One cold November day in 2010, Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. of Logan, W. Va. and his wife Jennifer stood for hours outside of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. They were among the thousands of people – young and old, singers, dancers, jugglers, mimes, and more -- lined up to audition for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” It would take several more hours for Landau to finally get inside and sing a few bars, and his day grew even longer as he sang for one producer after another. Soon, he was the last one sitting in a huge rehearsal hall. “I knew that was a good sign,” remembers Jennifer.
Almost a year to the day later, Syco/Columbia Records is proudly releasing Landau’s first album, That’s Life. Not only did his unique singing style make him stand out from all of his competition, Landau’s humility, charm and confidence endeared him to the AGT judges and viewers. After receiving standing ovations from judges Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan and Howie Mandel, a singing duet with the iconic Patti LaBelle, and a rousing rendition of “My Way,” Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. was finally named the winner of AGT’s sixth season on Sept. 14, 2011.
When Landau made his first appearance before the AGT judging panel four months earlier he told them simply, “I am here to show America I can sing.” And when he did, he gave the audience a moment of astonishment that was reminiscent of when Susan Boyle first sang on “Britain’s Got Talent” two years earlier. Landau’s cool, jazzy rendition of “Under My Skin” brought the audience – and even the judging panel -- to their feet and filled Radio City Music Hall with raucous applause.
Landau’s recollection of the moment was that “I had nothing to lose. I walked out there, and when I saw the judges, I felt a little star-struck, especially to see Howie Mandel, who I’ve always been a fan of. But singing in front of that big audience was something I’ve always wanted. I felt right at home. I walked out there with all the confidence in the world because I have known all my life that I have had this talent. I feel like Howie and the others twisted the knob and opened the door and all I had to do was walk right through.”
Many have compared Landau’s smooth vocals and phrasing to that of Frank Sinatra, a singer he’s always admired. That’s why all of the tracks from “That’s Life” are Sinatra standards, but Landau does them his way. “I put my own voice and my own soul into this album.” He decided to honor Sinatra as a salute to the fans who voted for him. “For a lot of my fans, especially older people, I can bring back some happy memories. And hopefully I can create new memories for generations to come. I think I think my album encompasses all of that. I want to give back as much as possible and stay true to the people who supported me,” he says.
Since winning AGT, Landau spent several weeks working side by side with legendary record producer and GRAMMY Award winner, Steve Tyrell, himself an aficionado of Sinatra’s music. During his storied 40-year music career, Tyrell has scored movies (That Thing You Do, Father of the Bride), produced albums for dozens of top artists (most recently, Rod Stewart’s #1 album, Stardust: The Great American Songbook Volume III, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Linda Ronstadt, Mary J Blige, Chris Botti, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder among them) and recorded his own albums.
“I loved working with him” says Landau. “He’s so cool. We got on well – he totally understood me and he brought out the best in me.” The vocals for the album were recorded in Houston and then in LA at the legendary Capitol studio “B” with a full orchestra on the same hallowed ground where Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole and others have recorded so many classics.
And, as part of his AGT prize, Landau realized a lifelong dream and headlined a show at the Colosseum Theater at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas – the legendary playground for Sinatra and his iconic Rat Pack.
This sudden rise to fame has been in keeping with Landau’s roller-coaster ride of a life. As a young man, he was once reduced to sleeping in his car; he worked at a car wash during the months leading up to his TV performances -- and was down to his last pair of pants and jacket when he arrived to sing at Radio City Music Hall that day in June.
“We didn’t discuss this during the show because we didn’t want people feeling sorry for us. But my wife and I had been away taking care of her mother, who had just been hospitalized, and someone broke into our house and cleaned us out. They robbed us blind. And we were so heartbroken. Thank goodness we were able to move in with my mother-in-law. We had no place else to go.”
After they got over the initial shock of their situation, Landau said he began to take stock of what they had left, physically and emotionally. “I remember lying on the bed, looking at the ceiling. Jennifer was so down. I was talking to God and I heard him say, ‘You need to get on a bigger stage – and hold your head up.’ That’s when I knew I had to try out for ‘America’s Got Talent’.”
It wasn’t the first time Landau felt the pull of music. He had once been the lead singer of a band, Top Shelf, which played clubs in and around West Virginia. The R&B band soon had a following; they became a popular addition to local music festivals and always participated in an annual concert that benefits a local children’s charity. But when the band broke up acrimoniously, Landau’s spirit felt depleted. It was a situation similar to one he had faced as a younger man.
“My father, Landau Sr., was a coal miner and he really loves music; my mother is from a musical family, too. After my parents split up when I was 8, I moved with my mother and two brothers and two sisters to Detroit,” Landau explains. “It was completely different from Logan; I had to get used to the streets. My focus wasn’t on school” and he dropped out in the 11th grade to put his energy into looking out for the safety of himself and his family. “Church and basketball were the only things that got me out of the house and kept me going. I played for a church league, which kept me off the streets and they would take us to events where we could eat. Basketball was my first love and I grew up playing basketball with some great ballplayers like NBA star Chris Webber. There were times when I’d make a shot or dunk on someone and I’d run back down the court with a smile on my face singing ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, everyone got a big kick out of it.”
In his late teens Landau was without a place to live and didn’t want to impose on his sisters, both of who had recently married. “I had a car, and I would pull it up on a ridge, and I would sleep in it,” he remembers. He and his girlfriend had a son and soon married and their church helped them find a place to live. “I was working at a car wash at a dealership, and I would sing there” for fun and to pass the time, he remembers. The couple had two more children before the relationship ended.
In 1999, Landau moved back home to Logan and later renewed a friendship with a childhood friend, Jennifer Carter. “We started working together at a restaurant” where she was a manager and they married in 2005. Landau has stayed very close to his children, Michael, Marcus and Morgan, as well as Jennifer’s daughter, Kyra, who lives with them. “I love my kids with all my heart and more than anything, I want to make sure that they don’t have the same struggles I have had. I want them to have more opportunities. I want them to be able to do what they want to do.”
Despite having gone from wash rags to riches, “I’m still happiest when I’m home and when I’m with my family. I like it when there is no stress and I’m doing what I want to do – which is to sing.”