The album wasn’t supposed to be a tribute. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be a goodbye. Corners, the sophomore release from Dallas band Bastards of Soul, was planned as a coming-out party for an outfit that worked hard to take itself seriously, to sweat every detail of every song. Over five years, the good-time bar band had grown into a well-oiled R&B machine and a platform for five guys to write and perform some killer original tracks. “Everybody was getting better,” says bassist Danny Balis. “Everybody’s songwriting was improving.” Chadwick Murray, the nimble singer who had never before fronted a band and could bring to mind Otis Redding one minute, Bobby Womack the next, had taken the biggest leap of all.
“When he went out there on the stage he owned the room every time,” says guitarist Chris Holt, who has toured with Don Henley, among other gigs. “Every band I’ve ever been in, it was always like, ‘Man, we got to have a great singer. We got to have a really great front man. We got to have somebody who really has that x factor and can command the stage.’ And Chadwick, he had that.”
The summer of 2021 was supposed to be all about getting Corners ready for release. The recording hadn’t been easy. Murray’s type 1 diabetes rendered him immunocompromised, which meant recording during the pandemic had been largely piecemeal, with band members rarely occupying the same room. But it was coming together. Then, in mid-July, Murray, 45, began complaining of allergies. He was already on guard against COVID-19, and he was having trouble breathing. At the end of the month he went to an ear, nose, and throat doctor and got some allergy medication, which didn’t help. His shortness of breath grew worse.
In early August, his wife, Hannah, pregnant with their first child, convinced him to visit an urgent care center. He tested negative for COVID-19, but doctors discovered that his blood oxygen level was perilously low, and he was sent to another hospital. Weeks later, on the day he died, doctors determined he had a rare autoimmune disease, anti-MDA5 dermatomyositis, which causes rapidly progressing interstitial lung disease.
Murray recorded his final vocals for Corners about three weeks before entering the hospital. He died September 1, six days after Hannah gave birth to their son, Lennox Chadwick Murray. Father and son never got to meet, though they were in the same hospital, one leaving this world, one entering.
Murray’s bandmates—Holt, Balis, keyboardist Chad Stockslager, and drummer Matt Trimble—now find themselves in a strange emotional space. To a man, they are proud of Corners, a far more ambitious effort than their first album, Spinnin’. The production is more advanced and intricate, the musicianship more adventurous, the songwriting more cohesive. The album sounds mapped out from the very first cut, “American Scheme,” which has the scope and grandeur of a credits sequence for a nonexistent blaxploitation movie (think “Across 110th Street,” which the band used to cover). Elsewhere, the single “Glass of Ashes” is Smokey Robinson smooth. “Daybreak” was written by Balis as an attempt to understand how it feels to be a young Black man in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police. It reflects the general anxiety of an album written and recorded in the time of COVID-19. Corners is a hard-earned triumph, the product of countless hours of growth and work.
Sadly, the heart of the band isn’t here to join in the celebration. The Bastards knew they had found something special from the moment Murray took the stage with them. He had been playing bass with a Dallas rock band, Mur, but had never fronted a group. “His charisma on stage, the power of his delivery, that was somehow just completely baked in already,” says Stockslager. “It was almost too much. We tried to reign him in somewhat, you know what I mean? Because not every song is a belter. Some songs are a little softer and you’ve got to have a little more dynamic. We used to talk about this at great length.” Murray was learning. The band was thriving. The album was coming.
And then, tragedy. Murray’s illness and death happened so fast that no one knew how to process it, certainly not his wife, Hannah. They were getting ready for the next chapter of their life together. Murray was so excited about becoming a father that he would push an empty baby carriage around the house just for practice. With both the album and a son on the way, the best was yet to come.
“I love him as a musician, but he was a million times better as a person,” Hannah says. “I loved watching him perform because it just made him so happy.”