Many people know John Murray simply as “Big John.” But to his friend’s he’s simply John. People may know John from back in the day at Annie’s or The Blue Note in Cincinnati, OH. Others know him from his time on the road with bands such as Poison, Ratt, Cinderella and Kid Rock. Others recognize John from his appearance on VH1’s “Rock of Love” television show. I remember the first time I saw John in person. Poison were playing Riverbend Music Center here in Cincinnati and John was walking across the concourse to greet friends. All I knew at that time was the guy seemed large than life. Fast forward years later when Devil City Angels played MVP in Cincinnati. As the night ended, I was introduced to a gentleman name by the name of John. After a couple of minutes of friendly chatter I realized this was the one and the same,”Big John.” My impression did not change…the man was larger than life. I feel so fortunate that I have had a chance to get know John Murray the man. Not only is he a rock n’ roll legend, more importantly he is a U.S. Marine.
John has led a fascinating life, and he is gearing up to fight (and conquer) his greatest test yet. Devil City Angels are coming to Cincinnati on February 25, 2017 to throw a party for John. Leading up to party time I will be sharing a conversation that I recently had with John. I hope you enjoy getting to know this incredible man as much as I have. And even more, I hope that I see you at MVP on the 25th!!!
The Music Room: Let’s start from the beginning. You were born and raised on Cincinnati, were you not?
John Murray: That is correct, actually in Norwood, OH. My father was a lifelong Norwood Fire Fighter. At that time they had residency rules, so we had to stay in Norwood. So I actually got really lucky and wound up going to Purcell High School.
TMR: What are some memories that you have of growing up in Cincinnati?
JM: One of the big things is how this city never….this is going to sound really weird, it’s changed so much but it stays the same. The reason I say that is because with me and my situation. I mean, I grew up in Norwood and everyone was tight. Everyone knew each other and we all met up at the swimming pool in the summer. You had what you would consider lifelong friends. I got lucky enough to go into the Marine Corp and I got lucky enough that when I came back a few times, friends remained the same. Then I got lucky enough to be a part of the music business and was constantly on tour. I was away and living in different parts of the country, but no matter how much I came home, I had friends. I consider some friends like family. This is the one city where I have seen friendships last longer that they have anywhere else that I’ve lived or traveled.
TMR: When in life did you get the music bug? Was it a certain band or album that drew you in?
JM: When I first got the music bug…obviously when we are all children and growing up there are these moments in life when music tells the story of your life. I think the first time that I ever really thought this is what I want to do is when I went and saw Garth Brooks back in, what was it…95 or 96? It was the weirdest thing. Even though I was still working at Annie’s and some of the other clubs, I would say I was a part of the music business but I was more of a follower and weekend warrior. I guess for lack of a better term, I was an Uber Fan. I loved all kinds of music, but when I went and saw Garth Brooks, I realized something happened earlier in my days that I had forgotten about. In 1987 Ratt played at The Gardens and Bon Jovi opened up for them. It was the year “Runaway” was their super hit. I remember Robin Crosby had a cast on his leg. It was the weirdest thing…I watched the show and what drew my attention more was watching the people back stage, the crew guys who were running out handing off guitars. I watched how hard they were working and how involved they were, and even at the young age I was like, at some point in my life I want to do that. I want to experience that. By working at Annie’s, The Blue Note and some of the music festivals and watching the crew guys I got to start hanging out with Cinderella. That was the kicker. When I saw the fun and excitement, the traveling and the tour buses….the whole bells and whistle package that came along with the show and everything behind the scenes. That’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do.
TMR: Was all that before or after you were in the military?
JM: That was after the military. I got out of the military officially in 1995, met my first wife, and went through a divorce in early ’97. At that point I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was kind of at a crossroads. I figured I was going to try to do everything I ever wanted to do. Low and behold, by working at Annie’s and some of the clubs in Cincinnati I got to reunite with some of my friends in the music business who were crew guys. I just kind of fell right into it. At that time it was disheartening, but thank God for my divorce because it turned out to be the best thing in my life.
TMR: I definitely want to come back and talk more music, but one of the things that I really admire and respect about you is that you are a Marine. To me, that makes you more of hero more than any of the music things. When did you decide you wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corp?
JM: I knew I wanted to be a Marine when I was about 10 years old. What happened was…I used to go to the grocery store with my mom on the weekends. I’d sit in the car and listen to the radio, you know, just being a kid hanging out, trying to look important sitting behind the wheel. I was sitting out in the car one day and a guy comes up and he was in a Marine Corp dress blue uniform. He gave me this big Marine Corp sticker, like you see on the back of cars. I looked at this guy and there was something about him. I don’t know if it was the uniform…at ten years old you can’t put a finger on it, but I knew this guy was different. I watched the way people looked at him and treated him. Now mind you, this was around the time everybody is coming back from Vietnam. In that uniform he gained so much respect. I think it was a combination of the uniform and the way he walked and talked and carried himself. The fact that he came up to me and said, “Here, I want you to have this.” Well it turned from that sticker to Marine Corp posters all over my bedroom and bedroom door. My dad was like, what the hell are you doing? I was kind of being….bred, if you will, to be a football player. I had college scholarship offers from around the country to play football out of high school, but my GPA just wasn’t good enough to pursue those college endeavors. And I’m kind of glad. One of the offers I had was to Purdue University and I turned them down. At the time coach Fred Akers asked me, “What are you doing? Why don’t you want to come to us?” I said because I want to go into the Marines. I’ll never forget this, he told me on the phone, “If you know college isn’t for you, then you made the best choice of your life.” And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
TMR: My father-in-law is a Marine. Pretty quickly into my relationship with my wife I made the comment that he used to be a Marine and I was corrected pretty quickly. Now I know you never stop being a Marine unless they tell you so.
