HUNTSVILLE, AL. – Darrell Royal, the Texas Longhorns’ winningest football coach, is surely proud.
He’s got to be proud about this year’s football team even though the ‘Horns finished second to Alabama in the BCS title game.
But he must also feel good about another special recruit – actually, the only guy he recruited in the 1960s and ’70s who’s still playing.
His name? Mickey Raphael.
His position? Harmonica in the Willie Nelson Band.
Royal, one of legendary Alabama Coach Bear Bryant’s biggest rivals back in the ’70s, recruited a lot of great football players, but he also found a great harmonica player for Nelson’s band 36 years ago. Raphael will be performing Tuesday night when Willie Nelson and his band play at the Von Braun Center.
“I’m not an athlete and not really a sports fan, but Darrell was such a patron of the arts and loved music and musicians,” Raphael said during a phone interview from Baton Rouge, where he was performing with Nelson. “In fact, he recruited me for Willie’s band.
“He (Royal) had a great ear for music and musicians. If somebody was singing, he would say, ‘Shush.’ He’d make you be quiet or leave the room.”
Raphael was born and raised in Texas and fell in love with the harmonica after seeing harmonica great Don Brooks at a Dallas coffeehouse. Brooks even gave him some pointers, and soon Raphael was playing with B.W. Stevenson (who sang “My Maria”).
Royal was a fan of Raphael’s harp, and when he found out the musician was going to be in Dallas, asked him to a post-game party in a Dallas hotel in 1973. Royal told him there would be about 30 people there, including Nelson and country legend Charlie Pride.
“I had met Charlie before,” Raphael said. “I had only heard one of Willie’s albums, but it piqued my interest.”
Nelson and Pride took turns passing the guitar around and singing in an informal jam, and Raphael jumped in from time to time with his harmonica. He was amazed when he heard Nelson in person.
“Willie’s music isn’t just simple country songs; there’s more substance,” Raphael said. “I was in awe the whole time. Willie told me afterward to come sit in with the band anytime.”
Raphael watched where Nelson was playing, and a few months later joined him for a firemen’s benefit at a local gym near Dallas. That night, he had a late breakfast at a truck stop with Nelson and was just about ready to leave when he decided to have one more cup of coffee.
That’s when Raphael got his big break.
“Willie said, ‘Why don’t you come to New York with me in a couple of months? We’re going to play Max’s Kansas City,'” Raphael remembered. “So I went up there and played with Willie.
“Of course, you have to be a good musician to get in the door, but there are lot of great musicians out there. You have to be at the right place at the right time.”
Raphael said he’s enjoyed his career with Nelson. He released a solo project in 1988, “Hand to Mouth,” that was re-released in 2000. Last year, he and Nelson released “Naked Willie,” a collection of songs Nelson recorded between 1966 and ’70 that Raphael helped “un-produce” and give a new sound. He’s also the only member of the band who plays on Nelson’s upcoming release, an old-country style album.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Raphael said of his career with Nelson. “I take none of it for granted. Willie is a great musician, and it’s different every night.”
photo: Danny Clinch