CHARLES TOWN – Since he won the million-dollar prize on NBC’s prime-time talent-search show “America’s Got Talent” back in September, West Virginia-born crooner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. has headlined in Vegas, belted out the national anthem at Madison Square Garden and earlier this month performed at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater.
But Murphy says it’s tough to beat the chance to wow crowds in his home state.
“There’s something special about singing in West Virginia – I’m back home,” the lanky, dreadlocked 37-year-old explained in a phone interview from his hometown of Logan in southern West Virginia, where he returns to spend time with his wife and family every four or five days or as often as he can between shows.
On Friday night, he’ll perform at special charity fundraiser in Bluefield, helping the audience sing the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song in hopes of setting a world’s record.
The event is being organized by the Denver Foundation, the non-profit begun by TV actor Bob Denver, who spent the final years of his life in West Virginia.
Next month, Murphy will sing at the historic Keith-Albee in Huntington and then this summer, he’s slated to perform all across the Mountain State, including June 20 at FestivALL in Charleston, Aug. 12 at the State Fair in Lewisburg and at the Clarksburg Amphitheatre on July 14.
His manager Burke Allen, another native of Logan, said Murphy would welcome the chance to sing for fans in the Eastern Panhandle region, but that there’s nothing definite on the lineup yet.
From his earliest moments on “America’s Got Talent” and now as a professional, Murphy was praised as a unique presence – a talented musician with a supremely relaxed style and a lack of pretention.
“Anywhere I do a show, I’m myself – this isn’t an act I rehearse, this is just me,” said Murphy, who first came into the public eye as the final act to perform at the AGT audition in New York, an episode filmed in late 2010 but which didn’t air until the late spring of last year.
As anyone can see from the YouTube clip of Murphy’s audition, his initial encounter with judges Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan delivers the kind of roller coaster that makes reality TV so riveting.
As the three make small talk with Murphy, asking about his day job washing cars and his hometown, they clearly weren’t expecting great things. Morgan even has to suggest Murphy get rid of his chewing gum before he starts to sing.
But the judges’ skepticism lifts within seconds as Murphy launches into “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with a sound and warm, easy delivery that evokes Frank Sinatra at his peak. Instead of an initial audition, Murphy looks as if he’s already a star, someone who’s been wowing appreciative masses for eons.
In the weeks that followed, Murphy continued to advance through the TV competition’s showdowns. He performed classics made famous by Dean Martin, Ethel Merman, Cab Calloway and others, culminating with a rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way.” That sixth-season finale, which drew some 14 million viewers, ended with him in the top spot.
Murphy traces the roots of his music style – and his appreciation for standards – to the 1983 television special, “Motown 25,” which included a tribute to Nat King Cole.
“Nat King Cole sings ‘Mona Lisa’ and that’s my mother’s name,” he recalled. “So after I got introduced to that song, I started singing it to my mom. And then when I’d watch ‘Married … With Children,’ I recognized the theme song, ‘Love and Marriage’ as another crooner kind of tune and I started singing that. Pretty soon, people were telling me I sounded a lot like Frank Sinatra.”
He honed his skills at every turn, even when playing hoops. “I’d dunk on somebody and sing, ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ Or I’d move in close and sing, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’ It’s just fun.’’
Unlike Michael Jackson – who started his professional career at age 6 – or Sinatra, who was a star at 25, Murphy spent decades quietly struggling, working for minimum wage and as a teenager experiencing a period of homelessness.
But all through the years, he went on singing wherever he could in Logan and elsewhere in West Virginia, everything from nightclubs’ amateur nights and bars’ karaoke to community get-togethers and charity events.
He steadfastly ignored advice to give up on his goal of making it in music. “So many people told me it was over, especially once I’d hit 30,” he said. “They said it was time to get a 9-to-5 job, time to grow up. But I always believed there is no time limit.”
His advice to anyone fellow West Virginians struggling now? “I’d tell them to never give up. Put your focus on God, pray, talk to God about what he wants you to do, but never give up on your dream.”
When he hears fans say he seems like such a natural on stage, he nods in agreement. “I do feel a confidence,” he said. “I feel like what I’m doing now, singing for the world – this is what I’ve been meant to do all along. I’m not going to complain about a thing.”