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How a Snowstorm and Rick James Conspired to Create Eddie Murphy’s Unlikely Radio Smash ‘Party All the Time’

In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy could do anything. And so, he decided to become a pop star.

Musical careers start in myriad ways. Eddie Murphy’s began when he bought a piano for his fancy new house in the mid-1980s. “I’m not a musician, but I liked playing piano,” he told the L.A. Times. “I spent a lot of time by myself sitting and tinkling with this piano. Then I started buying recording equipment. I was thinking maybe I could do something in music.”

It’s not unusual for celebrities from one sphere to want to branch out into another. Aaron Rodgers is going to guest-host Jeopardy! A whole generation thinks of Ice-T, Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah primarily as actors. And plenty of movie stars have bands on the side — but few have had the success, albeit temporarily, that Murphy enjoyed as a musician. With Coming 2 America on Amazon and the world seized by 1980s nostalgia, let’s pause a moment to remember how big his song “Party All the Time” was.

The single, which went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts around Christmas of 1985, dropped at a time when Murphy had cemented his Hollywood ascendancy. The earlier part of the decade saw him become one of Saturday Night Live’s biggest breakout stars since the original crop of Not Ready for Primetime Players. His first three major Hollywood films — 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop — were all huge hits. Just about everything he touched turned to gold. (Of course, he was a popular stand-up comic, too.) So you might suspect it was arrogance or naivety that made him assume he could also be a musician. But, actually, music was his first love.

“I organized my own bands when I was in high school on Long Island,” Murphy said in 1984. “I was singing before I did comedy. I would do tunes by the Commodores, some by Earth, Wind and Fire, and then I’d do impressions of Al Green, or Elvis Presley. I was the band’s manager, leader and lead singer. Actually, there were guys in the group who sang much better than me; I just wanted to be out front.”

Even when he was “just” an actor and comic, music was woven into his performances. For his 1983 SNL skit “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party,” Murphy did a pretty credible impression of the Godfather of Soul. And the previous year saw the release of his comedy record Eddie Murphy, which featured the satiric hip-hop/funk number “Boogie in Your Butt.” (“Put a telephone in your butt / Put a dinosaur bone in your butt.”) “Music is always there,” Murphy said about a decade ago. “I always do joke stuff with it, but it’s always there and I always do it seriously.” 

But when Murphy decided to make a proper album — not a stand-up record with a few funny songs included, but an actual music album — he didn’t just have the benefit of being one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. He also knew everybody. For the nascent project, he reached out to friends like Lionel Richie, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Rick James. (“I figured there’s no way that album wouldn’t sell with all those guys involved,” he said at the time.) Wonder contributed two tracks — the smooth album-opener “Do I” and the funky closer “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” — and James would have a hand in its signature song, yet the record didn’t quite turn out to be the all-star jubilee it once promised to be. 

“Egos, man,” Murphy said a few years later when asked what had happened with some of his MIA collaborators. “If I had done the album with all of those guys and it had been a success, people would have said, ‘Yeah, it’s good, but who couldn’t have made a good record with Prince, Stevie and Rick?’ And if it was a flop, people would say, ‘Damn, not even Prince could save that fucked-up shit.’” (According to legend — and Prince friend Gilbert Davison — the Purple One actually listened to the album during the infamous pickup basketball game immortalized on Chappelle’s Show, threw the tape out of the player and said dismissively, “Let me ask you a question: Do you see me stop my show to do comedy?”)

The album, which was to be called How Could It Be, journeyed across different aspects of R&B and pop, moving from the easy-listening ballad “How Could It Be” to the catchy, uptempo “C-O-N Confused.” It was a period when prominent Black artists like Richie and Michael Jackson were making inroads on MTV, which had largely focused on white acts earlier in the network’s run. Murphy didn’t have those superstars’ musical or vocal chops, but his rising stardom and killer charm seemed perfectly suited to the nascent channel. But he also drew inspiration from a bygone older musical icon. 

“Elvis has more presence than any entertainer ever,” he once said. “When he was there he was there. One of the things that’s fascinating to me about Elvis Presley is that if you look at him he looks like he’s totally in control of everything, but beneath that, he’s totally out of control.” For a kid who grew up poor — he even spent some time in foster care — Murphy also saw in Presley a fellow striver and outsider. “Elvis was [society’s] American dream, the poor boy that got rich and they hated him for it,” Murphy said. “And then he died and they turned him into this god form. And I think that’s fascinating.”

