by: Frank Stewart
INTERVIEW: Willie Nelson Family Band Harmonica Player, Mickey Raphael
Just a few weeks ago, the TMO caught up with Texan harmonica player, Mickey Raphael via phone from Raphael’s current home in Nashville. Although Raphael is well known for being a 40-plus year member of Willie Nelson’s Family band, his virtuoso harp playing can also be heard on projects as disparate as recordings from Chris Stapleton, Elton John, U2, and Motley Crew. Please enjoy part 1 of an enlightening conversation where Raphael recalls his early inspirations, Coach Darrell Royal’s introduction to Willie, and how he came so very close to being the Rolling Stones’ opening act in 1973.
TMO: Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Last month, we kicked off the newsletter with an interview with audio engineering legend Rupert Neve, right before his 80th birthday.
Raphael: “Yeah I read that. That was pretty cool. I even use one of his pieces of gear that I take (on the road) with me…I’ve got one of his mic pre’s (pre-amps) that I use.”
TMO: I coincidentally saw one of those online yesterday, and immediately wanted to get one.
Raphael: “Are you a musician?”
TMO: I play bass…and a little drums.
Raphael: “I don’t know how you’d use a pre on bass, but it’s a half-rack space, about 2 inches high, and it’s got 1 channel out, with an A and a B side. So you can mix the 2 signals.
“I use a really nice ribbon mic that I play directly into the PA. I’ll go into the pre, so I have a little more control of the gain, and we just take a direct out of it, and we can actually go out of the pre into an amp, that I may or may not mic on stage. It works well for me. I do a lot of one-offs…like my recent one-offs with Chris Stapleton. So I’ll just fly to the gig with harmonicas and a mic, and a pre, and they just punch me into the PA, and we’re done.”
TMO: That’s nice. That’s convenient. All of Neve’s stuff sounds amazing too.
Raphael: “Yeah…I think so.” (Then jokingly) “Oh…I thought it was me who sounded amazing. OK.”
TMO: (laughs) Well, you know…it’s likely the combination.
Let’s start off by going backwards. I tried to do some research, and saw that you came up in the Dallas area. And I thought it was fascinating that in your bio, you mention that one of your initial inspirations was harmonica player Don Brooks. And so we were just curious how you met him? And was harmonica your first instrument?
Raphael: “As a teenager, I loved music, and I wanted to play guitar, but I wasn’t any good. And I would go to this little folk club called the Rybaiyat on the weekends when I was barely old enough to drive.
“And hanging out there on weekends, and going to see the different players there, I was going there as much as I could. I met Donny. And he kinda sat down with me. He was the first real harmonica player I’d ever met. And he showed me how to play a diatonic scale, just the pattern that denotes the fifth…and how to work my way around the harmonica to makes some sense out of the thing.
“And then I would just play by myself all the time. But he was the first guy that sat me down and showed me the little combinations. You know, it’s like playing a lick. If you had this lick, and you could play it in every key just by sliding up the neck. The lick is the same in the key of C or the key of G…you just switch harps…”
TMO: Kinda like an open tuning, playing with a slide.
TMO: Was the Rubyiat in Dallas proper?
Raphael: “Yes. It was in Dallas. The first (location) was on McKinney. It was just a tiny little club. It has a little stage, and about 2 rows of chairs. And I don’t know how many people it sat. That’s where I met Guy Clark. I was probably 19.”
TMO: Wow. That’s crazy. It sounds like it wasn’t long after that you met Willie Nelson, introduced by University of Texas at Austin football coach Darrell Royal. And you do talk a little bit about it in your website’s bio, and I’m sure you’ve talked about it in previous interviews, but for our audience, could you talk about this almost mythic story of how you met Willie? And how you were introduced by Coach Royal at a party?
Raphael: “At that time, I don’t think I was 21 yet, but I was playing withBW Stephenson, who was from Dallas. So that was my gig. He had a record deal on RCA, we were traveling, going down and playing the folk music clubs in Austin: Soap Creek. Saxon Pub. We had a presence in Austin, even though we traveled all over the country. So we played in Austin and the Coach was such a fan of music and a patron of the arts, I imagine that’s where he (first) heard me play.
“So I get a call. I was trying to think of this yesterday. I don’t remember if it was from Darrell or Edith Royal. Or Merlin Littlefield, who was a friend of theirs who worked at RCA at the time. And they said, ‘Coach Royal is in town for a ball game. And he’s having a pickin’ party after the game. He’d like for you to come over. Bring some harmonicas; he’d like to meet you…you know, hang out, and just jam with his friends.’
“And so I said, ‘Cool.’ I wasn’t a big football fan. Being a musician, I was a terrible athlete. Of course I knew who he was, but I wasn’t such a big football fan. I wasn’t planning on going to the game, in other words. But I had the utmost respect for him.
“So I went over there (to the Royal’s party). Willie was there. I knew very little about country music. I did actually have one Willie record, because we were on RCA, with BW. And I’d gone through their vault, with all their records, and I found this album of Willie’s called ‘Willie and Family.’ And the cover was just so unique that I thought, ‘I gotta take this,’ and find out who this guy was. It was just Willie and the band, and all their families, standing around a bonfire at Willie’s farm in Ridgetop. And it was just such a weird album cover. So I kinda knew a little bit who he was.”
TMO: By the way, TMO Director Brendon Anthony just pulled up the album cover and it’s almost mystical looking. I can see how that piqued your interest.
Raphael: “Yeah, you can even see Bee Spears, our bass player. And if you look at the guy, he’s wearing black socks and what looks like a fuzzy jockstrap. I mean, I don’t know what it is. It’s a collar wrapped around him and he’s not wearing any pants. And then there’s one guy that just walked in out of the woods! They didn’t even know who he was! Just probably showed up there. Really go through that album cover and look at it. It’s like, ‘who are all these people? We never could figure out who this one guy was.’ It’s like, ‘What the Hell?’