 1943, but more as a nostalgia act. He died of a heart attack on Jones Beach in 1955 at the age of 77.

For more on vaudeville performers like BiIly Murray please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous