After spending a quarter of a century agitating the airwaves on behalf of the music and the musicians he loved, Murray the K, the most ambitious of the great rock & roll disc jockeys, died in Los Angeles on February 21st at the age of sixty.
Think: what would the golden age of rock & roll have been like without Murray the K? Imagine a world without all the great black R&B acts he exposed: Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, Ben E. King, Little Anthony and the Imperials. And all the classic Motown artists he championed: Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Imagine no Bobby Darin, no Dusty Springfield, no Dion. No Who, no Cream, no Animals. No Jimi Hendrix (Murray got behind “Hey Joe” when it was still an import single). No Rolling Stones (he put together their New York debut, at Carnegie Hall). No inside, on-the-scene Beatles buzz! Unimaginable.
Murray the K was a rock & roll obsessive. In the early Sixties, when he was the scream king of New York radio, he would generally buzz into the WINS studios each day, several hours before his show began, to sift through all the new singles that had arrived. Less driven jocks might have waited for someone else to break a risky record first, but not Murray. If he heard something he liked, something really boss, he would put it on the air that night.
“Got this this afternoon! Sounds terrific! Take a listen!”
Murray was a cultural partisan and a world-class whooper. Maybe he came on like a clown, but he had his convictions. And he got people excited. That was rock & roll radio.
Unfortunately, this freewheeling nonformat — listen to this! — was doomed by the rise of market research, in which music came to be perceived as just another commercial calculation in a successful broadcast formula. A great reining-in of rock DJs began. He walked off WINS when the station changed format. Resigned right on the air. He was the first jock to walk away from WOR-FM, the pioneering free-form station, when it retreated to a playlist. Murray could not abide the idea of some data jockey telling him — the K! — what records to play. So he walked. Later, he bagged a gig at WNBC. The man had a vision.
But time was not on his side. Eventually, he ran out of hip stations to move on to. The homogenizers had won. Murray rattled around radio for years after that, a sometimes undignified figure trading on a-once-potent name, waiting to be beckoned back to the big time. He never lost the faith, and when he finally succumbed to cancer, the “Fifth Beatle” was still hustling for a comeback.
Show business was in his blood. Born in New York City on Valentine’s Day, 1922, Murray Kaufman was the son of a leather merchant named Max and a vaudeville piano player who sometimes worked under the name Jean Greene. His Aunt Trudy was an actress. He learned to show his stuff early.
After serving on the home front during World War II, Murray put his mouth to work as a freelance nightclub emcee on the borsch belt. He got into radio in the early Fifties, doing some announcing and cohosting talk shows on WMCA. In 1958, he staged his first pop event, at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. Eddie Fisher and Sammy Davis Jr. were the headliners. It was a start.
That same year, he went to work for WINS, turning his all-night shift into a Swingin’ Soiree, the perfect musical backdrop for watching submarine races with your favorite love object. In 1959 he moved the Soiree into the prime seven-to-eleven time slot, and it hit big. Murray’s combination of sonic blast and nonstop yowsah-yowsah made for electrifying radio, and it was even more outrageous when he appeared in person. Murray mounted the first of his legendary rock & roll shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount in 1959, with a bill headed by Ray Charles, Brenda Lee and Chubby Checker. Murray’s style could be a little corny (sample patter, boy making moves on reluctant girlfriend in parked car: “Baby, let me tell you about the hereafter.” “The hereafter?” “Yeah — if you’re not here after what I’m here after, you’re gonna be here after I’m gone”). But at the Paramount, and later at the Brooklyn Fox, Murray exposed all the happening acts of the day — and in the process became a star himself.
As other jocks began copping his manic style, Murray sought new horizons. On February 7th, 1964, he met the second great wave of rock & roll head-on. When the Beatles flew in to New York for the first time, Murray, wearing his trademark porkpie hat, was there to greet them. Somehow, he took over their maiden U.S. press conference; soon he was traveling with them, rooming with them, even. The competition was mightily steamed. In Washington D.C., a frustrated reporter is said to have asked, “What the fuck is Murray the K doing here?” George Harrison calmly replied, “Murray’s the fifth Beatle.”
That tag cemented his rep, but it also came to plague him. “He didn’t like it particularly,” says his son Peter Altschuler, a TV producer in Santa Monica, California. “It kept bringing him back, and he liked to keep going forward.”
And so he did. After leaving WINS, Murray rode the new rock wave onto WOR in 1966. He saw the then nascent concept of free-form FM as a chance to get really loose on the air. Not only did he play electric Dylan tracks — a bold enough gambit in itself — he played “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in its entirety. It was dream radio, but it only lasted eighteen months. When WOR trimmed its creative sails, Murray decamped and opened a multimedia discotheque in an abandoned airplane hangar on Long Island. Murray the K’s World, he called it. The long decline had begun.
Drifting on and off the air in various markets, Murray lost his power to command the pop moment. The Beatles didn’t stay in touch. More ominously, the long years of hype and hustling and constant hanging out were beginning to take their toll. Murray didn’t drink, and he wasn’t a druggie (ironically, he toked on his first joint only after he had been working with the President’s Council on Drug Abuse in 1972). But he smoked too much and he worked too hard, and one day, out of the blue, he learned he had cancer.
Chemotherapy kept his lymphoma under control for nine years, but it was a holding action. He lost his last radio shot, a syndicated rock show called Soundtrack of the Sixties, early in 1981, when he became too ill to carry on with it. He underwent surgery last summer, and after that it was only a matter of time. Refusing further hospital care, he returned to his home in L.A. Perhaps he surveyed the wreckage of what had passed for his private life — a string of failed marriages, an uneasy relationship with three sons. And now the final sign-off. Had his time at the top been worth it? Would Murray the K be missed? And who would say kaddish for Murray Kaufman, the driven DJ who disappeared behind that rock & roll mask all those years ago?
“He was a person who essentially lived his life in the business,” says Altschuler. “He had his regrets, as do we all. But I don’t think anybody holds any grudges. That’s the way he was.”