Legendary harmonica player Mickey Raphael has shared the spotlight with the best—Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan. Here’s his story blow by blow . . .
by Holly Gleason
Mickey Raphael wasn’t much more than a kid when he ran away with the circus. Well, not the circus, but something equally off-kilter and unlikely. After a stint playing harmonica with Dallas’s progressive folkie/country songwriter B.W. Stevenson—known for “My Maria”—Raphael got an invitation from University of Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal to a jam session he was hosting after a big game.
“I had big hair,” he laughs, “and was listening to the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, the Burritos . . . I didn’t know who Haggard or George Jones was. But I figured I’d go.”
In that hotel room pickin’ party, the harmonica player found himself jamming with Willie Nelson and Charlie Pride. If he didn’t look the part, something about his tone—honed via the folk-blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee—caught Nelson’s ear. Raphael was invited to play a Volunteer Fire Department benefit at a local high school. And so it began.
In the days before tour buses when everyone drove their own cars to the various gigs, the hippie-looking 20-year-old had to wait for the rest of the band to arrive before heading into the Texas icehouses where they were playing. But it wasn’t long before the rise of Nelson’s legendary 4th of July Picnics in Dripping Springs and the hippie/redneck nexus of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters.
“I remember playin’ to junkies and transvestites at Max’s Kansas City. Waylon had been there, so they were ready for us. Sandy Bull was there, Bobby Neuwirth, Jim Carroll . . . rumors of Bob Dylan.”
So began a forty-year odyssey that’s seen the dark-haired musician share stages with Miles Davis and Neil Young, recording studios with Emmylou Harris and Mötley Crüe, even musically anchoring a Bob Dylan show noted choreographer Twyla Tharp was staging. Known to many as the young Turk with Nelson’s Family, Raphael is a musical journeyman who’s spent his career searching for opportunities to conjure the emotional tone various artists are seeking.
“Miles Davis told me it’s the space between the notes that matters,” Raphael explains. “You want to paint a picture. [Harmonica]’s such a soulful instrument, you wanna create the mood—a lot of times that’s subtle, but what you pull out really colors the track or the moment.”
Still—as blues chanteuse Sippie Wallace wrote—you got to know how. There’s a laugh from the thoughtful, almost introspective player. “How do I know if I’m gonna play sweet or a little raunchy?” he intones. “I’ve played mostly with writers, and the lyric for them is everything. I really try to pay attention to what’s being said.”
This day, though, no harmonica’s involved. Instead, Raphael weighs Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” a track he is rebuilding for an upcoming Highwaymen box set. The mid-80s supergroup of Johnny Cash/Waylon Jennings/Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson built around friendship and classic songs has become even more iconic in the ensuing years, so he was tapped to produce ancillary material.
“I know where all the bodies are,” he jokes, referring to his tenure with Nelson, as well as time on the boards with America’s many icons.
Few working musicians have the fastidious detail, vast knowledge, but especially the soul for where this music comes from. Raphael knows how to elicit a performance from Nelson—who recently added vocals to the original Chips Moman-produced Cash/Jennings track—as well as enhance the original recording’s intentions.
That’s why Lionel Richie suggested Raphael “take the guitar solo” on a recent re-recording of his Commodores classic “Easy.” Also why Mötley Crüe enlisted him for their squawking recast of Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ In The Boys Room.”
“I love real melodic shift and tone,” he says. “I wanna play what’s right for the song . . . and something simpler is often better: match the intention, know what the song’s about. Rather than being another hot guitar lead, try to bring something else out of the song.”
That thoughtfulness elevates Raphael’s musicality from one more cloud of notes to something genuinely evocative. As he listens to playbacks of the Highwaymen, noting, “It’s not a big sound, but it showcases each so well,” it is the grain of truth he’s seeking within each performance.
Distilling essence is harder than it sounds. Yet when Ray Charles died, Nelson brought the harp player for accompaniment to the funeral. “It was a little AME Church in L.A., and we were doing ‘Georgia.’ You look out and there’s Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder; you think, I just wanna play true.”
Playing true is just what marks Raphael’s work. As a player, an accompanist, a producer: the vérité is all that matters.
Mickey Raphael is currently on tour with Willie Nelson and Family. For more information please visit www.mickeyraphael.com.