These images were copped from Mickey's website, Mickey Raphael.com
Willie Nelson is known for his distinctive voice, the tone of his rugged Martin guitar named Trigger, and for the harmonica played by that tall lanky guy who imbues his sound with a timeless, rootsy quality.
The man playing that harmonica is Mickey Raphael, the tall, lanky Family Band stalwart who has stood to Willie’s left for 35 years and remains by his side whenever Willie solos with orchestras or joins other musical ensembles such as the jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis and his quartet. If Mickey’s not there, it’s not Willie. While he has recorded outside the Willie Nelson orbit including several albums with Emmylou Harris and most recently with Kenny Chesney, Mickey’s harmonica is joined at the hip with his boss.
When did you start playing harmonica?
My dad’s lawyer played washtub bass in a little jug band and he gave me a harmonica when I was a kid. Every kid has a harmonica. I grew up in
What were you listening to?
Acoustic blues. Sonny Terry, John Hammond, Jr., James Cotton, Musselwhite. I think the first album I bought was the Siegel-Schwall Band. That folk scene because it was obtainable at the Rubiyat, the music I was able to see live. Jimmy Reed. Butterfield. I was committed to the harmonica at this point. I got with Donnie Brooks on the steps out in front of the Rubiyat and he showed me how to play the diatonic scale starting at the low end of the harmonica and how the pattern worked, how you play all the way to the top, how the notes work. It was just a little pattern, like Draw hole number one, Blow two and three, draw three and four. It’s just a pattern, how the notes worked. It was my job to put those notes together.
Did you hear music on records or live?
Mostly records. I was still in school at the time. I’d go down to the Rubiyat when I first got my driver’s license when I was junior in high school. By high school I was hanging around Sumet-Bernet Recording Studio and got some session work. There was an engineer there named Phil York and he’d let me know when there was work. Ed Bernet, one of the owners of the studio owned a club called the Levee and the music director at the club was Smokey Montgomery the banjo player from the Light Crust Doughboys. Smokey and the Levee band would do these demos, these country packages. One of their clients was Boxcar Willie. He would come in there with thirty songs. They paid me five bucks a song. We’d do as many as we could. I learned my recording chops from doing demos there.
I’d get a call every once in awhile from Euell Box who did commercials. The music would be written out. He would have a string section. His wife would take me into another room and play the part for me on the piano. Then we’d go and record.
Were you playing with anyone live?
When I went to
After that in 1971 I got with B.W. Stevenson [a larger-than-life figure with a larger-than-life voice]. We played the same circuit, restaurant bars around
Were you playing the same stylistically as you are now?
Yeah, except I didn’t know how to listen and I was playing all the time. Now it’s OK not to play all the time. My playing wasn’t as refined. I didn’t know much about country music. The only country I’d heard growing up was ‘Blood on the Saddle’ by Tex Ritter. I was listening to Charlie McCoy a lot.
B.W. got a record deal with RCA and we went on the road. I went to
When did Willie Nelson come into your life?
I was touring with B.W. but we didn’t work all the time. When we were in
I got a call a couple months later from Darrell Royal [the coach of the
A couple weeks later I saw they were playing a benefit for the volunteer fire department in the high school gymnasium in
Willie wasn’t that successful yet. He was still playing beer joints. B.W. and Murphey were bigger draws. Jerry Jeff was probably the biggest drawn. Willie was a little left of center. He was an old guy, 39.
We went to a truck stop after the
I’d been playing three months with him when Willie asked Paul, ‘What are we paying him?’ Paul said, ‘Nothing.’ Willie said, ‘Fine. Then double his salary.’ I came aboard and was paid $50 a gig. We drove to gigs in our own cars. I carried Willie’s guitar. Paul carried Willie’s amp. I remember asking Paul how old he was. He said, ‘Forty.’ I was 21. He said, ‘If you’re lucky, you’ll make it to 40.’ Bee [Spears, the bassist] had left to go play with Waylon. I wanted to go play with Waylon. Donnie Brooks was playing harmonica with Waylon. I think because Waylon had a harmonica player that opened up the door [with Willie].
Your first Willie album was a live recording at the
We were playing in
Charlie McCoy was working a lot then, but mainly playing on record. I went back and listened to what he did with Tom T. Hall, Tammy Wynette, Roy Orbison, the old Willie stuff he did for RCA. I thought Charlie blazed the trail on record and I’d play it live.
Does the description sideman sing to you or not?
I like being a sideman. Jokingly, I asked Willie, ‘When do I get to stand in the middle?’
He said, ‘Any time you want.’
