There are many epiphanies that I have heard that relate to our parents and to our fathers in particular. Since today is my father’s birthday and with Fathers Day is approaching, I thought I’d highlight some of those stories this week. One of the most moving to me is Barry Manilow’s story from Epiphany about childhood, a loving and supportive family, a calling, and a very special father. In honor of all our fathers – no matter what form they may take – instead of excerpting the story, I’ve printed it below in its entirety. Here’s to all the Willie Murphys out there! Cheers!
Your actions and words are always, always having an impact on another person—especially children.
So, I looked up what the word epiphany meant. The dictionary defines the word like this: “a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence.”
I’ve had a few moments like that in my life. But my first thunderbolt happened when I was thirteen years old. You would think it might have been my bar mitzvah, but it wasn’t.
It was Willie Murphy.
Willie was my mother’s second husband, my stepfather. They married when I was thirteen, and we all moved into this tiny apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, where I was raised.
I had lived in Williamsburg all my life. Up to that point, I was being brought up by my mother, Edna, and my grandparents, Joe and Esther. My biological father left when I was an infant, and the three adults were raising me along with a neighborhood filled with relatives and yentas.
The three of them knew I was musical but didn’t really know what to do with me. The music business was a very faraway land, and besides, there was no money in my family for music lessons.
As I grew up, it became obvious that I had a lot of music in me. So the three adults saved up their money and rented me an instrument that all the Jewish and Italian kids were learning: the accordion. There wasn’t much you could do on the accordion, but damn, I was good at it. I picked up reading music very fast, and I actually played the thing so it didn’t sound like an old Italian baker outside his store. The only music I was exposed to in my young life was Jewish folk songs and awful pop songs on the radio. That was it.
So when Edna married Willie Murphy, he inherited a very musical kid who didn’t know anything about music.
Willie was an uneducated truck driver, but one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. I’d find him reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and watching public TV instead of Leave It to Beaver. But most of all, it was the music he brought with him that changed my life. He brought with him a record player that sounded fantastic to my ears, since I’d only been exposed to small AM radios. It was what he played on that record player that introduced me to a whole new world.
His record collection was stacked next to this little hi-fi player, and it may as well have been a stack of gold for me. Each album was more glorious than the next—Broadway scores like Carousel, The King and I, The Most Happy Fella; great pop singers like Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, Sinatra and his gorgeous Only the Lonely album; musical arrangers like Nelson Riddle, David Rose, Don Costa; big bands like Stan Kenton, Count Basie, and Ted Heath; jazz musicians like Bill Evans, Chet Baker, and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross; and classical symphonies that, I swear, I thought would blow my head off.
I had never heard music like this. I didn’t even know it existed! I tried playing the overtures of the Broadway scores on my accordion, and I did pretty well! But Willie knew that would never do, so he saved his money and bought me a spinet piano. Between Edna and Willie, they pooled their money and sent me off to piano lessons once a week.
Willie Murphy and his stack of gold was my epiphany. I wish that every kid had a Willie in his life. Willie and his music sent me on my way to the life I have now. I’ll always be grateful to him. Without him, I’d be playing my accordion outside a bakery in Williamsburg. I just know it.