That small, slender guy on the couch in the fancy suite at a Beverly Hills hotel the other day looked like Eddie Murphy but sure didn’t act like him. Too quiet, too serene. And where was that famous guttural laugh?
Except for a mild witticism here and there, he was deadly serious. No laugh riot, no parade of profanity. Was this really the hip, flip 24-year-old comic notorious for his brashness, arrogance and irreverence?
“This is me,” Murphy said, looking very scholarly in glasses and chic bathrobe. “What you see is what you get.”
Was the primary topic of the interview--his first album as a vocalist, “How Could It Be,” and first single, “Party All the Time"--the reason he was so subdued? Maybe the thought of discussing his new musical career was having a sobering effect. Or maybe this mild-mannered gentleman was the real Eddie Murphy.
Murphy explained: “People never seem to understand that brash guy on stage isn’t me. People expect me to be this arrogant jerk when they meet me. That’s just my stage personality. What happens is that when you’re doing comedy, you have to go on stage and take charge. If not, the audience will take over. They’ll be screaming at me and heckling me. So I’ve got to be tough on stage.
“Offstage, I’m not hard and nasty and unfeeling. I believe in God--strongly. I get hurt over women leaving me, just like everybody else. I’m basically a sensitive person.”
Too sensitive sometimes, he admitted somewhat sheepishly. “People say things that hurt me. Somebody could come up to me and say (referring to his musical career), ‘Hey man, stick to comedy.’ That would bother me all night. Somebody could destroy my night by saying the wrong thing.”
Murphy, the supersensitive angel? Sometimes, maybe. But not all the time. That arrogant persona can’t be totally confined to the stage.
“I do have that obnoxious side of me offstage,” he admitted. “I can turn on that movie star glow in a second. It’s obnoxious. The time has to be right. This isn’t the time now.”
Earlier, Murphy’s suite was noisy. Comedians everywhere. Dick Cavett was showing a videocassette of a TV interview he had done with Richard Pryor. Joe Piscopo, who worked with Murphy on TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” strolled in wearing a running outfit.
A battle of wits seemed imminent. Piscopo was in a joking mood and so was Cavett. Just about everything Cavett said was an attempt at humor--and most of it worked.
But Murphy wasn’t in a playful mood even in that merry atmosphere. On the couch, with an arm around his girlfriend, Ethel Frey, he wasn’t saying much. He was intently watching Cavett verbally sparring with Pryor.
“Uh oh, you made Richard mad there,” Murphy pointed out, reading between the lines of a Pryor response. Cavett shrugged off Murphy’s observation and continued to crack jokes.
“Richard is good, real good,” Murphy said, as everyone in the room was chuckling at a Pryor ad-lib.
“How about me?” Cavett asked impishly.
Murphy just looked at him and smiled.
Later, after the visitors had gone, Murphy talked about his “How Could It Be” album, which is on Columbia, the label that also releases his comedy records.
This pop/soul album--part up-tempo and part ballads--will probably be trashed by the critics, who will cite, among other shortcomings, vocal ineffectiveness. Murphy’s voice really is rather thin.
Still, he is promising, particularly as a songwriter. There’s nothing especially adventurous about his songs, some co-written with David Jones, but they are catchy pop pieces.
It seemed like the last thing Murphy needed was another career. He’s already juggling two--stand-up comedian and actor. If anything, it would seem logical for him to focus less on his grueling, time-consuming comedy shows and concentrate more on his film career. He may be the biggest movie star in the business, with three smashes to his credit--"48 HRS.,” “Trading Places” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” which has grossed $233 million.
Buying a piano for his new house triggered his musical career. “I’m not a musician, but I liked playing piano,” said Murphy, who doesn’t have a musical background. “I spent a lot of time by myself sitting and tinkling with this piano. Then I started buying recording equipment. I was thinking maybe I could do something in music.”
Originally, this album was supposed to be an all-star affair, featuring songs by Murphy’s pals Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Lionel Richie and Prince. Murphy would write the rest.
“I figured there’s no way that album wouldn’t sell with all those guys involved,” Murphy said.
Wonder and James came through, but Richie didn’t have the time. Prince partly came through. He made some instrumental tracks for a song called “Chocolate” but never wrote any lyrics. Murphy wound up using six pop/soul songs he had written or co-written, including “My God Is Color Blind,” “I, Me, Us, We” and “C-O-N Confused.”
