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'Talent' winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. remains the same by design

West Virginia singer and "America's Got Talent" winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. performs at Baltimore Soundstage on Friday.
West Virginia singer and "America's Got Talent" winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. performs at Baltimore Soundstage on Friday. (Handout)

When the audience of "America's Got Talent" met Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. in 2011, the West Virginia native sounded overworked and ready for a new challenge.

"I've washed thousands and thousands of cars. I've scrubbed so many BFGoodrich tires that I don't want to see another piece of rubber again," Murphy, a decade-long car washer, said through a huge smile in his introductory segment. "Now it's just time to go somewhere else."

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Murphy might have felt a change coming, but he could not have predicted its magnitude. Thanks to his rural charm and an unexpected penchant for performing 20th-century pop standards from the Great American Songbook, Murphy was eventually voted the Season 6 winner of the NBC reality competition show. A million dollars in prize money, a Columbia Records contract and a 2011 debut album titled "That's Life" soon followed.

Now 40, Murphy tours the world, including a stop at Baltimore Soundstage on Friday. The singer finds it hard to believe how far he has come since his TV audition, but Murphy arrived with a general plan: appeal to older viewers while surprising everyone else.

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"No matter where you come from, the Great American Songbook is in everybody around that age's heart," Murphy said on the phone earlier this week from his West Virginia home. "I was giving grandparents something to watch on television, and teaching the generations to come what good music is all about. I think it all just played out perfect, man."

He established his appeal early. After Murphy auditioned by singing "I've Got You Under My Skin," the 1936 Cole Porter song later popularized by Frank Sinatra, "Talent" judge Howie Mandel stood to applaud and said, "You are such a surprise. The look versus the music that you were doing — I would not expect it."

Murphy has confounded expectations long before "Talent." Although he calls West Virginia home, Murphy grew up with his mother in Detroit after his parents split. When he sang Sinatra covers around his neighborhood, listeners were more perplexed than supportive. It was not until Murphy performed in surrounding suburbs that he received "a beautiful response."

"When I went back to the hood ... they were just like, 'I can't believe this guy sounds like Frank Sinatra,' " Murphy said. "But everybody outside of that world was just blown away by it. Once I started to see that, paying attention to it and listening to God's word, it was just something I had to do."

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Murphy said he listens to mostly R&B and hip-hop on a daily basis, but he has been a fan of the Big Band era since his mother introduced him to Nat King Cole as a child. His appreciation of Cole led Murphy to Sinatra, an artist who continues to surprise him.

"His phrasing and his timing were different from any other thing I had ever heard," Murphy said of Sinatra. "It's like everybody else is just singing it, and he's rapping it. He's the hip-hop of the Great American Songbook."

Music has afforded Murphy, like Sinatra, the ability to see the world. He has toured Shanghai and Germany, and eyes a West Coast run in the future. But intimate seated shows like Friday's at Soundstage excite Murphy most.

"It's basically me, the microphone and all of my friends," he said. "We're all right here in this room together and we're going to have a blast. Then they become a part of the show. I'll ask them questions and they'll ask me questions. ... Television basically just gave a bit of me. They didn't give you guys the full Landau."

He hopes to reveal more of himself on a new album coming later this year. Currently untitled, the follow-up to "That's Life" will be a mix of standards and original songs written by Murphy, he said.

For Murphy, remaining the same down-to-earth guy from West Virginia matters more than fame, fortune or even the next song. After winning "Talent," industry types recommended he move to New York City or Los Angeles to better position himself for career opportunities. Instead, Murphy bought a house in the West Virginia hills, just as he always said he would.

"It keeps you grounded. It keeps you focused on your true values in life and as people," Murphy said. "I sing amazingly, and everybody loves it, but I'm still that dude you're going to see at the gas station pumping his own gas."

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