Eddie Murphy’s music career is not a joke

Eddie Murphy Appears On The Oprah Winfrey Show
Eddie Murphy’s music career may not have the success as his comedy and acting, but it’s quietly been his most consistent artistic avenue.

In 1984, Eddie Murphy was dominating Hollywood. At only 23, he’d become the biggest star of the Saturday Night Live cast, earned a Grammy and sold over a million copies of his self-titled comedy album. He had also jumpstarted his movie career with two box office comedy smashes, 48 Hours and Trading Places, which resulted in a $15 million deal with Paramount to produce and star in five more films.

Eddie was rock star level famous, a new epicenter of not just Black entertainment, but entertainment, period. And he fully embraced it, adapting the all-leather ensembles Axel Foley had to stop and laugh at when he first got to Beverly Hills. Having conquered acting and comedy, the star turned his attention to another facet of entertainment: music.

Eddie’s music career is a footnote for fans at best. He only had one real hit, and his last two releases flew largely under the radar. But what many don’t realize is that making music is more than just a hobby the comic has dabbled in from time to time. This isn’t like Lil Duval hitting a lick with “My Best Life” by accident. Eddie is, at heart, a frustrated artist. Think about it; there’ve been through lines of music throughout his entire comedic and acting career, from SNL on. From the beginning, his goal was to eventually have a full-scale entertainment show, reminiscent of the vaudeville days when everyone sang, danced, told jokes, and the whole nine. Eddie as a recording artist never quite took – probably in part because his sh*t was a little unconventional, but we’ll get into that – yet music is the one aspect of entertainment he never gave up on. He stepped away from standup, even stopped doing movies at a point, but was still in his studio at the crib. As rumors swirl of Eddie possibly returning to stand up with a $70 million Netflix partnership, there’s the likelihood that some music will be involved, so let’s prepare by reviewing the comedian’s efforts to be taken seriously as a recording artist.

Even before making it in comedy, Eddie wanted to be a singer. ”I organized my own bands when I was in high school on Long Island,” he told the New York Times while he was working on his first album. ”I was singing before I did comedy. I would do tunes by the Commodores, some by Earth, Wind & Fire, and then I’d do impressions of Al Green, or Elvis Presley. I was the band’s manager, leader and lead singer. Actually, there were guys in the group who sang much better than me; I just wanted to be out front.”

His effortless, spot-on impressions made it easy for him to weave music into his comedy, going all the way back to Saturday Night Live.

Eddie added two parody songs on his 1982 self-titled comedy album. I discovered the better-known of the two, “Boogie in Your Butt,” my freshman year of high school when my best friend’s mother was walking around the house singing the song one Friday night.

Say, put a tin can in your butt
Put a tiny man in your butt
Say, but a light in your butt
Say, make it bright in your butt
Say, but a tv in your butt
Say, put me in your butt

Once she convinced my best friend and me it was a real song, we immediately grabbed the album, called a select few people, played it, and hung up (because we were 13, and *69 callback wasn’t a thing for another two years or so).

Once he hit superstardom and his brand identity as a comedic actor was solid, Eddie felt free to experiment with a legit album. He’d already put a piano and a studio in the crib, and he had access to pretty much any collaborator he wanted. Columbia Records, the label home for his comedy albums, became his home as a vocalist, and his singing career started in earnest with the one Eddie Murphy song everyone knows, the actually jamming “Party All the Time.”

Rick James was on the downside of his career when he found out – probably from friend Charlie Murphy – that Eddie had a couple of incomplete sessions with Prince before the Purple One eventually bailed on the project. Rick was still nursing resentment towards his one-time rival, and let that hate serve as fuel to deliver Eddie more heat than he’d had himself in two years.

“Party All the Time” hit #2 on the Hot 100 chart and stayed there for weeks, blocked by Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” But it felt more like a Rick James song than an Eddie Murphy song. (That’s part of the issue with Eddie as a recording artist: he has no signature sound.)

The full studio album, How Could It Be, theoretically should have been massive. Eddie was one of the biggest stars in America, and major talent was involved in the project – in addition to James himself, Stevie Wonder produced a couple of tracks. But the album’s performance was meh, and Eddie was surprised. “I thought the album would be doing much better now,” he told the LA Times a little over a month after the LP dropped. “I look at Beverly Hills Cop. About 60 million people saw the movie. So you’d think at least 1 million would go out and buy my record. Unfortunately, I see now it doesn’t work that way.” (This is a lesson entertainers and “influencers” are still learning.)