Murphy considered several big-name producers--including Nile Rodgers, who was too busy--before settling on an unknown, Aquil Fudge, who had worked with Stevie Wonder for a decade.
The first single is the danceable “Party All the Time,” which Rick James wrote and produced. Currently it’s No. 35 on the Billboard magazine pop singles chart and rising fast. The album is No. 51 after five weeks on the pop chart, a respectable figure for a first album--but not for an Eddie Murphy first album.
“People expect so much from this album,” Murphy complained. “They think it’s supposed to be as good as my comedy. They forget I’m new at singing.”
Murphy was one of those with great expectations. “I thought the album would be doing much better now,” he admitted frankly. “I look at ‘Beverly Hills Cop.’ About 60 million people saw the movie. So you’d think a least 1 million would go out and buy my record. Unfortunately, I see now it doesn’t work that way.”
Part of the problem is that many pop fans don’t realize Murphy has an album out. Publicizing the album through media interviews would help, but he doesn’t like doing interviews. So far, he’s consented to a few on TV and for radio as well as this lone press interview.
“I don’t like doing them (press interviews) because writers take things out of context,” Murphy explained. “Another thing about interviews makes me real mad. White reporters tend to write down what I say in black dialect. I don’t talk like that. It makes me sound like Uncle Remus.”
One reason Murphy decided to record the album was to expose his serious side. “Look at the lyrics I wrote,” he said. “There’s feeling in them. They’re not funny. They tell how I feel about certain things. I like the fact that album is out there for people to see there’s more to me than the brash comedian.”
It would seem that film would be a better outlet for the serious Eddie Murphy. Rather than playing wisecracking characters in comedies and cop thrillers, he could star in a serious drama. But he insisted that’s not possible:
“My fans want to see me be funny. They don’t want me to be serious. I couldn’t do that to my audience.”
Murphy confided that he would like to make a serious drama but hasn’t done it so far because of his fear of a flop. “If a comedian stars in a serious movie, it doesn’t make money,” Murphy said. “It might get critical acclaim, but it won’t be a hit. Not too many people want to see a comedian be serious.
“Comedians are good actors. They’re very sensitive people. A lot of us have a lot of hatred and pain in us, all the things that make a good actor. I could be a good serious actor, but I don’t think I’ll ever make a serious movie.”
There’s another reason Murphy ventured into music. It’s part of his master plan. His goal is to be a versatile performer, not just a comedian.
“In the old days, up to the early ‘50s, an entertainer was a whole show, doing everything on stage--singing, dancing, comedy, impressions, playing instruments. Very few people do that anymore. I want to do a show like that. I want to sing a song, then do some stand-up comedy, then do a costume change and do Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson impressions and then do some comedy and then a ballad. I want to impress people with my versatility.”
Whether Murphy does this kind of show depends on the success of the album. “If I had a couple of hit songs it would make sense to sing them in my show,” he explained. “People would want to hear them. I’d like to hear people yelling for me to sing. That would make me feel good.”
Murphy promised, though, that no matter how successful he became as a singer, he’d never do a show that included no comedy. “Even I don’t take myself that seriously as a singer,” he said, smiling.
Murphy is taking a vacation from comedy now. His most recent show didn’t please him. “It isn’t half as funny as the previous show,” he said. “What’s strange is that the latest show got better reviews.”
According to Murphy, the problem was material. It suffered because he was forced to write hurriedly. Coming up with material for his first major touring show, he recalled, was easier:
“I’ve been doing stand-up comedy since I was 15 years old. I had five years of experience I could talk about on stage. But I did this last tour after doing a movie. I didn’t have much time to prepare material. I had to write everything in two to three months. I didn’t have much good material. The show was really contrived.”
Still, audiences were pleased with the show. But the material, he contended, was almost secondary to them:
“It was easier to make them laugh. They wanted to laugh. They were laughing louder at stuff that wasn’t that funny. It’s like having a friend you think is funny. You start laughing as soon as he walks in the room. That’s what was happening on this last tour. They liked it, but by my standards it wasn’t as funny as the last show. I think they were being shortchanged.”
So now Murphy doesn’t know when he’ll do another stand-up comedy tour. In setting the date, he’ll follow some advice given him by Bill Cosby.
“He told me if you don’t have anything to say, don’t go on stage,” Murphy recalled. “I’m not going to tour until I have something to say.”