by: Linda Sickler
IF YOU GO
What: Willie Nelson & Family
When: 7 p.m. March 1
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
For the past 40 years, Mickey Raphael has had a dream job as Willie Nelson’s harmonica player. When Nelson comes to Savannah on March 1, Raphael will be there to back him up. “I’ve worked with Willie since 1973,” he says. “I always wanted to be a musician.”
A native of Texas, Raphael was a teenager when he discovered the Dallas folk music scene. His mentor was legendary harmonica great Don Brooks, whom Raphael found playing in a Dallas coffeehouse.
“I first heard Don Brooks when I was 15,” he says. “He went on to play with Waylon.”
After a show one night, Brooks showed Raphael a little lick that went all the way up and down the harmonica. That little pattern changed Raphael’s life on the spot.
Eventually, he joined singer B.W. Stevenson’s band. In 1973, the band was playing a University of Texas post-game party that was hosted by football coach Darrell Royal in a Dallas hotel room.
“It was after a bowl game,” Raphael says. “The coach was a big country music fan, He was a close friend of Willie Nelson and asked him to bring his band.”
Also in attendance was up-and-coming country singer Charley Pride, who took turns with Nelson to play the guitar and sing. Raphael played harmonica with Nelson, who invited him to come sit in with him at a gig sometime.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Raphael says. “I wasn’t a country player.”
A folk blues player, Raphael just wanted to join a country band so he could ride around in a bus.
But when Nelson played a fireman’s benefit in a high school gym, Raphael took him up on the offer. That led to another offer, this time to go with Nelson’s band to a gig in New York.
Soon Raphael had moved from Dallas to Austin, which was Nelson’s home base. Never a country fan himself, he began learning all he could about country music.
“I really became a fan instantly,” Raphael says. “Willie would say, ‘Come sit in with us,’ and I’d go. He would play these redneck places.”
Nelson is one of the nicest people alive, Raphael says.
“He is the best. He’s the same now as when I first met him.”
As the years have gone by, the hole in Nelson’s guitar has gotten bigger, Raphael says.
“When I first went in the band, that hole might have been as big as a dime,” Raphael says. “Now it’s big enough for a semi to drive through it.”
Among Raphael’s musical influences are blues great Paul Butterfield and rhythm and blues saxophonist King Curtis. Charlie McCoy was the first country music harmonica player Raphael listened to.
Joining the Willie Nelson Family required Raphael to improve his playing.
“We’ve all grown as musicians,” he says. “Willie has stayed true to himself. He keeps writing songs and doing songs of other entertainers he likes. He does exactly what he wants to do.”
In addition to Nelson, Raphael has also played with the likes of Elton John, U2, Motley Crue, Vince Gill, Emmy Lou Harris, The Mavericks, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Neil Young over the years.
In 1988, Raphael released his first solo album, “Hand to Mouth.” It proved so popular, it was re-released in 2000.
“We have the most beautiful audiences in the world,” Raphael says. “I do enjoy performing. I enjoy recording, but you have to do it right because it’s always out there.”
The Willie Nelson Family has played the White House several times, Raphael says. On Feb. 6, the band played a benefit gala for Bob Dylan, who was honored as the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year.
“It raised $7 million,” Raphael says. “Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Neil Young and lots of others all played the benefit.”
When told Dylan also was coming to play Savannah, Raphael remembered the time Nelson and Dylan performed together in Savannah in 2005 at Grayson Stadium.
“Dylan is great,” he says. “I love Bob Dylan.”
Raphael also loves Savannah.
“I’m looking forward to coming back,” he says. “We always have a great time in Savannah.”
The audience will have a great time, too, Raphael says.
“It’s Willie’s show,” he says. “We do all the hits.
“We don’t have a set play list,” Raphael says. “We just play what he’s playing.”