This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 10, 2008 - At some point in his concert at the Fox on June 14, Willie Nelson will be winding up a riff on his beat-up guitar and he’ll say, “Let me hear it, Mickey.”
The next notes will be plaintive and passionate, cutting sharply through the softer guitar chords. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica will give a different voice to the blues, accent the exuberance of the country rock and tug at your heart in “Georgia on my Mind.”
Mickey Raphael is probably the first person you notice after you shift your focus off Willie. He’s tall and lanky, with curly dark hair and an air of enjoying himself on stage.
As a teen, Raphael was interested in folk music and got to know the legendary Don Brooks.
“Meeting my mentor Don Brooks sealed the deal as far as me wanting to play the harmonica,” Raphael said. “I never thought I would make a living at it but was willing to give it a shot. At first, I wanted to follow in his (Brooks’) footsteps and play with Waylon (Jennings). I got a chance for one summer in 1974. Waylon was fun to play with and a real inspiration.
“In retrospect I’m glad it didn't work out.”
He’s been part of Willie and Family for more than three decades. And yes, he said, it “is very much a family. Bobbie, Willie’s sister, plays piano; sons Lucas and Micha tour some of the summer with us; and the rest of the band has been with him longer than any of their wives.”
Part of the Willie Nelson legend is that he plays and sings with anyone from Julio Iglesias to Toots Hibbert to Bob Dylan.
“Folk music was my first musical influence. Dylan was responsible for that. His harmonica playing was so unique, and I have been influenced by him throughout my career,” Raphael said. “Several years ago we toured with Bob, and watching and listening to him play every night was enlightening and inspiring.”
What about another harmonica player who has played with Willie a lot? “I only wish I was half as good a harmonica player as Kris Kristofferson is as writer,” said Raphael.
The show at the Fox is the second in the American leg of this year’s tour. It kicks off May 13 at Bonnaroo, a camping musical festival in Manchester, TN.
Apart from touring, Raphael has been in the studio working on “producing some re-mixes for a Willie project. It's going to be called Naked Willie,” said Raphael. “What I did was take some of Willie's favorite recordings from the '60s, the ones with the lush orchestration and background vocals and re-mixed them without all the strings and horns and background voices.”
The songs were from albums Willie did for RCA between 1966 and ’70 and include such classics as “I’m a Memory.” They were produced by Chet Atkins, one of the originators of the Nashville sound, with lush arrangements and backup vocals.
“What you get” in Naked Willie, Raphael said, “is great performances from Willie and the very best studio musicians in a stripped-down, very basic version. Like if he were to record those songs today, producing it himself.
If you go to Raphael’s website, you’ll find he has a CD of his own, “Hand to Mouth.” Would he do another? “Maybe." And you’ll see a list of musical superstars who he’s played with.
“I have been very fortunate to play with Willie and the band for 35 years, as well as with a diverse group of artists, from U2, Motley Crue, Elton John, Wynton Marsalis to Snoop Dogg,” Raphael said.
So who’s left?
“I enjoy playing with anyone who makes me stretch my limitations as a musician. If I were to start over today I would probably do the same thing I’m doing. Not be stuck in any one genre but to try and be as expressive as I can and learn to listen.”
And the next time you go to a Willie Nelson concert or put on a CD, listen for the perfect pitch of a lone harmonica.