Remembering Robert Murphy, Lightnin' Hopkins and Clifton Chenier's Drummer

Robert "Skin Man" Murphy at home, 2011
Robert "Skin Man" Murphy at home, 2011
Photo by David Ensminger

Robert “Skin Man” Murphy (also known as Tonto), the esteemed, learned, dexterous drummer who spent years behind Lightnin’ Hopkins and Clifton Chenier, recently died in his sleep, peaceful as a dove. Born into a musical family with roots burrowed in the Deep Elm/Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, he was a prodigious talent, family man and emblem of varied musical craft. When I visited his home to interview him for an impending biography of Hopkins I was finishing for the University of Texas Press (the original author, Timothy O’Brien, had passed away from cancer), he was a jovial spirit, one who offered me a can of cold beer and endless stories.

Wearing a crisp white shirt and situated in a paneled side room teeming with items ranging from a boom box, a tiger-print drum set and a tambourine to his father’s beloved dusty horns, he was open-armed and garrulous. News clippings (“Nite Spots!”), Mardi Gras decorations, and posters from clubs like Sid’s Ranch Ballroom, Club Supreme (“Super Soul Session —3 bands! 10 Hours!”) and the Fountain Club were affixed to the walls, remnants of a bygone era. For an hour, we discussed the people’s history of Texas music, his personal path through decades of difficult gigs and outsized personalities, as well as his insight into everyday life.

As a young talent, Murphy desired to hit the road with Ray Charles, a dream his father cut short, but he attended universities, proving not only his innate, intuitive skills but also honing his sense of study too. Piano, as well as instruments such as violin, bass, cello and mandolin, became his domain. His stints in bands ranged from the mid-1940s, when he was the percussive force behind the Saint Peter’s Academy band in Dallas, to The Fascinators, The Outer Sights, and Fred Cooper and his Orchestra throughout the following decades. As such, he balanced a life between the secular and the sacred, for he was a devout Catholic who loved whiskey, funky gigs and hunting as well as fishing. Last, as a boundless teacher, he served communities in Crockett, Anahuac and Houston, disseminating his knowledge to eager learners.

As an emblem of a generation that dealt with detestable Jim Crow laws, one-of-a-kind musical personalities and the challenges of educating young America, Murphy will be missed as part of the fabric that knitted together southeast Texas. The following words are his own, from a June 2011 interview with the author at his Houston home that did not appear in my and O'Brien's book, Mojo Hand: The Life and Music of Lightnin' Hopkins.

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Lightnin' didn’t care about traveling. Neither did Clifton Chenier. They were good friends. That’s how we all got together. It took them years to get either one of them to go overseas. Lightnin’ didn’t talk a whole lot, but when he did, he just talked slow. His words were dragged out. He used to carry gin with him all the time.

He was not used to a band playing behind him and really wasn’t used to a drummer playing behind him for too long. I guess I played with him longer on the stage than anybody. We’d go on the road, and when it came Lightnin’s time to go on the stage, we’d start playing. I guess we would play for 15 or 20 minutes, and he’d say, well, I think the drummer and me are gonna have to split up. He didn’t have to say anything else. He’d say something to that effect. I’d just get up and go offstage until he got through.

I arranged for our group, and I had to write out all the parts and teach it to them because I took them boys out of high school and put ’em on the road. With Lightnin’ it was always three or four players. He’d play in those beer joints all night by himself, and sometimes he’d use a rubboard too, but I don’t consider that doing too much drumming. It’s just another means of keeping a little rhythm in there.

We had lots of fun. He carried his bottle of gin with him all the time. He was a ladies man too. He liked bright women.

No one was impeccable at that time. They were good at their style of playing. Everybody imitated everybody else. Lightnin’, as far as I know, didn’t imitate anybody. Lightnin’ was Lightnin’. My first year of teaching was in Crockett, TX. In Crockett now, there is a statue of Lightnin’ down there. Looks just like him.

