- Jack Spencer / provided
- Mickey Raphael
Willie Nelsons music is distinctive, to say the least. Shotgun Willies voice and Trigger, Willies guitar, cannot be imitated. An integral part of The Family, as Willies band is known, is the sound of Mickey Raphaels harmonica.
He has been a member of Willies touring band and recordings since the early 1970s, and Midnight Rider, Georgia on My Mind, Blue Skies and City of New Orleans are only a few that have his stamp on them.
Raphael has also recorded and become family to multiple country and rock hit-makers over the years: Oklahomas own Leon Russell, Emmylou Harris and multiple generations of country royalty, including Johnny and Rosanne Cash, Waylon and Shooter Jennings and Willies sons Lukas and Micah.
He also has made many guest appearances over the decades, including Motley Crües Smokin in the Boys Room, Don Johnsons Heartbeat album and even Snoop Doggs Superman. In fact, Raphael said hes a big fan of hip-hops primary weed advocate, but he pointed out a big difference between two of the music industrys major marijuana standard-bearers.
Willie can smoke you under the table, Raphael said. I saw that in Amsterdam. Thats marathon stuff. It would kill a normal human being.
Raphaels interest in the harmonica began as a teenager in the Dallas area around the late 60s and early 70s.
I just loved the tone, he said. I just loved the way it sounded.
An early influence during this time was Donnie Brooks, who eventually played alongside Waylon Jennings. But an A&R rep or band manager didnt discover Raphael. Country music connoisseur and University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal did.
[Royal] called me up and left a message with my folks house in Dallas and said [the Longhorns] were in town for a ball game, Royal said. I want to meet you. Why dont you come over and bring your harmonicas and meet some of my friends? Well just have a little jam session.
Barrier-breaking country legend Charley Pride happened to be at that little jam session, as was a Nashville songwriter named Willie Nelson, who had recently moved back to the Lone Star State in order to find himself as an artist. In 1973, at age 21, Raphael made enough of an impression on Willie that he was asked to play a few Texas gigs and the Maxs Kansas City venue in New York City.
It was pretty rough, Raphael said about the early days. We didnt have a bus. We traveled with our own cars sometimes. [Nelson] was just touring around Texas. It wasnt like we really had far to go. It was pretty exciting. We were playing a lot of club dates.
Willie made a name for himself in Texas, but the outlaw country sound wasnt yet a worldwide phenomenon. One particular studio session changed that forever.
[Nelson] just shows up at the studio and said Ive got an idea for a record, Raphael told Oklahoma Gazette. Were hearing the songs for the first time as were recording them. It was very simple, very basic we were sitting there listening to it while the tape was rolling. There were no extravagant arrangements or anything.
The record, Red Headed Stranger, was Raphaels first recording with Nelson. The label executives didnt understand it, Raphael said, but Nelson knew what he wanted.
It was so simple; [executives] were wanting something a little more extravagant, Raphael said. This is such a nice demo; why dont you put strings on it? kind of stuff like that. Willie said, No. This is what you get. This is the record.
Since then, Raphael has been in demand as a session player and producer. Raphael said recording time is rather short compared to being on the road. Last years session time included work with Chris Stapleton. In 1987, Raphael released a solo album, Hand to Mouth, which was re-released in 2000.
A studio session takes a few hours and no more than a day for the record I play on, he said. My parts are done in a couple of sessions six hours, something like that. The bulk of my work is on the road with Willie.
Raphael added he doesnt know how many times a year hes asked to record; he just shows up and plays his best.
I try not to leave the studio until Im happy with [it], Raphael said. I make sure that everything is cool.
When Nelson, Raphael and the rest of The Family roll across the Oklahoma/Texas border to perform a sold-out show 9 p.m. Friday at WinStar World Casino and Resort, Raphael said there will not be a set list. There never is.
You never know whats going to happen, Raphael said. You can be guaranteed a good show. Every show is unique; were just following him. Its not planned out in advance.
- James Minchin / provided
- Willie Nelson
Print headline: Harmonica heaven, For decades, Mickey Raphael has been an integral part of Willie Nelsons sound.