JM: (huge laughter)
TMR: How did that experience change you as a person? From the guy who went in, to the guy who came out four years later, how did it change you?
JM: (Pause) I can tell you the best change that happened to me was obviously growing up. When you are 17 – 18 years old, you might think that you know everything and you might think that you have the world cornered and you know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life….I can tell you this, when I went to Paris Island I didn’t know dick. In a matter of about two minutes I went from being Johnny Studley Football Player to nothing. That is the way they treat you. Everyone is the same. Everyone is equal whether it be big, small, black, white, Jewish, German, Irish, Italian…it didn’t matter. Everyone was equally worthless. And fourteen weeks later, we were a part of the finest fighting force in the world. There is a reason that they say, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” because when you go through those 14 weeks and you bond with the 150 people who you first started out with or however many you are down to by the time you graduate. You know that you accomplished something in your life that you never thought from day one of boot camp. The one thing that I have learned from this that has kept me going in life, there are two things actually. One is never, ever quit. Two, never sell yourself short. Always keep reaching for what you want. The only way you fail is if you choose to fail. That has carried over with me in every aspect of my life. There is an old saying; if you fail to plan, plan to fail. Anything is possible, you just have to figure out the best way to do it. The Marine Corp taught me that.
TMR: I can’t say how much I respect you for your service and can never thank you enough. Again, it is the thing that stands out the most to me when I think of you. Let’s shift gears now back to music. You get home from the Corp and you are working at Annie’s and other clubs around town. Can you tell me about when you got your first break with a major touring act?
JM: It was the greatest Cinderella story that could ever be told. I actually became friends with Bobby Blotzer from Ratt, (laughs) and I know people don’t like Bobby but I love him to death. He’s always been a true friend to me. He’s never bull shitted me, or talked down to me. I got to be real good friends with him from the few times they played Bogart’s and Annies. He invited me up to a show in Cleveland, OH on March 28, 1998 when they were touring with Poison. Me and a friend of mine drove up there and Bobby wanted a ride back to the hotel after the show. So we’re all hanging out in the dressing room of the Blossom Center having beers and doing it up. Bobby wanted a ride back so I asked my friend if he can take Bobby back to the hotel and then come back and get me. Bobby says that the buses are going to be leaving soon just ride the bus back. Okay, cool! That was a big deal to me because it meant that he trusted me to be on the bus. Stupid me, or not so stupid cause it turned out really good, I got on the crew bus with the rest of the crew. We’re riding and driving for hours. Finally I said, “Guys, I have a question for you.” By this time we’re half drunk and partying our asses off. I said, “Where in the hell is this hotel?” They were like, “Hotel?” I was like, “Yeah, I was supposed to meet Bobby back at the hotel.” Then they go, “Yeah, we’re in Detroit.” “What the hell do you mean we’re in Detroit? I’ve never even been to Detroit.” (laughter.) Turns out I got on the crew bus, and the crew doesn’t go back to the hotel afterwards. They go to the next venue and start setting up. The next day I’m sitting there in Detroit and they are like what are you doing here? I told them I was supposed to go back to the hotel but now I am kind of stranded here now. Luckily, they were going to have a show in Cincinnati in two week and I got offered to ride the bus for that two weeks until they got back. I knew I was going to get in a lot of trouble at work. At this point I was working in 20/20, the juvenile detention facility. What I did was just basically start helping out. For the next two or three days I would wake up in the morning and start pushing cases to the stage and help the guitar tech start moving things around. The guys in the band, Bobby, Stephen, Warren and Robbie Crane got together and pulled me up on the bus and said, “Listen, we know how much this music business means to you and how much you want to be part of it because you’ve been bugging us for years. So that being said, do you want a job?” I asked, “What do you mean, a job?” They asked, “If this is what you want to do, do you want to do it the rest of your life?” Needless to say, I got on the phone and called the jail. I told them I’m never coming back. My uniforms are in the mail. It wound up being the beginning of something great. All because I got on the wrong bus! (laughter) How lucky does a guy get!?!
Stay tuned for part II as John tells how he got hooked up with Poison, tales of Cinderella, and kicking Kid Rock out of his own dressing room. In the mean time, make plans to join us on February 25, 2017 at MVP in Cincinnati. It is the return of Devil City Angels and a chance to show John how much he means to us!!! Ticket info here.