In his style, as far as I am concerned, he was just as good as B.B. King because I was never much of a fan of B.B. King. I prefer Bobby Bland to B.B., to tell you the truth. Those were the only two bands that we never played behind. Wherever they went, they had their own group. Most of the blues singers would just bring themselves and a guitar player. and they would hire a band to back them up, and we were one of the bands in Houston. We played at all of Ray Barnett’s six clubs [over the years, famed entrepreneur Barnett opened clubs like Cinnamon Cinder, XKE Club, the Eve Club, the Big Apple, etc.] when he had them. You name the big beer joints and clubs, we played 'em.

Lightnin’ never talked about who inspired him, that I know of. I never visited him at his house, so I never met his family. The times we were together on the gigs and jam sessions, we didn’t talk too much. He didn’t have an attitude toward me because I was trained and educated. He had an attitude toward everybody – all drummers. I think I played longer with him at one time than anybody. I never saw anybody play half an hour with him.

Lightnin' just grew up an old-time country boy, and he found out that he could make him a little money in these beer joints. He found out he could get all the beer and whiskey and whatnot he wanted…As far as I know, he never had any visions of glamour or anything like that. It was just a way of making a living.

Clifton and Lightnin’ played well together. I don’t know why. Clifton was a good musician, and he was used to those old-timey guitar players who would extend their phrases and cut them short and whatnot. Clifton could adjust. There were a lot of bands that played behind Clifton. So, he and Lightnin’ played on the same stage together before I started playing with Clifton. They developed a friendship – something they worked out together. Clifton could adapt, I could adapt, to whatever Lightnin’ would do. Every once in a while Clifton would go off too. He played blues, zydeco and pop numbers. When he started putting the blues thing to zydeco, I started a different beat…

When we were on the road, we played to white audiences. In fact, we played at a club between Dallas and Fort Worth up near the Oklahoma border, and one fellow warned us that the Mafia had clubs up in that area and they may try to take us away from the club where we were playing. So, we hurried up and completed our gig and got out of there. We didn’t want any dealings with the Mafia. In fact, I burned up a 1956 Cadillac on the road on that trip. She was dead. I was hauling the band at that time. Sonny Boy and Lightnin’ drove their own cars.

We had some good musicians here in Houston. That was one thing. Dallas had some good musicians too. There were a few around Austin. It claims to be the music capital of the Southwest, nation or world, all that crap. No, no, no. Houston and Dallas were the places to be. San Antonio had a few good musicians, but in Texas, we had good musicians, especially Dallas and Houston.

In the olden days, that’s where musicians were — in Deep Ellum — say, when I was a teenager growing up in Dallas, Deep Ellum was the place to go because that’s where most of the black population was. There were two hangs out [sic]. Deep Ellum was one, and the other was in north Dallas at Thomas Ave. and Hall St. There was a movie theater there and lots of clubs and a whole lot of little beer joints and thing to play. Dallas had big places where bands could come. Any band could come and draw 1,000-2,000. My daddy knew all them old-time blues players. He knew everybody, and they knew him. We’d go there to the movies; we’d go down there to shop. There used to be a railroad track there. Now, they call it Central Avenue.

I would only teach Lightnin’ as part of history or as a thing for heritage reasons, something of that nature because that was the beginnings. Those were the beginnings. The men who could not figure out how to play those six strings, like me, I could not play the six strings. I played all the four-string instruments — violin, cello, bass, even mandolin — but I had no one to teach me the six strings and show me how to do it. So, I just didn’t worry about it.

The guys who could not play the six-string instruments found out they could take a clamp, put it in a certain place and they could...play in different keys. They didn’t have to learn the different fingerings. I didn’t know Mance Lipscomb, but I went to the University of Texas one night with the fellow who put my dad’s stuff in the University of Texas up there, and they had a thing down there concerning his life and music. I didn’t know anything about him. I went and looked at it just because I was curious.

Lightnin’ had this one style of playing — he might have had two. You didn’t notice much difference in his style. You knew it was Lightnin’ when he played. He did fours when we jammed. Clifton worked with him and would show him on the accordion, [saying] “Follow me.” Clifton would take four, then I would take four, then Lightnin’ would take four. And we’d count. We just made sure we all kept count, so we knew when to stop. We had fun. It was a house that had been converted into a beer joint that he’d walk to.


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