Here's what he wanted most
HOLDEN, W.Va. -- After winning "America's Got Talent" and claiming its $1 million prize, releasing a best-selling album and embarking on a sold-out concert tour, Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. could go just about anywhere and do just about anything.
What he most wanted was a "home on a hill."
He found one in October. It's a few miles outside Logan, off old U.S. 119. It's a sizeable home, but not palatial. It's a two-story frame house covered with wooden siding, creating a faux-cabin effect.
The walls inside are painted with deep, warm colors and Murphy's wife, Jennifer, has decorated the rooms in the popular country primitive style.
The cozy living room contains an overstuffed couch, loveseat, chaise lounge and a Christmas tree in the picture window. The mantle features a professional photo of Landau, a smaller photo of him singing the National Anthem at Mountaineer Field and his "Reality TV Personality of the Year" award from the 2012 National Reality Television Awards.
"He beat Kim Kardashian," Jennifer noted.
The Murphys closed on the purchase of their new home on Oct. 11 and moved in about a month later, after they returned from a short tour in Germany where Landau performed two sold-out shows to U.S. troops and their families. They celebrated a big Thanksgiving in the house -- the party included Landau's five children from an earlier relationship and Jennifer's daughter -- and spent Christmas there.
Although he originally planned to buy the property next door, Murphy says he knew he wanted this house from the moment he walked in. In some ways, he sees it as an extension of himself.
"It's country and city at the same time. That's what I am," he said.
Murphy is a living paradox, a country boy with street smarts, born in West Virginia but reared in Detroit, who could have found fame in R&B music but prefers to croon like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
It would be easy to pin his success on that paradox, but that would ignore the years of hard work and determination he put into his career before the television cameras came his way.
"This was a process for me," he says.
Life in Detroit
Murphy was born in West Virginia and spent the first decade of his life like any other country boy: getting dirty, wandering the hills, playing in the creeks and catching crawdads.
That life was interrupted when he was 11. His parents divorced and his mother, Mona Lisa, moved her children to Detroit. The change in scenery came as a shock to a young Landau. Back in West Virginia, Murphy knew he could just take to the mountains if he needed time alone. Detroit offered no such respite.
"It's all concrete," he said. "There's no mountains to escape to."
He eventually found a wooded area about 12 miles from his house where he and his friends would go to ride their bikes.
"That kept me on the country side of life," he said.
Murphy and his siblings grew up in Detroit, and it was there he became a performer.
His mom used to dress him like Michael Jackson, complete with the penny loafers and sequined glove, and take him into town where he would sing and dance for change. They often would leave with buckets of money.
Murphy started singing standards as a teenager. He was introduced to the sounds of the Rat Pack through commercials and the 1980s sitcom "Married With Children," which used Sinatra's "Love and Marriage" as its theme song.
He started trying to imitate Sinatra and eventually nailed the sound. If Murphy dunked a shot playing basketball, he'd sing "I've got you . . . under my skin." If he hit a jump shot, he'd croon "Fly Me to the Moon."
Mona Lisa eventually moved back to West Virginia and re-married, and then his sisters and brother did the same. Murphy, an adult, stayed in Detroit, where he didn't fare well.
"I was alone. It was just me and the streets," he said.
He hit hard times, and soon began sleeping in his car and under bridges. Pride prevented him from asking his sisters for help: they were in new marriages and he didn't want to be an imposition.
In the meantime, Murphy said he was robbed, carjacked and even had a few bullets fired in his direction by friends who thought he was someone else. He decided to leave the city before he got hurt, or ended up hurting someone else.
"I decided Detroit was too much. You always have to look over your back," he said. "That's what the city does to you.
"You can't let your guard down."
He returned to West Virginia in 2000, where he reconnected with Jennifer, who had been a childhood friend. They began dating, and she helped him land a job at the local Bob Evans restaurant.
'We were struggling'
Murphy bounced between jobs for the next few years, working at Shoney's and then as a flagger for a road construction company owned by infamous Powerball winner Jack Whittaker.
He made $30 an hour at that job and used the money to start remodeling the house he and Jennifer bought. But as Whittaker's personal problems began to interfere with his financial life, Landau and many of his co-workers were laid off. He got another job at Mike Ferrell Toyota in Chapmanville where, as "America's Got Talent" frequently reminded us, he worked as a car washer.
