Singing isn't brain surgery for Anne Murray
by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., June 20, 2002) – Like a racehorse that bursts out of the starting gate, Anne Murray rocketed to stardom immediately upon the release of her first album, Snowbird, when the title track shot into the top 10 in 1970, making Murray the first female Canadian vocalist to earn a gold record in the U.S.
In the long run, Murray recovered from the shock brought about from being catapulted into the limelight before she was ready, and she has enjoyed a steady, successful three decades in the music business, selling more than 40 million albums and filling a closet full of Grammys and other major awards.
But Murray -- who performs with her band and a 20-piece string section at Tanglewood on Wendesday, June 26, at 7 -- was caught in a whirlwind those first few years, and wasn’t really able to enjoy her early pop success.
“No one is ever prepared for her first hit record,” said Murray in a recent phone interview from her home in Canada. “My career was not premeditated. It was just something I was doing. I was just going with the flow, and all of a sudden this song came out of the blue and it was a hit record and I was not prepared.
“I just got so busy and burnt out and scared. The first couple of years were very difficult. I didn’t know which way to turn. I was so busy it was not very pleasant.
“It’s kind of a blur to me now. I remember chartered jets and you say yes to everything when you’re staring out like that, trying to please everybody and practically kill yourself to the process. But I woke up quickly and realized I would have to think about things and really have to pick and choose when asked to do things.
Murray says that in retrospect, she was lucky that it took another two-and-a-half years for her to have a major hit record after “Snowbird.” The intervening time gave her a chance to take stock and reorient herself.
It also gave her time to find the right manager. Fresh out of university, where she studied to be a gym teacher, Murray got a job singing on a Canadian TV show. It was a short leap from there to the release of “Snowbird.” But this all happened without the guidance of a real manager.
Once “Snowbird” hit big, a series of managers came around to lend their support to, if not to take advantage of, the Canadian songbird. First up was Glen Campbell’s manager, who paired Murray with his hot male singer at the time, trying to mold the young woman from the coal mining town of Springhill, Nova Scotia, into a Southern California-style sophisticated pop-rock singer.
“That really didn’t work,” said Murray. “He didn’t understand me. He was very show biz and L.A. I couldn’t relate to people who had houses on Rodeo Drive. I was going, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ It was so foreign to me, and I had to get out of that.”
Before she did, however, she wound up working with manager Shep Gordon, whose best-known creation was the shock-rock pioneer Alice Cooper.
“Can you imagine that?” said Murray. “It was pretty funny. Shep was a great guy, but sort of a gimmicks guy. He was great at what he did, but he kept trying to find a hook to hang me on. I said this is what I do. I have this voice, and that’s all there is to it.”
In the end, her personal assistant, Leonard Rambeau, took over as her manager, and he became her “right arm.”
“I had someone from Nova Scotia who understood me,” said Murray. “I was never the type who was going to live in Beverly Hills or L.A. That just wasn’t me.”
Murray recovered her stride and by the mid-1970s she scored with follow-up hits including “Danny’s Song,” “A Love Song,” “You Needed Me” and a top-10 version of “You Won’t See Me” by the Beatles.
By the end of the 1970s, Murray’s style of middle-of-the-road pop music was no longer welcome on the pop charts. It did, however, enjoy another decade of popularity on the country charts, where Murray enjoyed a string of top-10 hits throughout the 1980s, including “Could I Have This Dance,” “A Little Good News,” “Now and Forever” and “I Just Fall in Love Again.”
Murray’s success in country music was as much of a surprise to her as her initial pop success.
“I don’t have country roots,” she said. “When I got to Nashville, I felt out of place, because I didn’t speak like I was country, I didn’t have a Southern accent, and I wasn’t raised listening to country music. So I felt a little uncomfortable.
“From the very beginning everyone I met in Nashville was very great to me. Whether they talked behind my back I don’t know. But I was always treated very well.
“So I thought, OK, I’ll sing a couple of country songs. And then next thing you know I’m called a country singer.”
Murray studied classical voice as a teen-ager, singing Italian arias and French and German art songs. She grew up on pop and folk music, and listened to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson.
“But I love rock and roll,” said Murray, whose latest album, What a Wonderful World, includes versions of inspirational songs by Johnny Nash, Bill Withers, Red Foley, Jackie DeShannon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Paul Simon and Louis Armstrong.
“I loved Buddy Holly and Elvis. I went through every kind of music, and I still feel that way. I like all different kinds of music.”
After three decades in the business, Murray claims four Grammy Awards, 31 Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys) -- including seven straight years as Country Female Vocalist of the Year -- and the Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honor that can be awarded to a Canadian citizen.
In 1989, her hometown of Springhill opened a museum devoted to her. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1994 she was the subject of a box-set compiling 64 of her greatest hits.
Despite all the fanfare, Murray remains rooted closely to home – still the simple girl who grew up in a coal-mining town.
“You learn not to take yourself too seriously,” she said. “This is, after all, singing for a living. It’s not brain surgery.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 21, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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