When Murphy hooked up with James, the musician/producer was still riding high from the success of 1981’s Street Songs, which featured “Super Freak,” and the follow-up albums Throwin’ Down and Cold Blooded. Apparently, the plan was that Murphy would fly to Buffalo, James’ base of operations, to work on material for How Could It Be for a day or so. But then a snowstorm stranded Murphy, so the two hung out and worked. “I just picked up everything inadvertently [from James], from hanging around in the studio all the time,” Murphy said of their collaboration. “He was a friend of mine and when you were around him, that meant you were always in the studio.” The local Buffalo affiliate even ran a news segment on the two artists’ sessions — and how strange it was that Murphy was trying to do music.

James co-wrote “How Could It Be,” but his major contribution was “Party All the Time,” a piece of sleek funk that epitomized the synthesizer-driven pop of the era. You can hear “Little Red Corvette” in “Party All the Time,” as well as the Pointer Sisters and even James’ own “Give It to Me Baby.” The song features a vexed narrator who showers his girl with affection, and yet she won’t ever stay home. She has to go out and party.

Girl, I’ve seen you in clubs just hanging out and dancing
You give your number to every man you see
You never come home at night because you’re out romancing
I wish you’d bring some of your love home to me 

But my girl wants to party all the time
Party all the time
Party all the time
My girl wants to party all the time
Party all the time
Party all the time

With James adding background vocals and the occasional vamp, “Party All the Time” had a throbbing dance beat but also this air of paranoia and anxiety overriding everything. If “Boogie in Your Butt” mocked loverman clichés, this was a legitimate R&B workout filtered through James’ grimy, nasty funk — a classic slab of “Girl, you done me wrong” blues that got you out of your seat. And on top was Murphy’s voice, which was… well, weird. By that point in his career, he had one of pop culture’s most distinctive laughs — that infectiously sonorous haw-haw — and a delivery that sounded authoritative, whether he was barking one-liners or making fun of how white guys talk by imitating their flat, nasally, dorky tones. But on “Party All the Time,” his oddly high voice was a shock. It didn’t sound bad, but it didn’t sound like him, either.

“I’m wondering how the public is going to take this,” Murphy told The New York Times a year before the album’s release. “I think they’re either going to love the fact that I’m singing, or they’ll hate it. If they hate it, I won’t sing anymore, except in my house. If they love it… well, I won’t be the first singing comic, but I’ll be the first comic singer.”

But if his singing was a bit jarring, the video compensated, capitalizing on his bulletproof charisma and that luminous smile of his. The subsequent years of bad family films and uninspired sequels may have dimmed our collective memory of just how dynamic Eddie Murphy was in his prime. The clip for “Party All the Time” brings it all rushing back.

When How Could It Be (which also featured three Murphy originals, including “My God Is Color Blind”) hit record stores in the summer of 1985, it was hardly a blockbuster, peaking at No. 26 on the charts. “I thought the album would be doing much better now,” Murphy lamented that November. “I look at Beverly Hills Cop. About 60 million people saw the movie. So you’d think a least one million would go out and buy my record. Unfortunately, I see now it doesn’t work that way.”

But “Party All the Time” was a smash, being deprived of the No. 1 spot on the charts because of, ironically, Lionel Richie and his song “Say You, Say Me.” (By the way, even though Richie and Murphy didn’t end up working on How Could It Be together, they could have collaborated on another project around the same time: “We Are the World,” which the comic passed on participating in because he was focused on his own music. “I realized afterwards what it was and I felt like an idiot,” Murphy admitted later.) 

Nevertheless, “Party All the Time” only accentuated Murphy’s stardom. He hosted the second-ever MTV Video Music Awards that September, although initially he resisted. As the show’s producer, Edd Griles, recalled in I Want My MTV, when the network approached him about the gig, “Eddie started going into this whole thing about how MTV didn’t play any videos by Black artists. … [H]e said, ‘You didn’t play Rick James’ video, and you probably won’t play mine.’ [Show executive producer] Les [Garland] said, ‘I guarantee you, if you host the show, we’ll play your video.’”

But Murphy got the last laugh, giddily going off script during the live broadcast and dropping F-bombs. (“You know, I wasn’t going to host this show,” he announced during his opening monologue. “They came to me about six months ago and said, ‘Eddie, host the MTV Awards.’ And I’m an actor, so my first reaction was, ‘Fuck MTV.’”) “Stations are pulling the plug on us left and right,” Garland recalled in I Want My MTV about the reaction to Murphy’s hosting stint. “But this is the anarchy of MTV, this is what it was all about. Eddie finishes the monologue, we go to commercials, he comes offstage, and I grab him and go, ‘I told you, you can’t say that stuff.’ He goes, ‘No, you told me I couldn’t say ‘shit.’”

