Can a country girl from the Canadian Maritimes--who doesn't dress suggestively or act outrageously--make it as pop singer? That was Anne Murray--as wholesome as apple pie--when she set her mind on making it as a professional singer. Her biggest competitors were the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Helen Reddy, and Olivia Newton-John. Carving out her niche among this talented group, was the longest of long-shots. She didn't write songs, nor did she think of herself as a star, nor was she willing to change her girl-next-door image to suit market tastes, but make it she did with her breakout hit single, "Snowbird".
"Snowbird" came at the end of her three-year stint on the weekly Canadian variety television show, Singalong Jamboree. The show not only gave her recognition in her home country, but it was where she met her future husband (show host and producer Bill Langstroth), singer/songwriter Gene MacLelland (who would compose "Snowbird"), and her future record producer, Brian Ahern.
Impressed with her singing and ambition, Ahern recommended Murray move to Toronto and make an album. The album was entitled "What About Me" and was released on a small record label. The title song was released as a single and became a modest Canadian hit record. After that she switched record labels, looking to expand her record sales outside Canada. As Ms Murray tells it: "In the fall of 1968 I decided I wanted to find a reputable record company with an American affiliate. Brian said to me, 'Now, you must keep in mind that you are the best singer in the whole world, and I am the best producer in the world, so when we talk to these record people, we have to talk to them in that way.'"
Ms Murray continues: "By the time we got to Capitol Canada, we were so mad because everyone was giving us the runaround. At Capitol Canada, we said, 'We want this, and this, and this, and he (Paul White, Capitol Canada's A & R man) said, 'Fine,' picked up the phone and got this lawyer on the line, and said: 'Now, what is it you wanted?' We told him and he said, 'Yup, that's good, whatever you want.'"
"Brian and I looked at each other and thought, 'What does he know that we don't know?' because we really hadn't convinced ourselves at all."
(What Capitol Canada knew was that Ms. Murray was packing in the people at Night clubs and coffee houses where ever she appeared.)
Their first album cost a whopping $18,000, and Capitol was pretty upset. But there was some positive critical response. When Capitol U.S. came to Toronto, as they often did, to audition acts, they liked Anne, and on her first American single made "Biding My Time" the A-side and "Snowbird" as the B-side Then something unusual happened. American Deejays preferred "Snowbird"over "Biding My Time" and began playing it instead. The result was Ms. Murray's first bonafide hit single.
In Canada, "Snowbird" rose up the charts to become a number-one hit on both adult contemporary and country charts. In the U.S, the song reached No. 8 on the adult contemporary chart, and became the surprise Top 10 hit on the country chart as well. It was certified a Gold single by the RIAA, the first Gold record ever awarded to a Canadian female soloist.
In Canada, her first Capital Canada album was entitled, "This Way is My Way". In the U.S. the album was retitled, "Snowbird".
Of course, as hard as having a hit single can be, it's even harder to follow up with a second hit single. And it was here that Ms Murray and Capitol Records would have their first serious disagreement. Murray wanted to release "Put Your Hand in the Hand" as her next single. However Capitol execs thought the song did not fit her "Snowbird" image and refused to release it. Then a vocal group named 'Ocean' recorded the song and made it a smash it.
As it turned out her second Capitol album did not produce a hit single. After that, Ms Murray would rely only her own instincts when choosing songs for release as a single. Says Ms Murray: "In order to sell albums, you have to sell singles."
Her choice for her next single was a song composed by American singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins, entitled "Danny's Song". As Murray had hoped, "Danny's Song" became a huge hit in both Canada and the U.S. and in turn became the title of her third U.S. album.
Despite her burning ambition, Ms Murray wasn't ready for the various responsibilities that came with stardom. As she put it, "You can't concentrate on your music if you have to manage yourself." In 1970, she did her own bookings, and managed musicians (she always performed with a backup band) and did everything else to keep her career on an upward course. By the time she got onstage, she felt totally drained. Then she hired a booking agent, as well as someone to manage the band while on the road. That done she was able to get her rest, and to concentrate more fully on picking songs for her albums, songs that would express her innermost feelings
As Canada's newest recording sensation, she was receiving new songs from throughout Canada and the U.S. The songs would come to her recorded on cassette tapes, which she would listen to while traveling to her next gig. If she liked the song she would get with her producer and work up a song arrangement that fit her style and vocal range.
