Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson's Harmonica-Playing Sidekick, Talks Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, and the Dead
Mickey Raphael has spent more than three decades out on the road (ahem... again and again) with Willie Nelson as the harmonica player in the Family band. He and the whole Nelson crew are coming to Broward Center for the Performing Arts for a stoner hoedown.
Raphael is one of the most recognizable and well-respected "sidekicks" since the Sundance Kid. Over the years, he's compiled enough crazy stories to flood Texas. As it turns out, he has more to talk about than smoking reefer with the Red Headed Stranger. There are also, of course, plenty of tales of that sort too.
Since just about everyone who speaks with him would like to hear a Willie road story, Raphael is in the routine of obliging that request by offering up a somewhat mechanical rendition of his go-to tale. He and Nelson hitch a ride up the California coast with the Hells Angels, only to be denied access to the gig. This prompts Nelson to pull out his American Express card to prove his identity.
We beat him to the punch line: "Never leave home without it!" He counters that maneuver by offering to tell another one. "Yes, please!" We say, "Do you have any that involve the Grateful Dead?" He'll see your Grateful Dead and raise you a Hall of Fame pitcher. He hasn't told this story in a while and is excited when it flashes in his memory.
"I was sitting in with Phil Lesh at Red Rocks, and I was backstage with Goose Gossage waiting for my song to come up," the story begins. He got distracted chatting with the Yankee great and suddenly realized that it was time for him to play, and he needed to get in position in a hurry. "I had to run up this ramp to the stage, and I was wearing cowboy boots," he continues. "As soon as I hit the ramp, in a dead run, I heard this 'pop.' I thought it was a gunshot. I thought I had been shot in the calf."
Gossage knew exactly what had happened. Raphael had torn his gastrocnemius. "I'm not sure what the gastrocnemius is. It's not the Achilles, but it's another part of your lower leg that you don't want to tear." Though freaked out, he hobbled onto stage and played a couple of songs. Afterward, he rejoined Gossage backstage, who was waiting for him with a doctor. "They fixed me up," Raphael says.
Wait, where the heck did Goose Gossage come from? "He's a big fan of the band," Raphael says. "He's pitched for us before. We had a band team, and we played a bunch of dealers up in Lake Tahoe." Dealers? "Car dealers," he clarifies. Talking about Willie's band, you never know. Raphael agrees with that statement.
Recently, Raphael was hanging around another American great, Paul Simon, who asked the harmonica player to join him onstage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for a couple of tunes. The list of musicians whom Raphael has played with is as long as Willie Nelson's old braid. He is the most-sought-after harp-wielding sidekick this side of the Whiskey River. Did you know that he played the harmonica solo on Mötley Crüe's "Smokin' in the Boy's Room"? Other noteworthy collaborators include Elton John, Wynton Marsalis, U2, and Neil Young.
In addition to being a sit-in and sidekick extraordinaire, Raphael is currently working on his own project, for which he has linked up with some quality accompaniment himself. Last year, he began work on a record with indie-country outfit Calexico. Since the initial session during which they laid down the foundations for a handful of songs, Raphael has been carrying around the files on a hard drive and, using Pro Tools, collecting contributions from musicians he comes across on the road. One recent contributor was Miles Davis Band vet Bill Evans. Not the late-legendary jazz pianist but a cat who played sax with Davis in the 1980s. Still pretty cool.
Raphael counts Davis as a big influence, as well as several other horn players and a long list of harmonica greats. "Miles Davis always stressed that what was important was the space between the notes. Willie too is a big proponent of 'Less is more.' "
This Zen approach to playing is indicative of Raphael's mindset as a musician generally. In the early days, he once jokingly asked Nelson when it would be his turn to stand in the center of the stage. "Whenever you want," Nelson responded. He's never taken Nelson up on that offer. Rather, he has hung on the side, humbly doing his part to make the sound of the Family band as sweetly recognizable as Nelson's nasally croon.
"I'm happy in that situation," he says. "I like complementing another artist." That's typically the role of the harmonica player, he acknowledges. For whatever reason, the harmonica has never gained as much popularity in this culture or any other as, say, the electric guitar. "Maybe it's a harder instrument to play," he suggests at first, before dissolving any hint of arrogance. "I don't know, maybe that's not the reason. I don't know why it's less popular, but it is, and I'll just have to live with it."
Though he doesn't foresee Nelson incorporating any of his originals into the Willie show repertoire, Raphael is likely to turn the tables and ask Nelson to provide accompaniment on the record. The songs are deeply rhythmic and have a Spanish feel to them, he says. Nelson's guitar stylings ought to lend nicely to that sound. Whether that will lead to Willie Nelson sitting in the sidecar as the duo rolls with a biker gang toward a Mickey Raphael show is doubtful. That's fine with Raphael, who has this to say about still being on the road with Willie Nelson: "Yeah, it's still fun."
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