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Bass Players to Know: Dee Murray

Dee Murray with Elton John
Photo by Dan Cuny

Every now and then, the car radio takes me by surprise. A station spins just the right song to pique my insatiable curiosity as I sit in traffic, easing the pain of running late by distracting me with a sing-along. An Elton John song is no anomaly when it comes to commercial radio, and for good reason… a tune like “Bennie And the Jets,” with its applause-driven bed and rhythmic push and pull, captivates the musical brain and keeps the dial tuned to that station. This timely exposure inspired me to revisit Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, only to focus on the bass playing more than I ever had before. With an authoritative tone, driving rhythmic feel, and expert approach to voice leading, Dee Murray is a bass player to know.

So Who Is Dee Murray?

Dee MurrayBorn in the UK in 1946, Dee Murray grew up during the golden age of British rock’n’roll. He began playing bass as a teenager, listening to the current rock and R&B records of the time. His first band, The Mirage, formed in 1965 and released a few singles on CBS records before moving to the Philips label and finally Page One Records, a label run by Dick James. In addition to working with the label, James owned a studio and began using Murray as a session player with different songwriters, including Elton John. In 1969, Murray left The Mirage and joined the Spencer Davis Group to tour and record the album Funky. A year later, Elton John began looking for a new touring band and formed a trio with Murray and Nigel Olsson.

Between 1970 and 1975, Murray toured alongside Elton John and recorded on some of his most noteworthy albums. Though he only made a brief appearance on Tumbleweed Connection, he can best be heard on John’s live record, 11-17-70, as well as Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. After working on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, John dismissed both Murray and Olsson from the band and the rhythm section went to Los Angeles in search of other session work.

Once moving to the United States, Murray recorded and toured with a number of artists, including Rick Springfield, Jimmy Webb, Yvonne Ellliman, Bob Weir, Alice Cooper, and John Prine. He rejoined Elton John’s band for a brief time in the 1980s and later moved to Nashville, TN. After a long bout with cancer, Murray passed away in 1992.

Let’s Talk Style

Accompanying a master like Elton John is no small task and Murray shines by executing carefully crafted music while imparting his own style. He implements a classical approach to soprano-bass counterpoint, playing a specific bass note to compliment the vocal melody. Many of these harmonic movements are dictated by John’s intentional chord voicing, where playing C over E (1 over 3) supports the movement between the chords with clever voice leading in the bass. This combination of carefully thought out note choices with a keen awareness of the song arrangement makes for a particularly musical approach to ballad playing.

When it comes to rock and roll, Murray’s sense of time brings a spirited and energetic charge to the music. He tends to play on or on top of the beat, creating a sense of momentum and urgency without being overbearing or rushing. This helps drive the band and, combined with his forceful right hand attack, pushes the group to play with excitement. His fills are remarkably fearless as he jumps registers, takes advantage of different rhythms, and includes hints of dissonance and chromaticism.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road)

Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick RoadAn amazing study in beautifully crafted popular music, Murray’s bass line provides the perfect counterpoint to the vocal melody. His steady quarter notes coincide with the movement of the chords, further accenting the voices in the bass. As the song progresses, he adds a swing to the song with grace notes, transitional fills and a slightly busier approach.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Grey Seal” (Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road )

Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick RoadThis tune features Murray as the energetic and driving force of the band, complete with his punchy bass tone that dominates the mix. He pushes the music forward and provides momentum by playing slightly on top of the beat, sneaking in syncopated triplet and root-fifth-octave flourishes throughout the pedaling sections. Joining in with the melodic lick to conclude the choruses, he settles back into the double eighth-note punches in the verse. The band then transitions into a high-energy, gospel-like groove to ride out the song with Dee adding chromatic fills and brief accents in the higher register.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“After Tea” (Spencer Davis Group: Funky)

Spencer Davis Group: FunkyA constantly moving and undeniably melodic approach, Murray’s bass line guides the listener through the song. His playing is very “current” for the time and place (UK, 1969), with a bouncy, Beatle-like feel. Using chord inversions, arpeggios, and quick chromatic lines, he creates a counter melody to the vocal line. By mimicking the rhythm of the vocals, leaving space for drum fills, and adhering to the specific patterns in the verses and choruses, it’s clear that he carefully crafted the bass line to fit the song.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Dee Murray? Please share with us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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Share your thoughts

Sharon

Sharon

So glad to see this! Dee Murru was definitely one reason I decided at an early age that Bass is the most incredible instrument ever. He tears it up on 11-17-70! Thanks Ryan

Corey Brown

Elton John’s “11-17-70” is one of my all-time favorite albums – and the primary reason is Dee Murray’s bass playing. Such incredible tone.

Bill Bois

I was recently fortunate enough to buy one of Dee Murray’s old basses and listened to 11-17-70 all the way home with the bass in the back seat. I got all misty-eyed over it, as he has always been a musical inspiration. His performance on 11-17-70 is one of the reasons I wanted to play bass. I think it’s the second best live album ever, right after The Who’s Live At Leeds. If you haven’t heard it, track it down and put on the headphones.

