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?
Born 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)
An 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.
“Grey Seal” (Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road )
This 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.
“After Tea” (Spencer Davis Group: Funky)
A 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.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Dee Murray? Please share with us in the comments.