He was born as William Thomas Murray in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of immigrants from Ireland. He became fascinated with the theater and joined a traveling vaudeville troupe in 1893. He also performed in minstrel shows early in his career. He made his first recordings for a local phonograph cylinder company in San Francisco, California in 1897. He started recording regularly in the New York City and New Jersey area in 1903, when the nation's major record companies as well as the Tin Pan Alley music industry were concentrated there.
Known in his heyday as "The Denver Nightingale" (his family had relocated to Denver in his youth), Murray's career spanned five decades and included recordings for almost every label of the era. Many of his hits including "You're a Grand Old Flag", "Case Jones", "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Meet Me in St. Louis", "Give My Regards to Broadway" and of course, "Over There" are now considered classics. Murray was the primary interpreter of the songs of George M. Cohan.
In 1906 he waxed the first of his popular duets with Ada Jones. He also performed with Aileen Stanley, the Haydn Quartet, the Premier Quartet, and the American Quartet (the latter two actually being the same group), in addition to his solo work.
He had a strong tenor voice with excellent enunciation and a more conversational delivery than common with bel canto singers of the era. On comic songs he often deliberately sang slightly flat, which he felt helped the comic effect.
While he often performed romantic numbers and ballads which sold well at the time, his comedy and novelty song recordings continue to be popular with later generations of record collectors.
Murray was a huge baseball fan, and often played with the New York Highlanders (later Yankees) in exhibition games. He was known to call in sick to recording sessions to go to the ballpark. Ironically, he never recorded baseball's anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," although a Victor Record catalog once listed him as having performed it with the Haydn Quartet. The mistake was corrected in later versions of the catalog, and aural and discographical evidence rules out Murray's presence at the recording session (see Billy Murray: the Phonograph Industry's First Great Recording Artist, by Frank Hoffmann--Scarecrow Press, 1997 and http://www.archeophone.com/features/spotlights/ball_game/index.php). Murray did, however, record "Tessie, You Are the Only, Only, Only," which became the unofficial theme of the 1903 World's Series when the words were changed from "Tessie, you know I love you madly," to "Honus, why do you hit so badly?"
Murray's popularity faded with changes in public taste and recording technology; the rise of the electric microphone in the mid 1920s coincided with the rise of the crooners. His "hammering" style, as he called it, essentially yelling the song into the recording horn, did not work in the electronic era, and it took him some time to learn how to soften his voice. While he continued to work, his singing style was considered "dated" and less in demand. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he also did voices for animated cartoons, especially the "follow the bouncing ball" type which incorporated songs from his salad days. He also did radio work.
Murray made his last recordings in 1943 and retired to Freeport, Long
Island, New York in 1944. He died in nearby Jones Beach.
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