Unlike Murphy’s first two comedy albums, Eddie Murphy and Comedian, How Could It Be failed to go platinum. Not that that stopped other actors from indulging their own musical side — although, unlike, say, Bruce Willis’ 1987 record The Return of Bruno, which always seemed like more of a lark, Murphy never viewed How Could It Be as a busman’s holiday. “Look at the lyrics I wrote,” he said. “There’s feeling in them. They’re not funny. They tell how I feel about certain things. I like the fact that the album is out there for people to see there’s more to me than the brash comedian.”

A few years after How Could It Be’s release, however, he denigrated the record, which he thought sounded bad. “I wanted to get a producer who was enthusiastic but not a big name, someone who wouldn’t overpower things,” Murphy recalled. “So I got Stevie Wonder’s cousin and we did it at Stevie’s studio. But he wasn’t that familiar with the recording equipment we used; he didn’t see to it that the material got handled right, and that’s why it came out like it did. I don’t want to blame any one person for it, though. I could’ve stopped it any time. It was expensive to make too. You’d be surprised how expensive shit can be. It cost over $500,000. But it went gold and sold over 800,000. Imagine how well it would have done if it had been handled better. The next time around, I’ll just have to be bad.”

Murphy kept making albums, but they didn’t do as well as How Could It Be, and he never had a song as huge as “Party All the Time” again. Still, he went on to have some novel collaborations, like the poppy “Whatzupwitu” with Michael Jackson and the reggae jam “Red Light” with Snoop Dogg (who was going by Snoop Lion at the time). Murphy’s last full-length music release was 1993’s Love’s Alright, and journalists would always be surprised when he’d occasionally drop a new song — like 2015’s “Oh Jah Jah.” They’d ask if that meant he was getting back into music, which would frustrate him.

“I stopped putting music out 20 years ago. I’ve never stopped making music,” he said that year. “I’ve always had a facility for recording at the house. I’ve stayed in the studio for years and years. Twenty years ago there was a bunch of motherfuckers just putting records out that was actors. I didn’t want to be one of these motherfuckers dropping tracks on some ego shit, trying to be the actor-singer. It always looks weird when you see the actor singing in the video. You’re always gonna be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I didn’t want to be part of it. I’m not trying to get no paper, or get more famous off of this.”

While Murphy was ultimately unhappy with How Could It Be’s commercial performance and sound, he’s always liked “Party All the Time,” the little gem he and James cooked up while being snowed-in in Buffalo. “That sold a million copies,” Murphy told Billboard six years ago. “It’s one of the biggest records of Rick James’ career. It’s a great song. I still hear it all the time on the radio, and thousands of people have cut covers of it in every which way.”

He’s not exaggerating. Look around online and you’ll find lots of dance-y remakes of “Party All the Time,” which (whether sincerely or with tongue in cheek) pay homage to the original’s profoundly 1980s vibe. Glee made it a centerpiece of a Season Five episode, with Gwyneth Paltrow playing into the era’s big hair and roller-skating cheesiness…

…while on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, the metal band Children of Bodom turned “Party All the Time” into a screamo anthem rife with fiery riffs. If their version is supposed to be a sendup, well, these guys commit to the bit with such intensity that they failed miserably. It legitimately rocks.

In recent years, Murphy has been more in the public eye, earning plaudits for Dolemite Is My Name and cashing in on people’s fondness for Coming to America with this weekend’s sequel. And while promoting Coming 2 America, he talked about all those songs he’s got sitting in the can that he’ll never release. “That’s kind of, like, young folks do that,” he said about the possibility of putting out new music. “The Rolling Stones ain’t putting no records out! They’re playing their old tracks. Nobody wants to hear the Rolling Stones’ new shit.”

It’s probably just as well. Like many of his 1980s films, “Party All the Time” is a fun little time capsule that chronicles Murphy’s meteoric rise, marking an era in which Eddie Murphy really was the most amazing thing on the planet. It’s hard not to think back to the comment he made to the Times in 1984 about his musical career as it was just getting started: “I think they’re either going to love the fact that I’m singing, or they’ll hate it. If they hate it, I won’t sing anymore, except in my house.” 

Nearly 40 years later, he’s still happily singing in his house.

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