by Hobey Echlin
His career could be described as standing in the shadows of the shadows of Motown — as well as the shadows of soul, R&B and techno. Ron Murphy, legendary Detroit music producer, record collector and mastering/cutting plant operator, has died of an apparent heart attack. He was 58 years old.
Bulletins started popping up on message boards Saturday night, when news of Murphy’s passing shocked Detroit’s techno community. House music producer Mike Grant was among the first to post; DJ Brian Gillespie had an appointment to go by Murphy’s Sound Enterprises mastering studio on Merriman in Westland to pick up a collection of vintage Detroit soul master recordings last Monday.
Murphy’s career spanned decades and generations of Detroit’s urban DIY music communities, beginning with Motown and other independent soul and R&B labels in the late ‘60s. As an audio engineer, he manned the classic reverb and echo units during Isaac Hayes' recording of “Walk On By” in 1971 at United Sound. When times were leaner, Murphy sold insurance to struggling soul musicians.
Murphy came to the attention of the techno community in the '80s when the likes of Derrick May and Juan Atkins stumbled upon his Westside cutting plant, then called National Sound Corporation. Murphy owned a vintage cutting lathe from the ‘30s and agreed to master and cut the metal prototype records, dub plates, then used to manufacture techno’s ubiquitous 12-inc single. His warm, full sound and attention to a thick but not too loud kick drum arguably gave many a techno record the soul part of its icy soul. He pioneered pressing lock-grooves on records, which allowed DJs to mix to a single repeated loop. Murphy’s discography reads like a who’s who of techno: Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills, the Throw/Twilight 76/Database electro labels and countless others all went to Murphy.
Murphy’s meticulous collecting and archiving of vintage soul records, master tapes and original pressings made a visit to NSC a visit to a one-man Motown Museum. Producers would come in with a DAT tape or CD to cut a dub plate for a new record on Murphy’s cutting lathe, only to be treated to stories of, say, Marvin Gaye muse Tammi Terrell’s wild exploits with Eddie Kendricks as well as other nuggets of vintage lore. Remembers Gillespie: “He said one thing I’ll never forget. ‘Success to those soul musicians back then was a diamond pinkie ring, a white girlfriend and a Cadillac.’ Now you hear that and you laugh, but you have to remember, back in the ‘60s, that was revolutionary--socially, economically, culturally.” Murphy’s stories made legendary artists people, not just icons from black-and-white photographs, which could inspire as much as entertain.
Still, it was Murphy’s ear that was his greatest gift to Detroit techno producers—that and his affordability. As Underground Resistance’s Mike Banks told England’s DJ Mag in 2005, “Ron Murphy helped many a fledgling Detroit producer's early career. When they had a fucked up, out-of-phase, poorly-segued, four- or eight- track piece-of-s*** production, he would fix it. He would make it competitive to the [stuff] coming out of New York or Chicago. He did miracles with some of those records--ours included. “
Adds Gillespie, “He knew a hit when he heard one, whether it was an R&B record or a techno record. When he first heard [UR’s] ‘Jaguar,’ he knew it was going to be a hit. When he first heard [Detroit Grand Pubahs’] ‘Sandwiches’ he knew it would be a hit.”
And though Murphy wasn’t a household name, he was just fine with that. “He was always like, ‘Whaddya wanna hear all these old stories for?’ Gillespie remembers. “He was the only guy from back then left who wasn’t bitter.
“He was the soul of Detroit music for a lot of us.” --Hobey Echlin
Ron Murphy: "He knew a hit..."