The couple married in 2005 but, shortly after the wedding, Jennifer's father died. She and Murphy temporarily moved into her mother's home in Omar to keep the elderly woman company.
While they were gone, thieves broke into their home and stole all their furniture, appliances and personal belongings, including their clothes.
"They took the copper out of the walls," Murphy said.
With no money to replace their belongings, the couple had to remain in Jennifer's mother's home.
"We were struggling," Jennifer said.
Looking back, Murphy sees the robbery as a blessing.
"It was like God was saying, 'This stuff is holding you, so I'm going to take it away,' " he said. "It freed me to say, 'I have nothing to lose.' "
He remembers kneeling in his bedroom, praying for direction. When he finished, a commercial came on the television for "America's Got Talent." Murphy says a chill ran up his arm. He went to the show's website and submitted a video of him singing a Frank Sinatra song. A few days later, Jennifer got a call: "America's Got Talent" wanted Murphy to come to New York and audition in person.
They arrived in New York in November 2010, where Murphy waited from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. before he got a chance to sing for the show's talent scouts. It was worth the wait, because the show's producers advised him to go home and "stay out of trouble." He would return in six months to tape another audition, this one in front of celebrity judges Howie Mandell, Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne.
The world met Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. in June 2011. He introduced himself as a car washer from Logan, W.Va., who was appearing on the show to "follow his dream."
Morgan, the show's token angry judge, pointed out Landau had chewing gum in his mouth.
"I wouldn't do that when you're performing in this show, seriously," he said.
Murphy grinned at the judge, removed the gum from his mouth, and stuffed it in his pants pocket.
After a brief pause, his music started. It was just drums at first, but then the horn section entered and he opened his mouth.
"I would sacrifice anything, come what might . . ."
Though his dreadlocked hair evoked Bob Marley, Murphy's voice was pure Dean Martin. The cameras cut to the audience, filled with shocked faces.
"Don't you know, you little fool, you never can win . . ."
Mandel laughed. Cannon shot the camera a shocked look. Sharon Osbourne rose to her feet.
"I've got you under my skin . . ."
Murphy finished on a big note and gave a small bow.
"That's talent!" Cannon exclaimed backstage. "He belongs in Vegas."
And that's exactly where Murphy was headed. He coasted through the show's remaining episodes, clinching his victory in the finale episode with a cover of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
His victory on "America's Got Talent" was closely followed by a string of concerts in Las Vegas with other performers from the show. He released "That's Life," an album of old-school standards recorded in Columbia Studios with members of Sinatra's old band, just two months later.
Murphy returned to the West Virginia a year ago to begin a statewide tour, performing to sold-out crowds nearly every night.
He said he had not intended to keep the gum in his mouth. He was chewing it to keep his nerves at bay and had already scouted out a garbage can where he could dispose of it before going onstage.
But Landau says the gum-chewing moment was instrumental in his success. It showed the world that he had a sense of humor and would not be intimidated by a bad-tempered Brit.
"I've always been scared of the entertainment industry. They build you up and try to tear you down," he said.
By stuffing a piece of gum in a perfectly good pair of pants, Landau says he showed the world he wasn't going to change for the sake of celebrity.
By all accounts, he hasn't.
Last weekend, Murphy performed at the Coalfield Jamboree in Logan. Next month he will play concerts in Beckley, Glade Springs and at The Greenbrier, plus shows in Oklahoma and Florida. In February, he will depart on a 68-city tour with other "America's Got Talent" artists.
Murphy still drives himself to every show. He doesn't hit the clubs afterward. He goes out, sings, and returns to his room. If he wants to hang out, he goes back to Logan County and surrounds himself with family members.
More than building his own career, Murphy wants to help other talented Mountaineers get their start.
"We've got to do everything we can to lift West Virginia up," he said. "I'm going to defend it with all the power I have."
He's installing a recording studio in his home and wants to start a record label.
"There's so much talent around me, and I want to show it to the world," he said.
Murphy was 36 years old when the world first took notice of him. He said there are people much older than him with just as much talent. They only need a helping hand to get started.
"It's never too late, but somebody has to believe in you. And first of all, you have to belief in yourself," he said.
It's a recipe for success, from a man who knows it works.