Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., the 2011 $1 million winner of “America’s Got Talent,” is not surprised at all that he has achieved fame and fortune.
What does surprise him is the way it happened.
Murphy, who will bring his smooth vocal interpretation of the Great American Songbook to the Jewish Community Center’s annual fundraiser, Big Night, on April 2 at the JCC in Squirrel Hill, always knew he would make it some day despite his humble roots. He just thought it would be on a basketball court.
“I always thought I’d make it big in the NBA,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in Logan, W. Va. “I’m a big basketball fan. I’m a big Michael Jordan fan. I cried when he retired. I stood in line to get his shoes like any other inner city kid.”
But something else was in store for the young African- American, who was born in West Virginia but at the age of 11 was transplanted to the rough Detroit inner city, where he faced unfamiliar and unimaginable challenges.
“It was a whole new lifestyle,” said Murphy. “I was just trying to stay alive.”
On the first day he arrived in Detroit, he saw a girl held at gunpoint on the street, followed by a police chase. Before he turned 17, he had lost several friends to stray bullets.
“We moved there in ’83 or ’84, during the boom in the crack era,” he said. “You could almost smell the tension and the violence around you.”
Murphy, however, stayed out of trouble, finding solace on the basketball court, where he would often calm down the other players when things got tense by singing “Fly Me to the Moon” in the style of Frank Sinatra.
“They would bust out laughing,” he recalled. “They thought it was hilarious. They would say, ‘You sound exactly like that dude.’”
Murphy, who grew up singing and dancing in his living room, eschewed the musical genres more common among his peers, such as hip hop with its violent lyrics, and instead embraced the music of Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole.
His love for the classics began when he saw a television clip of Cole singing “Mona Lisa.” Murphy began singing that song to his mother, whose name is Mona Lisa, he said.
“I started paying attention to (Cole) and to Dean Martin and to Frank Sinatra,” Murphy said, adding that he was especially impressed with Sinatra’s phrasing.
“More and more I listened to it, and I realized what a genius he was,” he said. “He would just let a note linger until he said what he wanted to.”
From the time Murphy was 14 years old, he has been “singing these songs to friends to cheer them up,” he said. While working at a car wash, Murphy began singing over the intercom, getting a positive reaction from the customers and other employees. It was then that his boss decided to take him out to clubs in the suburbs in Michigan, where he would sing “My Way,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
He also began volunteering his time to sing for abused and homeless children.
Although his local fan base grew, Murphy eventually hit “rock bottom,” he said.
“I was robbed, and I asked God what to do,” Murphy said. “He said I needed a bigger stage.”
Soon after, he saw Howie Mandel on television serving as a judge for “America’s Got Talent” and decided to audition for the show. He saved up his money from working at the car wash, headed to the audition and was chosen to be a contestant.
Murphy has faced some pretty serious challenges in his life. He was homeless at the age of 19, sleeping in his car. At the time he auditioned for “America’s Got Talent,” he was living in Logan and was basically on his last dime.
The audience loved his voice and his story, and he won the competition by the biggest margin in the show’s history.
“Music is the most powerful thing on the planet,” he said. “You can sing a song and make someone cry, or you can sing a song and make a whole neighborhood come together. I respect that power, and I use it to the best of my ability at all times.”
Murphy has come a long way from the streets of Detroit to find his way back home to Logan. He has performed more than 100 sold-out concerts across three continents from Caesars Palace to the Apollo Theater. His debut CD hit the top of the Billboard charts. And he has raised more than $1 million for children’s and homeless charities through sales of his holiday CD and personal appearances.
“I thank God for letting me live my dreams,” he said. “With God’s help, I was able to learn all these things with no vocal coach or stage-presence coach,” he said. “Seeing my friends die at 17 kept me away from the negative things. I stayed out of trouble because I saw the consequences from it. Now I’m able to do what I love and to give back.”
He is eager to tell his story to the fans who come out to Big Night to hear him sing, he said.
“I always dreamed of being somebody,” he said. “I never saw myself in the gutters. I can’t wait to share the rest of my story when I get to Pittsburgh.”
Big Night 120 Years: Celebrating Yesterday, Imagining Tomorrow is the JCC’s 10th Big Night celebration. In addition to the music of Murphy, the evening will include food and drinks, dancing, a raffle and a silent auction. The event is co‐chaired by Nancy and Woody Ostrow, Hilary Tyson and Charles Porter and Linda and Ken Simon.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.