Willie Nelson is known for his distinctive voice, the tone of his rugged Martin guitar named Trigger, and for the harmonica played by that tall lanky guy who imbues his sound with a timeless, rootsy quality.
The man playing that harmonica is Mickey Raphael, the Family Band stalwart who has stood to Willie’s left for 35 years. He remains by his side even when Willie solos with orchestras or joins other musical ensembles, such as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ quartet.
If Mickey’s not there, it’s not Willie. While he has recorded outside the Willie Nelson orbit, including several albums with Emmylou Harris and most recently with Kenny Chesney, Mickey’s harmonica is joined at the hip with his boss.
NO DEPRESSION: When did you start playing harmonica?
MICKEY RAPHAEL: My dad’s lawyer played washtub bass in a little jug band and he gave me a harmonica when I was a kid. Every kid has a harmonica. I grew up in Dallas. I was a terrible guitar player, but I loved music. I played a little guitar in junior high. The folk scene was happening and the Beach Boys and the heavy stuff. I was really into Dylan, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, the acoustic blues guys, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
I wanted to be a guitar player but just was not any good. I heard a guy play harmonica named Donnie Brooks at a tiny little coffeehouse called the Rubaiyat where I used to hang out. Michael Murphey played there, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark. Donnie Brooks was playing with Johnny Vandiver [a Houston folkie later murdered in a drug deal gone bad].
When I heard Donnie Brooks, he just blew me away. I started to take this thing a little more seriously. I carried a harmonica with me wherever I went; I was always playing and listening to other harmonica players, blues records. And I had gone to a Canned Heat concert and was so inspired that I got home, was doodling around on my harmonica, and was able to reproduce a lick that I heard “Blind” Al Wilson play.
I thought, “Wait. There’s a pattern here. There is a method to the madness. I’d played a blues lick that I had heard in my mind. This is starting to make sense.” That night I had an epiphany.
ND: What were you listening to?
MR: Acoustic blues. Sonny Terry, John Hammond Jr., James Cotton, Musselwhite. I think the first album I bought was the Siegel-Schwall Band. That folk scene because it was obtainable at the Rubaiyat, the music I was able to see live. Jimmy Reed. [Paul] Butterfield. I was committed to the harmonica at this point.
I got with Donnie Brooks on the steps out in front of the Rubaiyat, and he showed me how to play the diatonic scale starting at the low end of the harmonica and how the pattern worked, how you play all the way to the top, how the notes work. It was just a little pattern, like Draw hole number one, Blow two and three, Draw three and four. It’s just a pattern, how the notes worked. It was my job to put those notes together.
ND: Did you hear music on records or live?
MR: Mostly records. I was still in school at the time. I’d go down to the Rubaiyat when I first got my driver’s license when I was junior in high school. By high school I was hanging around Sumet-Bernet Recording Studio and got some session work. There was an engineer there named Phil York and he’d let me know when there was work.
Ed Bernet, one of the owners of the studio, owned a club called the Levee and the music director at the club was Smokey Montgomery, the banjo player from the Light Crust Doughboys. Smokey and the Levee band would do these demos, these country packages. One of their clients was Boxcar Willie. He would come in there with 30 songs. They paid me five bucks a song. We’d do as many as we could. I learned my recording chops from doing demos there.
ND: Since Dallas was the world capital of radio jingles, did you do any jingle work in the studio?
MR: I’d get a call every once in awhile from Euell Box, who did commercials. The music would be written out. He would have a string section. His wife would take me into another room and play the part for me on the piano. Then we’d go and record.
ND: Were you playing with anyone live?
MR: When I went to El Centro Community College I played with a guy named Mike Ames. He played flatpick guitar in the style of Doc Watson; I played harmonica. We played the split shift at the Cellar [a notorious after-hours beatnik club where Stevie Vaughan and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top earned their spurs] from 8 to 8:30 and 4 to 4:30. He wrote some, he did a couple of originals, we did “Deep River Blues”, Michael Murphey songs, Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker.
I’d go to the Rubaiyat and sit in with Michael Murphey, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard. My playing wasn’t very refined. I was listening to Donnie Brooks, who was playing on Jerry Jeff’s record, and to Charlie McCoy. Then Donnie went to New York and was playing with Judy Collins. Murphey would bring me up from out of the audience to play a song or two.
After that, in 1971 I got with B.W. Stevenson [a larger-than-life figure with a larger-than-life voice]. We played the same circuit, restaurant bars around Dallas, sports bars, and were loud. I remember playing these ballads and B.W. would get mad at the audience and tell them to “Shut up.” They were not wanting to listen. We learned the hard way you can’t argue with the audience.