‘Where the Music Was’: Murphy Center’s History

The house lights ease down, the stage lights slowly creep up and a cloud of smoke invades the stage, creating a barrier between the audience and the evening’s headlining act.

Finally, a crisp, familiar voice escapes the speakers and drowns out the uproar of applause coming from the packed arena.

Although it may appear to be a sold-out concert at a venue like Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the show is actually taking place closer to home in a venue called The Monte Hale Arena inside MTSU’s Charles M. Murphy Athletic Center.

During the height of its popularity, Murphy Center was the ideal place in the Middle Tennessee area to perform, with some of the most celebrated names in music history playing in the building now better known for hosting Blue Raider basketball.

Elvis Presley, Elton John, Tina Turner, George Strait and U2 are just a few of the performers who have graced the stage since the building opened in 1973.

Advertisement for Elton John's performance at Murphy Center on Oct. 12, 1973.(File/MTSU Sidelines)
Advertisement for Elton John’s performance at Murphy Center on Oct. 12, 1973.(File/MTSU Sidelines)

MTSU Student Programming helped fill a vast number of seats for more than 25 years, fabricating Murphy Center into the epicenter of music in Middle Tennessee. From 1973 until 1999, students had the opportunity see the best known professional entertainers and internationally acclaimed acts, all without having to leave campus.

In 1994, the MTSU Student Concert Committee reached over 300 members, requiring the school to form a governing board of elected representatives to make decisions for the student body.

The committee operated on two programming levels—one with outside promoters and one through self-promotion. Many of the self-promoted, college circuit programs were free to students, while the co-promoted events allowed other promoters to rent out the venue and charge students a ticket price of around $12 in 1995.

One step closer to the stage

Along with the committee, the university also trained students to work as ushers, stage crew and supervisors on the day of the show.

In 1986, former MTSU alumnus Keith Palmer seized the opportunity to work backstage as part of the stage crew, a place where he says “all the magic happened.”

Palmer, now the development director of Murfreesboro’s NPR affiliate WMOT, began working on what was then called the Special Events Committee as a member of the stage crew during his first year as a student.

Tina Turner performs at Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Thursday, Oct. 29, 1987. (Jack Ross/MTSU Photo Services)
Tina Turner performs at Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Thursday, Oct. 29, 1987. (Jack Ross/MTSU Photo Services)

“One week we did Whitney Houston, Fleetwood Mac and U2 all within seven days,” Palmer said. “The shows were massive, so it was an exciting time on campus that week.”

Each show, Palmer and the rest of the crew were paid $100 to unload equipment, assemble the set and, in an essence, ensure the night went as planned. Palmer says the crew received a few perks such as two free meals and a tour T-shirt, but he sometimes had the opportunity to take one step closer to what he says really mattered: the music.

“I occasionally got to meet the artists,” he said, referring to his encounter with comedian Eddie Murphy in 1987, “but I’ll never forget the night Billy Joel played Murphy Center.”

Palmer’s final jobs for the evening was to polish Joel’s baby grand piano, the one the artist would later play his hit song “Piano Man” on for a sold-out arena.

“I can now say I sat at the same piano as Billy Joel,” Palmer said while smiling.

A fan’s perspective

From the other side of the stage, though, the experience was equally as enjoyable. After a long day of classes, students filed into the venue, taking advantage of its close proximity and the lower student ticket price.

“Years ago, Murfreesboro was where the music was at,” said Stephanie Yocom, a former MTSU student. Yocom says she’s long traded the days of standing in line for a packed show, but says that while she was in college, students took advantage of the opportunity.

“Nashville’s always been a place where music has thrived,” she said, “but for awhile, Murphy Center shared some of the spotlight.”

She recalls seeing several artists during her two years on campus, but there’s one show in particular that stands out among the rest.

“It was my first concert,” she said, recalling the first evening of Garth Brooks’ four-night residency in Murphy Center in 1994. “He was the country music icon at the time, so there was no doubt it would be a sell-out.”

In fact, records cite Garth Brooks’ four nights in Murphy Center accumulated over 40,000 tickets, outselling Elvis Presley’s record for the highest ticket sales in the arena’s history.

Larger venues, fewer shows

After 1999, concerts held in the arena became few and far between and eventually fizzled out due to newly constructed arenas in Nashville. Student Programing’s only choice was to schedule lesser-known acts in other locations on campus.

“With larger venues opening in Nashville, promoters no longer needed Murphy Center to put on these elaborate shows,” Palmer explained. “It was all about the ticket sales.”

However, Murphy Center returned to the spotlight in 2005 when the activities committee brought in Kanye West to perform. The show sold close to 6,000 tickets and collected over $58,000 in revenue.

Unfortunately, the cost to bring A-list artists is higher than ever, and Student Programming is no longer able to keep up, despite SGA’s 546 initiative to bring prominent artists to campus. Still, thousands of fans fill the arena each year, but not for the same reason as before.

Now a place where basketball players score a winning-shot, Murphy Center will always carry out its legacy of being a premier music venue for over three decades.

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To contact features editor Dylan Aycock, email features@mtsusidelines.com.

To contact lifestyles editor John Connor Coulston, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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  1. Brian Quinn
    January 27, 2015

    If Elvis were still alive and performing he would easily break any of Garth Brooks attendance records. In the year prior to his death Elvis was the Nations Top Box Office performer.

  2. Michael Brennan
    January 29, 2015

    I am curious as to when we will see performers from today playing the Murphy Center. Obviously Murphy Center is not as big a venue as what most of today’s artists could fill, but I would love for the students at MTSU including myself to have the experience of a modern artist performing at our very own stadium.

  3. Ben
    November 30, 2019

    I, too, was a member of the Student Concert Committee and have cherished the experience for more than 25 years now. Each of my 3 daughters would likely tell you that they’ve long since tired of hearing about “the time I worked with/for (insert artists’ name here) while I was a student and Recording Industry Management major at MTSU”.

    For non-RIM majors, it was a great opportunity to see concerts featuring the superstars of the era without having to stand in line to buy tickets. To take it one step further…it was a great opportunity to GET PAID while watching concerts featuring the superstars of the era.

    On the other hand, for RIM majors, it was a GREAT opportunity to further your education, gain experience, and make some contacts and connections with music industry professionals. That’s the category I belonged to…and it served me well.

    Although I understand the economics and reasons why the Murphy Center has fallen out of favor with well-known, mainstream acts of the modern era, it’s still sad to know that current and future students won’t have the same experiences and opportunities that we had more than 20+ years ago.