February 14, 1922, is the birthdate of Murray Kaufman – better known to 1960s hip-cats as "Murray the K." As an early champion of rock ‘n' roll in its many permutations, Murray the K was always ahead of the curve: he was one of the first disc jockeys in the United States to catch Beatlemania, he boldly defended Bob Dylan when he blasphemed by going electric, and he introduced many white listeners to rhythm and blues. Murray the K was the best kind of salesman – someone who truly believed in what he was purveying.
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Murray Kaufman was born in Virginia, and grew up in New York. His father, Max Kaufman, was in the leather trade, and his mother, the former Jean Greenblatt, was a vaudeville pianist and composer, with sister who was a stage actress. Murray himself appeared as an extra and dancer in several Hollywood movies during the 1930s.
Baseball and 'Doggie in the Window'
Drafted during World War II, Kaufman produced shows for the troops. After his release, he spent working as an emcee at hotel nightclubs in the Borscht Belt. During the off season, he was back in New York City doing commercial promotions.
Kaufman did publicity work with a number of major-league players, including Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, and when Yankees slugger Johnny Mize wrote a book called “How to Hit” (1953), Kaufman was his co-author.
He also was a “song plugger,” promoting tunes for music publishers. One of his more notable successes was with Bob Merrill's “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window,” which Patti Page recorded in late 1952, and which sold more than two million copies.
After producing a live-interview show for WMCA radio, Kaufman moved behind the mike in 1953, hosting his own talk show. He only began spinning records in 1958, with an all-night program called “Swingin’ Soiree,” on WINS in New York.
The following year, Murray the K, as he was now calling himself, took over the prime 7-11 P.M. time slot.
Pioneer of patter and color-blindness
Kaufman introduced an uninhibited patter to this highly regimented medium, and prided himself on playing music before everyone else discovered it. He knew the artists personally and often hosted them in live shows he produced during these years, with such acts as Ray Charles, Chubby Checker and Brenda Lee. The true innovation was that the audiences were also racially mixed.
Murray the K was already a star in New York when he became smitten with the Beatles. When they landed at JFK airport on their first American tour, in 1964, they showed their gratitude by giving him unprecedented access. This included live broadcasts from their hotel rooms.
In 1965, the federal Office of Equal Opportunity hired Kaufman to promote a jobs program for inner-city youth. The TV show he produced, called “It’s What Happening, Baby,” interspersed clips of artists both black and white from around the U.S., together with information about the federal program.
When WINS moved to an all-news format, in December 1964, Kaufman showed his displeasure by resigning on the air. He then moved to WOR-FM, where he was able to experiment with a free-format show, choosing the music he wanted to play.
Despite his show's popularity, 18 months later, the station began requiring DJs to work with a playlist, and Kaufman quit.
He opened a club for live music, called Murray the K’s World, in an unused hangar at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field, in 1966, but that failed, in large part because a month-long transit workers’ strike prevented many members of his intended audience from getting there.
In the years that followed, Murray moved frequently around the country, and the dial, continuing to try out innovative formats. But in the early 1970s, he developed cancer, and he began his decline.
His last gig was a syndicated oldies show called “Soundtrack of the Sixties,” which he presented until his health no longer allowed it, in 1981. By then, he was strapped financially. At the end of his life, it was the pop producer and singer Tony Orlando who made sure he was provided with nursing care.
Murray the K died on February 21, 1982, at age 60.