Ralph Murphy has been writing songs, as he likes to describe it, “since God wore short pants.” And he’s had a lot of success over the decades.
The iconic, Nashville-based SOCAN member, a 2012 Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, penned the No. 2 Jeannie C. Riley hit “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” in 1971; co-wrote (with Bobby Wood) the 1978 Crystal Gayle chart-topper “Half the Way”; co-wrote (with Bobby Wood again) the 1980 Ronnie Milsap No. 1 hit “He Got You”; and most recently enjoyed a No. 2 U.K. hit via Sir Cliff Richard, with the Paul Brady collaboration “21st Century Christmas” in 2006.
He’s also had his tunes covered by Randy Travis, the late Don Williams, Ray Price, Shania Twain, Kathy Mattea, Little Texas and – on the other side of the Atlantic – Brotherhood of Man and Vanity Fare.
So you could say that the 73-year-old Murphy knows a thing or two about songwriting – and in a career that’s lasted more than a half-century, he admits it boils down to this: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“The only things that change are vocabulary and technology,” says Murphy, whose book Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting: How to Write a Hit Song has been endorsed by some of the art form’s most celebrated tunesmiths. “Structure remains the same. The new Taylor Swift song [“Look What You Made Me Do”] is exactly perfect fourth form – it changes rhyme scheme in the pre-chorus and uses the pronoun ‘you.’ The bridge – or what I call ‘the two-minute wall’ – is right on the money.”
Murphy – whose Picalic Group of Companies joint music publishing venture with Roger Cook also scored a No. 1 with Crystal Gayle’s version of another Bobby Wood co-write, “Talking in Your Sleep” – hosted a SOCAN House Song Camp at this year’s BreakOut West conference and festival in Edmonton last week.
SOCAN picked more than a dozen songwriters to attend this interactive workshop. Murphy had a game plan in motion: “I look at all the No. 1 records from last year, and the way that they’re structured,” he says. “I then listen to all the participants’ songs, make them re-write them that day and play them first thing in the morning. And then I give them an assignment based on structure and a title – all the same title.”
Murphy will be listening to a dozen or more songs with the exact same titles, to discover just how closely his students follow his instruction. “Every single one will be different, which is fascinating,” says Murphy.
Murphy, who was born in Saffron Walden, England, before he emigrated to Canada at the age of six, was 16 years old and living in Wallaceburg, ON, when he got “floored” by The Beatles, just like everyone else. Only he decided to move where the action was when he hit 19 in 1965
“The only things that change are vocabulary and technology. Structure remains the same.”
“I got a one-way ticket on a boat going to Liverpool,” he recalls. “It was The Kinks who wandered into a club where Jack Klaysen and I were playing. After the show, they said, ‘You guys are really good – what are you doing in Liverpool?’ And I said, ‘That’s where it is – that’s where all the shit is happening over here.’ And they said, ‘No – they come here and sign us and we go to London, where all the studios, and managers, and producers, and record companies are.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re screwed – we’re almost broke.’”
The Kinks’ roadies offered the duo a spot in their van, which was traveling to London the next day at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. “Jack and I took the offer,” says Murphy, “and three months later we had a record deal with Tony Hatch producing. He taught me so much about songwriting.”
The duo signed with Pye Records, with Murphy landing a Mills Music publishing deal. They were known as the Guardsmen, and later the Slade Brothers, and opened for U.K. tours by The Byrds, The Walker Brothers, The Hollies and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders.
In 1969 Murphy moved to New York and ended up producing April Wine’s 1972 classic album On Record – featuring their first two national hits, “You Could’ve Been a Lady” and “Bad Side of the Moon.” He also produced the follow-up, Electric Jewels, and later did the same for Canadian acts Mashmakhan, Shooter, and Brutus, among others.
Then Nashville unexpectedly beckoned. “I accidentally had a country hit – I was drawing on my Wallaceburg roots – and I had a huge No. 2 hit with Jeannie C. Riley called ‘Good Enough to Be Your Wife,’” Murphy recalls. “I won an ASCAP Award for it in 1972, and flew down to Nashville because I had never been. I fell in love with the town. I was just having children and the kids were getting mugged in the playground. Everyone and everything said, ‘Go to Nashville.’”
Upon landing, Murphy discovered a universal truth about songwriting. “The structures that I’d been taught in England, that worked in pop and rock ‘n’ roll, also worked in country,” he says. Murphy identifies seven of them in Murphy’s Laws and says that only three forms are used effectively. He also knows whether a song has the potential to be a hit in the first 60 seconds of hearing it. He says the only aspect of songwriting that his hit formula doesn’t pertain to is electronic dance music, because it’s “generally 120-130 beats per minute, and is made for people who are dancing.”
Murphy says the best time to write is in the morning, when ideas are fresh. “Late at night, when alcohol is added to the equation, and drugs, and whatever, you lose your focus. It becomes more personal,” he says.
“Impersonal music is what I write, because it can be taken anywhere by anyone. They’re anthems. Every day I want to write the ultimate song – one that will invite people, that will include people, that will make them feel loved and make them want to sing it.”