Sammy Murgo (born 13 August 1936) is a Maltese Jazz musician.
He started music theory and violin lessons at the age of six with his father Rosario, a violinist. After his father died two years later, Sammy continued studying with Mro Agostino Camilleri. At the age of thirteen he played at the Christmas Midnight Mass at Zebbug Parish Church with Mro Frank Diacono. That was his first paid musical service and Sammy kept playing in churches during feasts with different band masters for some time.
In his youth, Murgo used to visit his cousin Sammy Galea every Sunday to play Italian tunes, overtures and some standard numbers. After listening to Stephan Crapetti and Joe Venuti, two famous jazz violinists, Murgo became interested in jazz. He lived in Floriana, a part of which, Balzunetta, was at the time full of bars with live music every night. He used to play in different bars for free, just to gain experience from different pianists and drummers, enriching his repertoire in the process.
Change of Instrument
Both Murgo and Galea started to play at the Klondyke, a bar owned by their uncle Minco. During that time, Sammy Galea suggested that Murgo could change from violin to saxophone. At first Murgo preferred to keep playing his violin until a year later Robert Juice Wilson, an American jazz musician resident in Malta at the time, convinced him to change instrument. He started to learn his new instrument and at his uncle’s bar, he used to play both violin and saxophone.
When Sammy Galea returned from London in 1955, he introduced the vibraphone in Malta. Murgo and Galea then joined another cousin of theirs, Salvino Sammy Messina on the piano. The three cousins used to play regularly accompanied by drummer Charles Ciangura.
In 1960, Sammy Murgo joined the Kenner Club’s band in Valletta. He used to play along Joe Curmi l-Pusé, Frank Bibi Camilleri and Francis Kumeta Ciantar. He started off as a substitute whenever Joe Pusé had other engagements until he was offered the job permanently. Sammy Murgo used to play at the American base at Ħal Far Barracks every Sunday afternoon. That was the only club where one may play jazz only, attended by Americans and local jazz lovers. Sammy had the chance to play with the Sixth Fleet's best musicians too.
At the famous Caffè Premier, Sammy played under different bandmasters; the likes of Profs Giorlando Valente, Oscar Lucas and Vinny Vella. He played for three years under Jimmy Dowling at the Phoenicia Hotel and at the Griffin in Rabat with Frank Chico Camilleri. In 1964, he joined Frank Bibi Camilleri, Charles Lucas, Vince Fiteni and vocal Joe Cutajar at Max Stevens’ and Eric Stuart’ Palm Beach Club in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. Three years later, he joined Oscar Lucas again to play at the Villa Rosa along Anthony Sammut, Charles Lucas and Vince Fiteni. By time, Lee Spiteri replaced Sammut.
In the seventies, Sammy joined Charles City Gatt at The Grotto in Rabat playing along Edward Briffa, Ray Agius, Frank Camilleri and Tony Barbara. Famous British saxophonist John Dankworth visited the club three times and played some sessions with the band. The Grotto was the place where Sammy met Paul Giordimaina. They were introduced by Paul’s father who asked Sammy if his son could play jazz there. As Sammy listened to the young Paul playing Summertime, he predicted the youth would become a fine jazz pianist. In 1971 it was Sammy’s turn to form his own band with musicians Ray Agius, Victor Fenech and Louis Borg. By time, Lino Cauchi, Henry Spiteri and George Sciberras also formed part of the band.
In the mid seventies Sammy Murgo was part of a jazz television programme recorded at the Verdala Palace. He played along Charles City Gatt, Edward Briffa and Tony Barbara. During the course of the programme Ray Agius and Ronnie Caruana replaced Briffa and Barbara. In the early eighties, Sammy was involved in another jazz television programme, filmed at the Golden Sands in Għajn Tuffieħa along Paul Abela, Ronnie Caruana and Charles City Gatt. The programme’s schedule was extended with a second series which included guests such as Tony Agius, George and Joe Curmi.
Sammy Murgo played also under the direction of famous Maltese composer Charles Camilleri. He joined his band along Charles Gatt and Ronnie Caruana playing at the Surfside in Sliema once weekly. During one of the sessions there, Sammy was introduced to Berklee Professor of Jazz Andy Jaffe who happened to be on holiday in Malta. As Jaffe was introduced to all the band and asked to play some tunes, Sammy left his place to listen to the Professor. But the Berklee scholar wanted him to play too. They enjoyed playing so much that they ended up giving a concert together at the Manoel Theatre Foyer. The following year, Jaffe and Murgo played together again at the Malta Jazz Festival along Charles Gatt and Ronnie Caruana. They played yet again in another edition of the Malta Jazz Festival with George Pusè Curmi involved too.
In 1985, Sammy Murgo was asked to play at the Black Rose, a new club within the Dolmen Hotel in Bugibba. His band was made up of Tony Gigu Bartolo, Mario Cocker Aquilina and Dominic Galea, Sammy Galea’s eldest son. When Dominic left for some time in the UK and Bartolo emigrated to Australia, they were replaced by Emanuel Caruana and Charles Gatt. Sammy played also with his cousin’s son Dominic Galea at the Corinthia Palace Hotel at Balzan in a band featuring also Mario Cocker Aquilina and Noel Grech. One may note that Sammy played along three generations of Noel Grech’s family: he played with Noel’s grandfather Pawlu, then with his father Alex, and with Noel himself, all drummers. He played also with three generations of the Bibi family: pianist Frank, his son Joe and his grandson, both drummers.
In 1998, Sammy had to undergo heart surgery and his surgeon happened to be Mr Alex Manché, a musician himself. Before the operation, they promised each other to meet up after the surgical procedure for a musical session. This has become regular and both musicians meet every now and again and indulge in music.
In 1999, Sammy and Dominic played together in an open air concert on the site of the Royal Opera House in Valletta, and in the local annual Jazz Festival. Dominic composed and arranged all the music for the band.
Cousins Sammy Murgo and Sammy Galea played once again after a long time in 2014 at a concert at the Manoel Theatre, playing long time favourite “Laura”, accompanied by singer Doreen Galea and Dominic Galea’s band.
Sammy Murgo plays regularly at The Phoenicia Hotel in Dominic Galea’s band.
80 Year Tribute
In 2016, Sammy's 80th year, a tribute concert Sammy Murgo and Friends was organised at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity. On the 13 May 2016, his quartet included Dominic Galea, Mario Cocker Aquilina and Charles City Gatt in a jazz concert in front of a full Studio B. Sammy was joined on stage by guests Sammy Galea, Doreen Galea, Alex Manché, Joe Camilleri 'il-Bibi iż-żgħir', Harry Eddelston, Marvin Gaerty and Adrian Russu Brincat. Short interviews were conducted on stage with each guest about Sammy's career.
Two days earlier, on the 11 May 2016, Joe Julian Farrugia from the M3P Foundation interviewed Sammy about his career at the same Studio B. The interview included Sammy's career as well as Maltese entertainment venues of the past where he and other Maltese musicians used to perform.
- See interview transcript: Sammy Murgo: Oral History.