See the whole list of West Virginians of the Year here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. takes his newfound fame in stride, although parts of it take some getting used to -- like getting recognized on the street by strangers.
It happens all the time.
"They start talking real low," Murphy said, beginning in a hushed tone. "Then get louder and louder until they're yelling, 'It's you. It's you!'"
He laughed. He's just Landau -- "Doonie" to his friends -- and these days, that's just about everyone.
There's no doubt about it: 2011 was a very good year for the Logan County native who finished first on the televised reality competition "America's Got Talent." He went from being an underemployed car washer and part-time singer who was struggling to make ends meet to a Las Vegas headliner and an entertainer who can sell out the Clay Center three times, each in the span of little more than an hour.
Through the contest and after, Murphy has handled his newfound fame with grace, good humor and gratitude. He's been generous with his time, repeatedly thanked his sponsors, as well as the people who supported him before and after the show. He's also reached out to charitable organizations and made the most of his moment in the limelight.
Murphy's success on "America's Got Talent" wasn't just a big win for a small-town guy. It was a proud moment for the entire state, and because of this, the Sunday Gazette-Mail has chosen Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. as the 2011 West Virginian of the Year.
America fell in love with this gentle, joking, bubblegum-chewing 37-year-old singer from the coalfields as much for his story and personality as for his vocal prowess singing classics like "Fly Me To The Moon" and "Ain't That a Kick in the Head."
From the start, wearing jeans, sporting dreadlocks and smiling broadly, Murphy came across as more than just funny and charming. He was genuine.
Bob Noone, a Logan County attorney, musician and core member of "Team Landau," said the Landau on television and stage isn't an act.
"That funny, honest, almost childlike innocent guy you see on television, that's Landau," Noone said. "That's just who he is."
A tough start
Murphy came from a difficult background. Although he was born in West Virginia, his family left for Detroit while he was in his early teens. Those years were often hard.
"I lost a lot of friends," he said. "There were kids I knew who didn't make it to 17. They were hustling by the time they were 10. They were gone by 17 or 21."
Murphy saw a police standoff outside his front door during his first day in his new neighborhood.
"I was just standing there in the yard," he said. "It was like something off a television show like 'CHIPS' or 'The Dukes of Hazzard.'"
A man had taken a girl hostage and was holding her inside a car. It ended badly.
"I think the police shot that man."
Crime, drugs and violence were part of the landscape around him. Murphy said he made mistakes but kept out of a lot of trouble because of his faith and basketball. Still, those things didn't keep him from falling through the cracks. By the time he was 20, Murphy was unemployed, homeless and living out of his car.
"I used to spend my nights out playing basketball," he said. "I'd play until I was worn out then go sleep in my car."
In the daylight, Murphy would shower and eat at his sister's house then go back out. He pretended things were fine, he said, and nobody knew he was living on the streets.
Life in Logan
Things improved gradually. Murphy had children and married. With the help of his church, he found a place to live.
However, his marriage ended and, in 1999, Murphy returned to Logan. Jobs were scarce, but he squeaked by with the help of family and stray jobs he picked up here and there.
"I did some construction work for [Powerball winner] Jack Whitaker," he said. "That was back before he went bankrupt."
Murphy also washed cars for local auto dealer Mike Ferrell and started turning up around town to sing. There weren't a lot of venues, but he started performing with Bob Noone after a talent show to benefit the Children's Home Society's WE CAN mentor program.
"I have the distinction of being the first person to turn him down to sing," Noone said. "In 2004, he asked me about maybe doing a song with my band, Daddy Rabbit."
Noone put him off, but the next year, after listening to him warm up backstage, singing along to a CD, Noone brought him on stage for a cover of "My Girl."
The crowd went wild.
"He was just as comfortable on that stage as he could be," Noone said. "He's just as natural as I've ever seen anyone. Watching him then and watching him now, it's like what he's doing now is what he was meant to be doing all along."
The two played together and became friends, and Murphy sang at Noone's wedding.
Murphy's music career stalled, though. He just played the local bars and a few charity events. Playing in a small town in a rural state, there wasn't much chance for stardom, and even there, Murphy wasn't a huge sensation.
"He never even mentioned he could sing," said Michael Cline, one of the owners of Logan's Top Cup coffee shop.
Cline, a club DJ in his spare time, played records for a club called Rodeos in 2004. Murphy and his future wife, Jennifer, used to go to the club. Murphy would sometimes hang out with Cline in the DJ booth. The two would talk, sometimes for hours.
Cline laughed. "I didn't know he could sing until my wife told me, 'Hey, come here. Doonie is on 'America's Got Talent.'"
Preparing for the big time
Murphy might never have tried out for the show if things hadn't gotten so desperate. In 2010, he wasn't working much, and right before he decided to audition, someone broke into his house.
"They took everything," Murphy said. "They even took my clothes."