The lackluster response wasn’t really surprising, though. Eddie’s actual music stood separate from his comedy. Look at Jamie Foxx – who is a classically trained musician, by the way – he sang and played every opportunity he got throughout his career, so him eventually releasing an album surprised no one. Eddie, however, wasn’t a singer, singer. He was like a play singer; he could hold enough of a tune to make the skits work, but nobody was walking around thinking, I really wish Eddie Murphy would record an album. He also didn’t really promote his music. He had already started shying away from media looks, so there were no TV performances or radio promo – things you need to do to let people know you have an album in stores. Most importantly, though, singing Eddie wasn’t the same Eddie fans knew; there was a more serious side in his music. “Look at the lyrics I wrote,” he continued in the same LA Times interview. “There’s feeling in them. They’re not funny. They tell how I feel about certain things.” But did fans really want social commentary, like the unity-preaching “God is Color Blind” from Murphy?

Once upon a time, an orange bus drove through the morning dew
And in the bus were children of assorted hue
Being shipped from the ghetto to a fine white school
But you know the people wouldn’t let them through
We don’t want no ni**ers in our school

And my God, ooh, is color blind
Blue, black or white, you can be a friend of mine
And don’t ever judge another man by his race or creed
We are all different colors
But if I cut you, you’ll bleed

Alternately, his songs could be playful, risqué and sexy. Eddie counted Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Marley among his influences, but the songs that worked for him were more funk-driven, like “Party…” and the lead single from his Nile Rogers-produced sophomore album, “Put Your Mouth on Me.”

Did I mention that Eddie’s music was a bit all over the place? Again, he had no “sound.” He was experimenting publicly (which you can do when you already have all the money), reinventing himself musically with each release trying to make something work. In ’93 he released Love’s Alright, and the bizarre single “Whatzupwithu” featuring Michael Jackson during his peak era of weirdness, allegedly a trade-off for Eddie appearing in “Remember the Time.” Whatzupwithisvideo, though? This is really some “too wealthy to even care what people will think” ish.

The third studio album was a spectacular flop, and Eddie was still shocked about it. “If you look at Love’s Alright and see who worked on the album, it’s actually kind of funny that the record didn’t do anything,” he complained to the Baltimore Sun shortly after release. “From vocalists to musicians and engineers, we had everybody who’s anybody working on that record.”

As Eddie’s film career declined and he moved away from the public eye, there was still music. Every movie in the Shrek franchise closed with a funky performance from Murphey’s character Donkey, and he earned an Oscar nod for his (kind of dark) portrayal of the James Brown/Marvin Gaye/David Ruffin hybrid Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls.

But even though the public had failed to buy into Eddie as a serious artist and musician, he never stopped recording. He just wasn’t releasing anything. “All I’ve been doing is making music,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2013. “I haven’t been working on films, haven’t been developing movies or any of that sh*t.” After a decade, Eddie had two somewhat quiet album releases, in 2013 and 2015. And the singles for both were – wait for it – reggae. Like, Top 5 on the Billboard Reggae chart and everything (in fairness, the more niche the chart, the lower the level of difficulty to climb said chart – which is why Lil Nas X put “Old Town Road” up as country instead of hip-hop).

He tagged Snoop Dogg as Snoop Lion in on his 2013 single “Red Light” and went for social commentary again on 2015’s “Oh Jah Jah,” with lyrics inspired by Mike Brown’s murder and the Ferguson uprising.

The devil’s on the move and the world’s gone crazy (yeah)
Police in the streets shootin’ down black babies

Eddie’s longest interview in over a decade is the first episode for the new season of Netflix’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. One of the biggest takeaways from the episode was Eddie telling Jerry Seinfeldthat he plans to put together a new set and get back on the stand-up stage for the first time in over thirty years. Based on his interviews over the last several years, his goal of putting together a multi-faceted show is still in play. “Ultimately, I’d like to have my own band and play live,” he’s shared. “If I ever get back on stage, I’d do everything – music, comedy, a big stage show. That’s my fantasy.”

So, we might as well get prepared for Eddie on guitar in between the jokes, because with all his other accomplishments and successes, he’s gonna keep giving us this music until it clicks. Until he realizes the vision he’s had since his foray into a singing career: “I’d like to hear people yelling for me to sing. That would make me feel good.”

#MusicSermon is a series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the ’90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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