As the longtime harmonica player in Willie Nelson's Family band, Mickey Raphael has spent more than three decades on the road again and again with the Red Headed Stranger.
Over the years, he has compiled enough crazy stories to flood the state of Texas. And as it turns out, he has more to talk about than smoking reefer with his boss.
Of course, everyone who talks to Raphael wants to hear a Willie road story, and he obliges that request by relating 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 that night's gig. This prompts Nelson to pull out his American Express card as proof of his identity.
I beat him to the punch line: "Never leave home without it!"
Raphael counters by offering another story. He hasn't told this one in a long time, and he's excited about it. "I was sitting in with [Grateful Dead cofounder] Phil Lesh at Red Rocks," he recalls, "and I was backstage with [Major League Baseball legend] Goose Gossage waiting for my song to come up."
The harmonica virtuoso got distracted chatting with the Yankees great before suddenly realizing it was time for him to play. "I had to run up this ramp to the stage, and I was wearing cowboy boots," he explains. "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."
But Gossage knew exactly what had happened. Raphael had torn his gastrocnemius muscle. "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, Raphael hobbled onto the stage and played a couple of songs. Afterward, he rejoined Gossage, who was waiting for him with a doctor. "They fixed me up."
More 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 backed up is longer than Willie Nelson's braid. He is the most sought-after harp-wielding sidekick this side of the Whiskey River. Did you know he played the harmonica solo on Mötley Crüe's "Smokin' in the Boys Room"? Other noteworthy collaborators include Elton John, Wynton Marsalis, U2, and Neil Young.
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In the early days, Raphael once jokingly asked Nelson when it would be his turn to stand in the center of the stage. "Whenever you want," Nelson replied. But Raphael has never seized that opportunity. Rather, he has hung out 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, his instrument has never gained as much popularity as the electric guitar. "Maybe it's harder to play," he suggests before waving away 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."
Simply, it's doubtful that Nelson will ever end up sitting in the sidecar while rolling with a biker gang toward a Mickey Raphael show. But that's fine with Raphael, who has this to say about being on the road with Willie Nelson after all these years: "It's still fun."