Where’s the Mickey Rayfield album? (back when they first met, Coach Royal bubbafied Raphael into Rayfield)
I did a little instrumental record in 1988 with Ben Keith [the pedal steel guitarist best known for his work with Neil Young]. We turned on the tape machine and just played – myself and this keyboard player and Ben. It was kind of a light jazz ethereal deal. I got tons of airplay in LA on The Wave [a New Age music formatted radio station] and was on one of their compilation CDs.
I’ve been in the studio with Tony Scher who’s this wonderful guitar player in
There isn’t a lot of call for a harmonica record by major labels. I’m doing it on my own. I don’t have that much time off to jump on it. I want it to be good. I don’t want it to be a bunch of instrumentals like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”Do you always go with him when he has outside projects?
Willie wouldn’t pick favorites and say that I come and not Jody or Bobbie. It’s usually the producer that asks me to come.
Rodney Crowell got me out to LA when he was playing with Emmylou [Harris]. I ended up playing on four of her albums. I moved to LA because I was getting [outside] work and I wanted a change from
And wherever you want evidently. I hear you record on your laptop in your hotel room.
Somebody will send me a file and I’ll play it on the computer. I did that on Kenny Chesney’s record. I recorded on five tracks; I think they used one. With the computer and Pro Tools, I can do an overdub easy.
What kind of microphone do you use?
I use a Beyer M160 ribbon microphone.
Your tools of the trade?
I use Hohner Marine Band. There’s twelve keys so I have harmonicas for all the keys and with different tunings. I have an Echo Harp which is a double reed harmonica that sounds like an accordion. They’re made in six keys. I have those. Then I have to have backups of everything because they go out of tune all the time. And I have some harps that are customized. Joe Filisko from
What about the front man, does he keep you on your toes, do you know what to expect when you’re playing with him?
I never know what to expect. There’s no set list. I don’t start any of the songs. He’ll start the song. That’s my tip off.
What happens when he pulls out something from 1964 that you’ve never heard (as he did last year at the Fillmore)?
It’s unsaid, but if you don’t know what to play, don’t play. It’s OK to lay out. If you listen to it, you have time to figure it out. If there’s a question, don’t do anything.
Are there songs he’ll pull out that are technically hard to play?
We do some jazz standards that we play in soundcheck that I still struggle with or have to have written out in front of me like “All the Things You Are.”
I like to play “Still Is Still Moving.” That’s always a fun song to play. That really moves.
You involved in any other projects?
I helped edit the four-CD box set Sony Legacy just put out. They gave me a list of 200 songs and I picked 60 out of the 100 they used. I know what Willie likes. I wanted to stay away from the same choices that are on other box sets. I also wrote liners about what it is like to play in the band with Willie.
So what is it like to play with Willie Nelson?
It doesn’t feel like a job. The guy’s crazy but it doesn’t feel like you’re working for a lunatic. All you need up there is Willie and his guitar. All the rest is icing on the cake. The way it’s always worked is, we listen to Willie, and we just play accordingly. You never want to cover him up and you always want to give him room to do what he does so well, which is play and sing. Grady Martin told me and he told Charlie McCoy in the studio: ‘Do not play when the singer is singing. Make sure you don’t cover up the words.’ He gave me the best advice, although he wasn’t very tactful in saying it. One night after a show he goes, ‘Man, smoke a cigarette. Take that damn thing out of your mouth. You play too much.’
What’s the Naked Willie project?
I love the music from the 60s that Willie did [for RCA], the tracks that are heavily covered with strings and voices. One day, Willie was saying, ‘We went in and recorded and I really thought we had a hit. I really liked what we played. Then we’d come back a few days later and they had done the Nashville Sound [over the recordings].’ The tracks had been heavily orchestrated and put backing vocals on it, which is what
So I thought it would be great to go back and see what these tracks sounded like without the heavy strings and backing vocals. Strip it down like they did with Beatles’ Let It Be when they took Phil Spector’s string parts off. I’m hearing some great stuff. Willie’s playing some great guitar. Chet Atkins and Grady Martin are playing great guitar that was covered up on a lot of the tracks. With Willie’s singing you don’t really need a great big choir echoing what he’s doing. Those strings were so overpowering. We took the strings off of ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ [a Bobby Darin-esque swing tune that was Willie’s first Top 10 country single for RCA]. On some tracks, we couldn’t take the strings out completely because there was leakage – the recordings were done on two or three tracks – so what strings you do hear are subtle. It might not be totally naked, but it’s really quiet and it fits.
Are you tempted to add some harmonica?
No. If I did that, I’d use Charlie McCoy.