Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.

Meet the Logan County crooner who has won the hearts of millions.

By Carrie Cline

Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.

Not too long ago, Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. was washing cars for a living at a Logan County car dealership. He was known by many folks in the Logan area simply as “Doonie.” Now, Murphy has made his mark on the national stage, crooning the best of Frank Sinatra and winning the popular NBC?show America’s Got Talent. In doing so, he captured the hearts of America and collected a cool $1 million prize. Today, he is performing all over the world and has planned a special tour throughout West Virginia, performing in Charleston, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Princeton, Wheeling, Pikeville and Ashland all in the upcoming month. Murphy rose to the top spot on the NBC show after beating out thousands with his smooth, easy style. The tall, lean, braid-wearing African American wearing blue jeans grabbed America’s attention during his first audition when he belted out Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin; Murphy’s convincing tone made him an instant fan favorite. The 37-year-old high school dropout has been singing since he was a child, mastering everything from R&B, rap and hip hop to jazz, blues and big band; however, Murphy’s dreams of making it big started to wane after his local band broke up earlier this year. In a spiraling succession of unfortunate events, thieves broke into his home, stealing his clothes, furniture and even the copper from his walls and ceilings. That led to broken plumbing that flooded his home, wiping out the rest of his family’s possessions. Broken and bored, Murphy saw a commercial about auditions for AGT. With nothing to lose, he stepped out on faith. A friend paid for his trip to the New York City auditions – and a fairytale journey began. We sat down with Murphy at his home in Omar, W.Va., for an easy chat about loss, life’s lessons and living out your dreams.

Q: What was it like growing up black in predominantly white Logan County, W.Va.?

A: Oh, it was crazy! I mean, the only black people I knew were my family. All my friends were white. But I love this place; it’s never really dogged me or anything like that. They’ve always treated me with respect.

Q: Although you were born in Holden, W.Va., you spent 11 years (ages 11-22) in Detroit, where you ended up homeless. What happened?

A: By the time I was 19, I had a son and I didn’t want to leave Detroit. I was like, “I’ve gotta try to make this work.” My mother and my brothers had all moved back down here. I had two sisters up there, but they were married and had their own lives, and I didn’t want to intrude on them. So basically I was just out there by myself, and that’s what made me homeless. I had a car, so I would sleep in my car and then go over to my girlfriend’s parents’ house and eat. Then, I would go to church and hang out all day, or I’d go to the basketball court and hang out. When it was time to go to sleep, I would just drive my car to a parking lot or under a bridge and sleep. I lived that life for about a summer; I came to my senses by the time winter came around. I started hanging around my sister’s family’s house, and they kinda figured out what was going on. They said, “You ain’t gotta be out there like that,” and they let me move in. I moved into my sister’s basement and that kind of saved my life. I thank them for it all the time because it seemed like no one else cared.

Q: How did you gain an appreciation for Frank Sinatra?

A: I started watching Married With Children when it first came out, and I loved hearing that song, Love and Marriage. Every time it came on, I’d hurry up and get in front of the TV. It’s one of those songs you just want to sing along with, you know? I used to play in church basketball leagues, and I was never a big trash talker – so I would sing to people. If I dunked on them, I would sing a song, and most of the time it was Fly Me to the Moon or I’ve Got You Under my Skin. A lot of guys would get an attitude during games like that, and people wouldn’t want to play with them anymore. Singing was a way to keep people playing with me; I was just making sure I stayed on the court.

Q: Did your friends pick on you when you sang Sinatra?

A: Yes! (Laughs) It was mostly my friends and family. They’d say, “Why you singin’ that? No one wants to hear that, man!” Even when I was getting ready to go on the show, when I’d tell people I was going to sing Sinatra, they’d say, “What are you gonna sing that for, fool? Nobody wants to hear that!” But that’s just what you get – people are always gonna be trying to step on your dreams.

Q: Why did you stick with Sinatra through most of the competition?

A: Frank Sinatra makes me feel good. No matter what anyone else thinks, when I sing those songs, I feel like I’m on top of the world. Those are the kinds of songs Frank Sinatra had; he had that blue-sky, puffy-white-cloud music that made you feel great. It made you feel like a man. It made a woman feel like a woman. It didn’t degrade a woman; it didn’t brag about jewelry or cars or rims. His music is timeless. I could go anywhere and sing it, and no matter how many people there hated it, just as many loved it; they’d come up to me, shake my hand and show me respect. They’d say, “Hey, you really don’t need to be here. You need to be on Broadway or somewhere in Vegas because this kind of music is dearly missed.”

Q: What was that first audition for AGT like?

A: The clothes I was wearing were from the handful of clothes I had left after my house got robbed, so they made me stand out. The judges looked at me like, “What? This guy is going to sing Sinatra? Yeah, right!” Then there was the gum I put in my pocket after getting called out by Piers Morgan; I was just chewing the gum to clear my head, and I was going to spit it out, but I got to talking to Nick Cannon and went through that curtain without spitting it out. So, that’s how all of that happened, but I’m glad it did because it gave me the chance to be myself. That was my personality; there was nothing fake or phony about anything I did on that show. AGT allowed me to be 100 percent myself.

