Morphine - Biography
With only a two-string bass, a saxophone and drums, Morphine were able to craft a sound both unique and familiar. They drew upon rhythm and blues, jazz, and old school rock & roll while never fully embracing those styles and never using guitars. Their trademarks instead became their “low rock” sound, the captivating, relaxed baritone of their singer, and, of course, that smooth saxophone present on every song. The Boston trio held onto an avid cult following for almost a decade until things tragically came to a halt for the band in 1999.
In 1989, Mark Sandman, a skilled bass player who had been coming into his own as a vocalist, was a man without a band. His group, Treat Her Right, led by former Pink Cadillac singer David Champagne, had released their final album, Tied to the Tracks (featuring Sandman's lead vocals on several tracks) and broken up. In a similar situation was saxophonist Dana Colley, who had just finished a rather successful seven-year career with Three Colors, one of the more prominent bands of the Boston music scene. Already good friends and building on a foundation of previous jam sessions and various side projects, Sandman and Colley pooled their bandlessness together to form Morphine, adding drummer Jerome Dupree to become a proper trio in 1990. They built a cult following by playing loft parties and bars throughout Boston.
The band were signed to Russ Gershon's independent label, Accurate/Distortion, and released their debut album, Good, on that label in 1991. One year later, the album was re-released on Salem, Massachusetts indie label Rykodisc. A well-rounded introduction to the band's original take on rock, Good proved to be a fresh listen for fans of independent music, and received plenty of attention from college radio as well as positive write-ups in alternative music magazines across the country.
Allegedly due to increasing health problems, Dupree left the band in in 1992, giving way to a reunion between Sandman and his former Treat Her Right drummer Billy Conway. With one solid album behind them, Morphine went back into the studio, releasing Cure For Pain (Rykodisc) in the spring of 1993. Reviews were even stronger this time around, and the band's cult status was inevitably growing larger and larger. The album was an expansion of Morphine's now-trademarked “low rock,” as dubbed by Mark Sandman when asked to describe his sound. They did go as far as to include a six-string guitar track on “Spite of Me,” but the rest of the album was an exercise in creativity through minimalism, with Sandman's two-string bass and Colley's sax meshing together in perfect, low-end harmony.
In support of Cure For Pain, Morphine showed a dogged energy for touring. Preferring to headline their own shows instead of support bigger acts, the band traveled the United States and Europe in a tour that lasted all the way into 1994. Because of their incessant touring, as well as the increased airplay and fantastic word-of-mouth, they were able to sell over 300,000 copies of the album, and for a small band like Morphine, that was considered a very laudable achievement.
The band followed this welcome success with 1995's Yes (Rykodisc), further cementing their devoted fan base and again basking in the glow of good to outstanding reviews. The album even cracked the Billboard 200, peaking smack-dab in the middle at 101. Interested major labels had been lurking around the corner for some time and, in late 1996, DreamWorks signed the band, buying out the largest share of their Rykodisc contract. For their major label debut, Like Swimming (1997 DreamWorks), Morphine didn't make any great leaps in their musical progression or shake things up at all. For an album that was supposed to propel the band into mainstream success, if not stardom, it was something of a failure, and in the opinion of many critics, the album sounded tired and undercooked. However, perhaps because of the advertising that a major label like DreamWorks was capable of, the album peaked higher than its predecessor on the Billboard 200 at number 67. A few months after Like Swimming had come out, Rykodisc released B-Sides & Otherwise, a collection of songs that appeared previously on soundtracks and some songs that had not previously appeared anywhere.
On July 3rd, 1999, the band was playing a gig in Italy as part of the European leg of a tour. During the second song of their set, Sandman collapsed onto the stage. He was immediately given medical attention and put in an ambulance, but on the way to a nearby hospital, it was clear he had suffered from a heart attack and he was pronounced dead. The news was made even more shocking since Sandman had no previous problems with his health. He was just 46 years old.
Saddened fans who believed Like Swimming would be the band's last album could at least rejoice in the fact that Sandman was able to record one more Morphine album before his untimely death. The Night (DreamWorks) was posthumously released on February 1st, 2000. Hailed by critics as not only a return to form but also a sign that the band had been evolving toward a new phase in their sound, this album became the third release by Morphine to crack the Billboard 200. With the new album containing female background vocalists and more varied instrumentation, many wondered what the band would have had in store for their fans had Sandman survived. But instead of new material being released, Rykodisc began putting together whatever they had left. A live album called Bootleg Detroit (2000 Rykodisc) was released as well as a greatest hits collection entitled The Best of Morphine: 1992-1995 (2003 Rykodisc) which collected the standout tracks from the band's three terrific albums on their old label. The other two members of Morphine, Conway and Colley, went on to form a new project, Twinemen, which featured Laurie Sargent on vocals.