Harmonica Legends – Mickey Raphael
Mickey Raphael born Dallas Texas November 7th 1951 has played Harmonica with Willie Nelson’s Bands since 1973. His name and his signature harmonica style are in albums and songs all over America. Once you’ve heard a few notes from Mickey you’II always recognize his playing.
Willie, in his auto-biography, recalls how Mickey got started with him. “He was sitting outside the recording studio waiting for me and told me he was our new harmonica player. I just said, ‘Follow us, kid.’
In a few years Mickey was a star, dating Ali McGraw and living on the beach in Malibu.”
Now Mickey Raphael is an integral part of Willie Nelson’s sound, and was a major contributor to many of those great Willie hits in the 70’s and 80’s.
He also played on a big Rock Hit on the far side of the musical spectrum.
Mötley Crüe’s ‘Smokin’ In The Boys Room’ became a huge Heavy Metal Hit in 1985. In the liner notes, the musician credits are Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Lead vocalist Vince Neal gets the credit for the knockout harmonica solo that lights up “Smokin’ In The Boys Room.” But that isn’t who played it.
“Yeah, that was me” Raphael confirmed, Vince Neil played just one harmonica note on the last note of the song, and was credited for the harmonica playing. The liner notes say, ‘Additional harmonica by Mickey Raphael.’ Neil even won an award that year for ‘Best Heavy Metal Instrumentalist.’”
Luckily, history has been kind to Mickey, Wikipedia and other places have given proper credit to him for his contribution to the song.
He uses a Beyer M160 ribbon microphone.
His Harps are Hohner Marine Band. There’s twelve keys so he has harmonicas for all of them and several with different tunings Mickey also uses Echo Harps which are double-reed harmonicas that sound like accordions. They’re made in six keys and he has them all. Then he has backups because all his harps can all go out of tune at anytime. Joe Filisko from Joliet, Illinois and Jimmy Gordon out of Vermont both customize Marine Bands for him. The body of the harp is like a composite material. The reeds are hand-tuned and set by hand. He says it’s like having a master craftsman take apart a stock harmonica and put it back together. They sound better, play better and they’re a lot more responsive. His microphone is a Beyer M160 Ribbon, it’s mostly hand-held.
Here’s Georgia with a perfect and stunning take on how to back a singer. My favourite Mickey and Willie track! A great example of light and shade…
Heartbreak Hotel follows, hot and upbeat, great guitar and harp!
You can enjoy a few more examples of Mickey’s playing if you’ve got Spotify.
Here’s a part of an interview with Sun Herald journalist Jeff Clark.
‘Man, I’m still trying to gel with him. It’s a challenge because it kind of goes against everything you know. His style is so unique to him so you have to really pay attention.
I’ve had to learn to listen, what to listen for and to really pay attention.
It’s better that you don’t play if you’re not sure than to fill in a hole and play something that might not be appropriate.
Willie’s whole theory is ‘less is more,’ so we just try to keep it really simple.
There’s no set list. It’s all just his memory and whatever he feels like doing.
Mickey’s Video Website has more of his tracks.
Stories about Mickey are plentiful, playing for The Hell’s Angels [ we’ve got that in common ] and a huge variety of famous musical celebrities. In Mickey’s teenage years Dallas was a hotbed of famous performers along with many others on their way up the showbiz ladder.
The Beach Boys, Dylan, Sonny Terry, Jerry Jeff Walker and Pete Seeger were early influences. The Harmonica’s secrets were revealed to him by a superb harp player called Donnie Brooks. Canned Heat’s music made a big impact and Mickey found he could copy one of ‘Blind Al’ Wilson’s licks. It was his turning point.
He also listened to, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite and my [ Max’s ] old friend Corky Siegel from the Siegel-Schwall Band but says that his two biggest influences were Blues Harmonica Genius Paul Butterfield and Soul Saxophonist King Curtis.
Live concerts were everywhere, Jimmy Reed. Paul Butterfield and more.
He discovered a local Recording Studio and talked himself into heaps of session work. He recorded with Boxcar Willie, getting paid five dollars a song. They did a lot. He honed his recording techniques to a professional level there.
Mickey moved around various clubs and bars catching Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jerry Jeff Walker, played with Michael Murphey and saw a lot of Country Harper Charlie McCoy.
His biggest lesson came at this point of his career. He learnt to LISTEN. That is, to the singer, the band, the lyrics and most importantly, to leave space!
He started to tour the country with various artists and made some early recordings.
Then Willie Nelson came into his life.
He remembers, ‘I saw that Willie and a few of his friends were playing a benefit for the volunteer fire department at a high school in Lancaster, south of Dallas. I sat in with them even though I was totally lost. I didn’t know these songs. But I fitted in because there was a big hole, the pedal steel guitarist had just left so there was room. Willie was the only guitar player. He would give me a solo now and then. I was just hanging in for dear life because I didn’t know the songs and even if I did, it wouldn’t have made any difference because Willie was playing the songs like Willie does. All the rules were broken. Anything I had studied about how to follow a song were out the window because Willie made up his own rules. Willie was jazz, like playing with Miles Davis.
Willie wasn’t that successful yet. He was still playing beer joints. Jerry Jeff was probably the biggest drawn. Willie was a little left of centre. He was an old guy, 39.
He’d been playing three months with him when Willie asked his drummer, ‘What are we paying him?’ the answer, ‘Nothing.’ Willie said, ‘Fine. Then double his salary.’ I came aboard and was paid $50 a gig. I wanted to go and play with Waylon Jennings. Donnie Brooks was playing Harmonica with Waylon. I think that because Waylon had a harmonica player it opened up the door for me with Willie.
Mickey continues, ‘we were playing in Dallas, doing four-hour sets because the crowds were getting so wild, it was safer to stay on stage. Willie said, ‘I’ve written this album called The Red Headed Stranger.‘ They recorded it at Mickey’s original Dallas studio in one or two days. He would play a song, we’d listen to it, then play along with it. There wasn’t a lot of preparation. He had it written out on a piece of paper, it was so simple. That’s the way Willie heard the songs. It was a concept record where all the songs tied together and told a story. This was a new approach. I thought it was pretty cool because it was so sparse. At that point, I felt like a contributing member Ð Jody was in the band, Bobbie Nelson was playing piano, Bee Speers came back from Waylon, plus Paul English drums. Willie never said anything to me except when not to play.
Charlie McCoy was working a lot then, but mainly playing on record. I went back and listened to what he did with Tom T. Hall, Tammy Wynette, Roy Orbison, the old stuff Willie did for RCA.
I like’d being a sideman.
Rodney Crowell got me out to LA when he was playing with Emmylou Harris. I ended up playing on four of her albums. Then I moved to LA because I was getting outside work and I wanted a change from Austin. We’d get back to Austin from touring and it was like the tour never ended. It was so wild and I needed a break. I wanted to know the difference between touring and home. I liked playing live but I enjoyed working in the studio with other people. I loved doing ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’ with Emmylou.
I’ll get a call every now and then to play a session and think, ‘I don’t hear any harmonica on this.’ I’ll ask what they want me to do and the producer will say, ‘Just do whatever you want to do.’
Mickey sometimes records on a laptop in his hotel rooms.
‘Somebody sends me a file and I play it on the computer. I did that on Kenny Chesney’s record. With the computer and Pro Tools, I can do an overdub easy’.
We do some jazz standards that we play in soundcheck that I still struggle with or have to have written out in front of me like ‘All the Things You Are.’ [ Max’s note -It has several key changes in it and would need two, three or more harps to get through…]
I like to play “Still Is Still Moving.” That’s always a fun song to play. That really moves.