Ms Murray's style combined a bit of country--without the sobbing and wailing--with heavy emphasis on gospel and blues. "Most people don't hear the gospel," she says, "They only hear the country. I don't understand that. I am not a country singer. I could sing that way, but that would not be me."
After "Danny's Song", Murray's choice for future hit singles was unerring: "Love Song", "You Won't See Me", "Walk Right Back" and her all-time biggest hit, "You Needed Me". She followed this up with "I Just Fall in Love Again", "Daydream Believer", "Broken Hearted Me", "Shadows in the Moonlight", and continued scoring hits on through to the mid-1990s, when she announced her retirement.
As captivating as her hit singles were, it's the songs she picked to fill her albums that reveal her inner-most feelings--a wistful feeling of isolation, and a longing to connect. Prime examples are illustrated in the lyrics below. The first song is entitled "Most of All" and is featured on her third album, ("Talk it over in the morning"):
MOST OF ALL, by Bobby Bole and James R. Cobb Jr.
"Hello Darlin', My, it's good hear you / I'm at the railway station in St. Paul / How are all the folks, I'd love to see them, / But boy, I'd love to see you most of all.
"Well, I've been staring at the rain and I've been thinking / Ever since the train left Montreal / Thought I'd always love this life I'm living / Now I know I love you most of all.
"Many times before, I know I swore that I'd come home to stay / But it always seemed that foolish dreams and trains got in my way.
"Tomorrow they'll be snow in Minnesota, but I won't be around to watch it fall / I'll be heading for an old familiar station / Hoping you still love me most of all / Boy, you know I love you most of all." (composed by Bobby Bole and James R. Cobb Jr.)
Another example is "Carolina Sun" featured on her eighth album, "Keeping in Touch":
CAROLINA SUN, by Colleen Peterson
"All alone again / But still I can't pretend to be lonely / 'Cause though you're far away / I start my every day / With you on my mind.
"How I wish, how I wish I could say / What it is I'm thinking now,
Babe / But I couldn't write it down anyhow.
"You're a thousand miles away / And I miss you now, like Carolina / Carolina Sun, look what've done / You've taken him away, taken him away from me / Oh, yeah, you know / How I wish, how I wish I could be there / But I'm surrounded by snow, feeling alone here tonight.
"Oh, Honey / Don't you know that these ain't lies that I'm singin' now / And I know how I mean them / For you're worth, to give up everything I own / For that one way ticket home / And you're on mind, Baby / Like Carolina"
Rolling Stone music critic Jon Landau, writing in the 1970s, described her singing this way: "There is nothing cheap about her approach to music; she sings with the dignity of an experienced person who knows what she's talking about but doesn't like to boast. And by retaining perspective on both her music and herself, she winds up sounding genuinely and affectingly modest.
"As a vocalist her modest distinctive trait remains a fondness for the middle register. She never shouts, screams or shows off, but is instead most comfortable singing with a measured deliberateness. Producer Brian Ahern understands this and has surrounded her with arrangements and a mix that are sometimes uncannily perfect extensions of her approach.
"Murray's (and Ahern's) music sounds a little bit like a lot things but not exactly like any one of them. In the past she's been classified as middle-of-the -road but the drumming is too hard, the arrangements too sparse and the singing too intimate for her to qualify for that dreary genre. She's been classified as Folk-Rock and Country, but the arrangement are too tight, the instrumentation too different and the material sometime too sophisticated for her to qualify there. And when she starts to sound like a rock singer, her control and distance quickly place her outside that sphere."
About her music, Ms Murray said: "I have a good deal of creative drive. I feel that interpreting a song is a very creative thing. Not everybody can interpret a song, and not everybody likes the way I interpret a song, but you can't please everyone."
Judging by her longevity, impressive record sales, and many music awards, she has pleased a lot of people.
In her four-decade career, she recorded 32 albums, won four Grammy Awards (including one in the pop category), three American Music Awards, three Country Music Awards, and a record 24 Juno Awards. On top of that, her hometown of Springhill, Nova Scotia, opened The Anne Murray Centre, in 1989.