Happy Birthday, Mickey Raphael
Thanks for the music.
by: Frank Stewart
Mickey Raphael, Joni Mitchell and the late Stephen Bruton shared a birthday — November 7th. This is a picture taken in 1992 at their birthday dinner, in Los Angeles.
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?’
photo: Jack Spence
by: by Holly Gleason
“When I was a toddler about 3 years old I used to play harmonica alongside Mickey in my dad’s family band. He was my teacher. The shows were my lessons. i learned from Mickey how to be a tasteful musician, that less can be more..among so many other things. Even today I see his face in my mind if i feel like what im playing is getting too wanky!
I remember the day Mickey taught me left from right using the numbers on a harmonica. Being 3 years old, i hadn’t known what left and right were until he showed me… I would literally be lost without him.
Thanks, uncle Mickey. I’m still learning from you today.
— Micah Nelson
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.
I swear I’m not selling these shirts! Just so proud to see the love….And every penny that would head Mickey’s way goes to the Southern Poverty Law Center to provide legal aide to fight racial injustices….and nothing is more bad ass than that.”
ShopMidnightRider is selling the shirts.
Here Jamey performs “In Color” live at Farm Aid 30 in Chicago. Are you excited to see him this year? What songs do you hope make his setlist?
Come see Jamey live this year in Virginia!
Buy tickets now:https://www.farmaid.org/concert/tickets/
Willie Nelson fans like me and music lovers everywhere are very grateful for Danny Clinch’s photographs. He released a book of his photographs
On the first time he met Willie Nelson: “It was through [producer] Daniel Lanois. I just happened to be outside when Willie and Emmylou were together for a show, I asked to take a picture, and that was it.” — Danny Clinch
by: Andy Langer
Danny Clinch is in the trust business. Take two accomplished photographers, give ’em the same equipment, access, and time, and the one who’s established the trust of his subject wins every time. Clinch’s reputation, his X factor, is rooted in a calm temperament, the self-awareness to know it’s about them, not him, and an innate ability to read non-verbal cues. As Springsteen suggests, shooting with Clinch isn’t so much a ballet, but a loose, free-flowing conversation — a collaboration. And if you’re Springsteen — or Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, or Neil Young — at this point, you’re only collaborating with people you trust, people who themselves have something to say. And for folks who don’t love the process, Danny Clinch shoots have a habit of not feeling at all like shoots. He’s notoriously spontaneous. He’ll say, “This’ll work.” Or maybe just, “Let’s go see what’s over there?” Watching him work over the years, I’ve seen it happen again and again: Clinch will get what he needs and the response will be “Man, that didn’t feel like a photo shoot. What a great hang. We’re done already?”
Danny Clinch’s best images, collected in the new 296-page coffee-table retrospective Danny Clinch: Still Moving (Abrams Books, out September 23), represent the work of a real documentarian. He has a way of putting himself, and by extension us, in the right place at the right time. Still Moving very effectively tells the story of modern music history. But from Willie Nelson to Tupac, Tony Bennett to Beyonce, his best photos don’t just tell a story, but also tell you something you didn’t know about the subject. Mostly the way they look when they’re not “performing,” when they’re relaxed a little, guard at half-mast, or sometimes, all the way down. “Soul” is an overused word, but damned if that’s not what Danny Clinch has made a name documenting. And because of it, many of Danny Clinch’s pictures have become the images you associate with those musicians when you hear their names. Still Moving is full of those images. We asked Clinch to tell us the stories behind ten of them, which you can see exclusively here:
“I shot the video for ‘You Don’t Know Me.’ Willie doesn’t mind having his photo taken, he just doesn’t like doing photo shoots. If you’re around with a camera, he doesn’t really have a problem with it. But if he has to stand and pose, he doesn’t love that process. It’s why I suspect I get to photograph him so often. They know I’ll hang around and get it without annoying him. At the shoot, we were on the bus and Willie needed to fix his braids a little. I looked down the corridor of the bus, the hallway, to the back of the bus and saw him sitting in his bedroom fixing his braids. I just slid down there really quickly, got the shot, and backed off. If you look closely, you can see Trigger, his guitar, in the corner. And of course, his reflection. And in the back, there’s this leather kind of doctor’s bag that says Spirit on it. It’s great when you look at a photograph and see a little story. To me, this one does that.” — Danny Clinch
See rest of Esquire article, and more pictures and stories about Bruce Springsteen, Tim and Faith McGraw, Black Keys, Grace Potter, and more:
To see and purchase this and other photographs by Danny Clinch
Mickey Raphael‘s playing has been an essential element of the music of Willie Nelson and Family for more than 40 years. He’s also performed alongside some of the biggest names in music and has recorded on sessions for many of them. We talk about his open, organic approach to performing with Willie, his ever-expanding influences, his love road biking when he’s on the road, and the new Highwaymen collection he produced.