YOUNGSTOWN – Playing music and playing in a band came naturally to Jason Murphy.
In the mid-1990s and into the late 2000s, Murphy toured with his ragga jungle duo, Imperial Sound System (aka ISS), strumming records on a turntable as his sound source. Little did he know at the time that his musical talent would one day serve adults with disabilities.
Murphy, 45, struggled with anxiety and low self-esteem as a child, but throughout his life playing music served as a refuge and a gift for serving and healing others.
“I remember the first time I stepped on stage was at a gig with my band, Imperial Sound System in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-90s. I was in front of a thousand cheering people. . I walked up to the turntables, put on a record, strummed a bit and the crowd screamed so loud. I looked behind me to see what they were promoting, and found that it was me they were promoting. That’s when I felt more validated and empowered. It improved my self-esteem and my anxiety,” Murphy said.
Today, Murphy is the Group Director of The Purple Cat, ISLE (Iron and String Life Enhancement Inc.) and Golden String Inc., a local workshop program for adults with disabilities. Not only is Murphy’s music program classy, but they’re also a professional band known as The Feral Cats.
The Feral Cats are made up of Purple Cat customers and have performed at various local events such as the Greater Youngstown Italian Fest, the Pabstolutely Festival in Royal Oaks, the Mahoning Valley St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Canfield Fair. Murphy has worked for ISLE for 10 years and his wife, Jennie, also works for The Purple Cat as part of an arts program at Joe Gallagher’s Lunch Bucket.
“I want to relive that experience of that show in Louisville with The Feral Cats. I knew the formula, but I want my clients to experience this moment that I experienced. I want them to experience a bit of status representing people who feel small in society,” Murphy said.
Murphy grew up in Hubbard and attended Hubbard High School. During his middle and high school years, he played guitar in several bands. Murphy then joined Imperial Sound System, which was his most acclaimed long-time touring band. Imperial Sound System has been on the road with many well-known bands, including The Prodigy and Plasticman. Murphy remembers a time when Imperial Sound System was breaking up and he knew he had to make a career change.
“I had returned to Hubbard from Louisville after my time at Imperial Sound System. I came back from touring and the band was breaking up, and I didn’t know what to do career-wise. My anxiety hit and I I remember sitting in my mother’s kitchen, holding my head and wondering what I should do. Then my Hubbard friend and teammate, Victor Tirabassi, came over and approached me to create no more jungle ragga music. So Tirabassi and I formed the band 45 Thieves,” Murphy said.
Next, Murphy saw The Purple Cat buses rolling all over Hubbard, which he said looked like otherworldly pods.
“I filled out an application and dropped it off at the ISLE office. They hired me to do respite, where I would drive to an ISLE client’s house and provide services to that client. I did respite for a year and a half, then worked with behavioral clients with special needs in ISLE group homes, where I met Jimmy Sutman, president and founder of The Purple Cat,” Murphy said.
Sutman and Murphy bonded over their love for vinyl records. Murphy would talk about how he used records to scratch as a sound source like an instrument, while Sutman was more interested in collecting vinyl records to listen to for fun.
“I showed Jimmy a video of myself scratching records on stage with my band 45 Thieves. He then asked me if I would be interested in doing a music program at The Purple Cat, which I I thought after seeing those buses that my salvation was there, and it was. I showed up right away. It was supposed to be a music therapy type class. I’m not a music therapist, but I knew how put together a band and I found there were customers who could play instruments, so I brought my own instruments,” Murphy said.
Murphy said he was intrigued by the musical talent of the patrons and was able to identify right away who fit into a group dynamic.
At this point, The Feral Cats was formed. Murphy said the clients’ parents loved what The Purple Cat was doing with their music program, so they decided to donate PA systems, computers and instruments, which is all a band needs. .
When Murphy isn’t working with clients, he’s focused on his latest recording project titled Coach with longtime friend David Merrick.
For Murphy, being the group manager of the Feral Cats since 2015 has been a wonderful learning experience. The clients taught him so many new things about himself.
“Fortunately for me, working with these clients has dramatically reduced my anxiety and improved my mental health. It is the hardest and most demanding job I have ever had in my life. At the same time, it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” Murphy said.
The Feral Cats are working on a debut album and have a gig booked at the Greater Youngstown Italian Fetsival in early August.
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