Q: What was it like when you were announced as the winner?

A: I was so happy, but it was bittersweet because I was still standing up there with the kids. [The runner-up was a dance troupe called Silhouettes, consisting of 42 children ages 3 to 19.] I couldn’t celebrate like I really wanted to; I really wanted to do a back flip and land over on the judges’ table. I mean, I could have done the Funky Chicken, but I was still up there with the kids. One of those little girls wears a fanny pack with her insulin pump, and it was her birthday, and I was thinking, “I just beat this girl on her birthday.” But if they had put me on that stage with another adult act, I would have freaked out! I would have done the moonwalk. I would’ve had a great time.

Q: How has life changed since you won?

A: I can’t go to Walmart anymore during normal hours. People want to stop and get an autograph or a picture with me. I don’t mind – but it takes me forever to get my shopping done. It trips me out, though, that people care enough to stop and talk. It’s really nice.

Q: What was your first big purchase?

A: The only thing I’ve bought since I won is a pair of Jordans. I bought those while I was in California. I haven’t bought anything else yet. The next thing I want to do is get me some good health insurance because I haven’t been to a doctor since I was about 17, and I’m 37 now. It’s time I start looking out for that. I’m just trying to get everything in order; I went on this show to get my whole life in order, to get my kids financially straight, to get my wife and myself financially straight. I want to get us our own house, because right now we’re staying with my mother-in-law. I mean, it’s great, because she enjoys the company. But eventually we’re going to have to remodel this house or go get another one. Right now, we’re living here on the main road in Omar and people drive by at all hours of the day and night and honk because they know we’re here. When I go outside to take the trash out, people stop.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever move away from Logan?

A: The only way that would happen is if these people around here get crazy. I love Logan! I don’t want to move, ever! I came back here because this is where I want to spend the rest of my life. The fame I’ve gotten since being back here has been great; I put my town and my state on the map.

Q: Are people trying to change your image?

A: A lot of people try to change you; they try to make you do things. But I’ve held my ground. I’m like, “No, I can’t do that, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that.” Some of them want me to put my hair up and some want me to take it down. No one’s ever asked me to cut it, though, so that’s a great thing. It’s like, “Why should I change my hair?” It’s not about the way you look, it’s about the way you sound. If you have a nice sound, people are going to listen to you. I do want to look nice, though; I don’t want to go on any show and not look nice enough. You’ve gotta put on a nice suit and do all the nice business things you need to do.

Q: How did you get the nickname Doonie?

A: Here’s what I believe. I don’t know what anyone else believes, but what I believe is that my name is pronounced Lan-DOW, and a lot of people pronounce it Lan-DOO, and they just started calling me Doonie as a nickname. I stuck with it, and that’s what I’ve always called myself.

Q: Who’s been your favorite celebrity to meet during this process?

A: Patti LaBelle. Even before I went on the show, my mother-in-law asked me who I’d want to sing with if I ever made it big, and I told her, “Ms. Patti LaBelle.” Lo and behold, on the final show, I got to sing a duet with her! She took me around and gave me a whole lot of advice, like, “Never let ’em change you. There’s going to be so many people who will try to change you and make you who they want you to be. But don’t ever let ’em do it.” And I already kind of had that in me, so to hear it from her just made it more solid. I always want to keep my feet on the ground. I don’t want to be bigger than anybody. I don’t want to overthrow the Sinatra empire. I just want to be Landau. I just want to go and do shows and bring good music to people who’ve been missing it.

Q: You performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas during Halloween weekend. What’s next?

A: My CD came out in November; it’s titled That’s Life. It was produced by Sony Records and includes 11 songs, including several Sinatra greats and a few wintertime songs. I sang in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I’m singing at the Clay Center on December 3. After that, I want to do a whole tour for my state. We’ve got shows all over the country planned and may even go to Canada. I might even do a tour in Europe. If you ask me, it feels like I’m booked ’til 2015. I have several foundations I want to start to benefit my community and these kids around here who don’t have anything to do. Homelessness is something else I’d like to address, and I want to help people get in touch with the times; there are a lot of people who don’t even get on computers, a lot of elderly people getting left behind.

Q: What are your biggest hopes and dreams?

A: Just to be remembered as that guy that made everybody happy. It’s not about the money or the fame; I just want to be remembered as that guy who made you smile, the guy who said, “Hey, everything is gonna be alright.” I’m not here to outdo anybody; I’m just here to have fun. I want my family to be able to go to the doctor when they need to. I want to be able to go to the doctor when I need to. I want my kids to be able to go to college because they graduated high school, and now they can. So, I walk by faith and not by sight. God has a plan, and I’m not in control of any of this.

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