Landau Murphy is West Virginian of the Year
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."
Murphy said he sat down and thought long and hard about what he wanted to do. He prayed, and the only thing that came to mind was that he needed a bigger stage.
"I thought about going into the mines." He held his thumb and forefinger before his face, an inch apart, then added, "I was this close to going in the mines. I got family in the mines. My dad is a coal miner. All my cousins. But I'm claustrophobic."
He shook his head. "I'd have to be drunk every day to go down in there."
Instead, he had what he called "a moment of clarity." While he was considering his options, he saw a commercial for "America's Got Talent." He went online, checked out the show and decided to give it a shot.
Wife Jennifer thought he was kidding.
"America's Got Talent" seemed like a good fit for Murphy. Unlike similar shows, such as "American Idol," "America's Got Talent" isn't just individual singers competing for a record deal but a variety of very different acts in a showcase. Plus, it doesn't have an age restriction.
Even if he didn't win, there was more of a chance to stand out.
"I didn't go with the intention of winning," Murphy said. "I wasn't there to compete. Once you got past the judges, you had 90 seconds in front of America."
For Murphy, who said he was looking for a bigger stage, it was hard to imagine a bigger one than in front of a television audience numbering in the tens of millions.
He went to New York City for the first round of auditions.
"You'd get in line at about 5:30 in the morning, and it would take to 6:30 p.m. just to get in the building," he said. "It was 9 o'clock just to audition."
The lines were a kind of circus: a mix of talented hopefuls, sideshow attractions and clowns just looking for attention.
"You had all different kinds of characters," Murphy said.
Eventually, applicants were broken down into different categories for judging. Murphy auditioned with about 80 other singers before producers pulled him aside. They liked what they saw and wanted to hear more about where he was from.
He told them about Logan, West Virginia.
"They told me to go home, lay down, don't get a job.
"See you in L.A."
Murphy had a great run on the show, winning over the judges and then the country with his talent, his story and his humble, gentle nature.
"I was just being me," he said. "It's not work. I'm just me."
People around town in Logan say much the same.
Jeanie Thorne, a clerk at Goldtown Jewelers, said, "He and his wife have always been really, really sweet."
Afternoon DJ Erin Williamson-Miller at WVOW said, "Landau and his wife are very kind small-town people."
And so far, they seem the same as they probably always have been.
Terri Keefer, a bank teller at Logan Bank & Trust, said before the show, she didn't really know Murphy particularly well, although in a town the size of Logan, everybody tends to know everybody a little.
She remembered seeing him at Walmart during the summer, while he was on break from the show. She said she tapped him on the shoulder, introduced herself and asked him to come by for a visit at the bank.
"He came by." Keefer said, "but I was gone."
He came back a second time.
During his time on the show and after his win, Murphy has been quick to point out the people who've helped him along the way. People like his old boss, Mike Ferrell, and Debrina Williams at the Logan Chamber of Commerce, as well as many others, helped provide financial support for Murphy and his wife to go back and forth between West Virginia and Los Angeles. They paid for the billboards encouraging people to vote.
Others supported him by watching the show, voting and telling others to do the same.
"I called my kids in Tennessee and Texas," Logan Bank & Trust teller Vanessa Shelton said. She said it was important to her that her family, wherever they might be, supported Murphy.
"He put our small town on the map," she said. "He's from here, where I live, and he made Logan County proud."
He also made Logan County proud since he won "America's Got Talent." In the months following, Murphy has worked almost continuously. He's sold out shows on both coasts, particularly in concert halls close to home where he's basked in well-deserved adoration.
Murphy also has contributed his time and energy to helping others. He's collected coats for charity, agreed to star in television spots for Daymark's Community Connections program and is slated to perform at a number of local benefits in the coming months.
He also said he's not leaving.
While his career might take him to Las Vegas, New York or a thousand other places, Logan is still home -- and the place Murphy wants to be.
"It feels good just getting to the Kanawha County line," he said.
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.