    Dave

    Dave

    Hey Bill,
    Just wondering which bass of his you picked up and where it was being sold. I’m a big Dee fan so am always interested in knowing what gear he had and where any of it may be now.
    Dave

      Bill Bois

      Hi Dave,

      It’s an Ovation Magnum 1, with the adjustable mute and stereo output. It looks like this:

      http://s255.photobucket.com/user/yannis_kontos/media/VintageHottiesFolder/1977OvationMagnum1Bass.jpg.html

      except it has a metal pickguard. I don’t know how long he had it, but I bought it from a guitarist here in Nashville. They used to jam together when Dee lived (and died) here, and Dee gave it to the guitarist as a gift. The last song he played on it was “Rocket Man.” It came with one of Dee’s business cards. I framed it and have it hanging on the wall in my office.

      Bill

        Dave

        Dave

        Hi Bill,
        Thanks for sharing that information on it. I actually was good friends with Maria (his widow who sadly passed away in 2012). I have his original 1982 fretted Steinberger that he used on tour with EJ in 82-84 and on the last 2 albums he recorded with him. Someone else has his 82 fretless Steinberger. You probably have seen pictures of that one if you have visited the talkbass website. The family still has his 3rd one that he picked up in NYC at the end of the 84 tour.

        Dave

Anthony Cook

Absolutely great bassist ! Certainly a good pick for bass players we should all know .Great style and moving bass lines.

Jean-Francois Djeff Houle

Thank you for this, always loved his playing! I have a request for your column. Could you talk about Alan Spenner. In my opinion one of most underrated bass player. His playing on the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar is beyond description! The bass part on ‘What’s The Buzz’ is phenomenal.

Thanx

Kevin Bell

Dee Murray was an outstanding Bass player. Listen to The Ballad of Danny Bailey off GYBR and listen to his rhythmic Bass lines. If you really want to hear his incredible playing ability, find the Elton John album 11-17-70. A Live album with piano, bass and drums only. Incredible! Dee had to carry 2 parts, bass and guitar……using his bass.

tenvirginswatch

I have always absolutely loved Grey Seal

Dave

Dave

Dee was by far and away one of the greatest bass players to come out of late 60s/early 70s. Besides his work with Elton, he also has some other great recordings around if you know where to look.

Not mentioned often is his work with Ray Fenwick on his only solo album “Keep America Beautiful, Get a Haircut”. Ray was in Spencer Davis Group with Dee in late 68 and 1969 and they were really good friends. That was recorded in late 71-early 72 around the same time as Elton’s Honky Chateau and also features other Elton band members Nigel Olsson, Roger Pope, and Caleb Quaye. Dee is the only bass player on the album.
http://www.allmusic.com/album/keep-america-beautiful-get-a-haircut-mw0000658339

Ray also recorded “Guitar Orchestra” which is an album with Mick Grabham (of Procol Harum fame) around the same time of mostly instrumental guitar heavy songs. Dee is also the only bass player on that album and Nigel is on drums of a couple of tracks and lead vocals on one of them. While the album was recorded in the early 70s, it was never released until the late 90s due to copyright issues with the lead off song on the album.
http://www.allmusic.com/album/guitar-orchestra-mw0000047048

While both of those albums are a good listen for some good vintage Dee, probably the best largely unknown Dee work is the 1979 self title debut (and only album) from Van Dunson. Van was a piano player so all of the songs are piano driven like they were on any Elton album. Dee, once again, is the only bass player on the album and he also provides all the backing vocals. This album also is the missing link between Dee’s classic sound and tone of the early 70s Elton records and his more modern (for the time) effects/flanger pedals heavy sound he got into from 82-84 with Elton. Here he maintains a lot of his signature tone from the early “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” days but adds in some effects pedals on some of the tracks to fill out the sound. The album is long out of print but amazon has it available as mp3 and also a cd manufactured on demand and both even comes with a few bonus tracks. Anyone who like Dee will enjoy this album. Honestly I even like it better than most of the 80s Elton stuff Dee was on. Listen to some samples of all the songs here.
http://www.amazon.com/Van-Dunson/dp/B005SXR44O/ref=tmm_msc_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1427511000

    Christopher Allan

    Christopher Allan

    Hi Dave, I have done some research regarding the “Guitar Orchestra” album… I really would like to hear this album. Is it possible to order it anywhere? Dee Murray was my bass inspiration and Nigel is just awesome! I would love to get my hands on this album. If you have any information, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Brian

Brian

On Rocket Man, his high notes on the bass evoke a mystical, stellar, space ship quality.

Demi

Demi

Thanks for the article. I rather enjoyed seeing more on this incredible, underrated bassist who definitely held his own both creatively and rhythmically.

Would you happen to know what bass he uses on Love Lies Bleeding? I would guess a Rick 5001 from the sound but all photos of him show him using Fenders.

Bill

Bill

Outstanding bassist. And along with Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston, the best backing vocalists anywhere. Dee shines on every Elton track he’s on. If I had to names some faves: “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and “High Flying Bird.”