Friday, March 15, 2013

10 Harmonica Greats who make Bob Dylan look like a clown (part 2 of 10)

It must have been more than a year ago when I set out to write about ten of my very favorite harmonica players in an effort to show the misinformed that Bob Dylan has the harmonica aptitude of an asthmatic 8 year old with ADHD. In short, he doesn't actually play, he makes the noises which would be emitted if you jammed a harmonica into the mouth of a heavy smoker having sex. His playing has the musical quality of a cat getting stabbed. At best his playing is OK. If you think different, you would be wrong. Dead wrong. Anyway, without further ado I better get started with Mickey Raphael or this will turn into the ravings of a future homeless man...

 [Full Disclosure: Mickey says here that he is a huge fan of Dylan's harmonica playing, so I guess you could say that makes me look like an idiot, but... it's actually him that is wrong in this case...and Willie has great weed, so maybe he was high.]

He actually looks like my dad at the same age. Of course my dad probably did not have that bitchin' shirt!

Mickey Raphael. The first time I heard him play was on Willie Nelson's classic 1975 album, Redheaded Stranger. I bought it at age 19 because I had decided to learn country harmonica.Since I didn't know what I was doing I picked up a book by John Gondick about beginning country and blues harmonica. It had various lessons which I started working on. At the back of the book though was a treasure trove in the pre-internet (and for me pre-knowing how to play guitar) days. Gondick had taken a bunch of classic albums and listed the tracks along with the keys of the songs so you could play along! The Red Headed Stranger was among them. The album floored me. Both as a song cycle and with the sparse musical production combined with the feeling and virtuosity with which the instruments were played.

One thing I can tell you about Mickeys playing is that he has impeccable tone. He can make a harp rise and swell like a violin. Not only that but he can chop his chords and make it sound like a damn mandolin. The guy is amazing. What would have really blown my mind had I known (and possibly inspired me to quit playing) was that he had been jamming with Willie since the age of 22! They cut The Stranger he was only 24! Well at 19 I was locking myself in various rooms and playing those songs too, and it was killing me! Mickey could make a harmonica sound just like an accordion, and I could not figure it out! I worked on my chords until I could get them as smooth as I could manage, but still the sound eluded me! It wasn't until years later that I figured out that he was playing a tremolo harmonica to get that sound...well enough about my struggles!

Mickey started playing harmonica in Dallas during his teenage years. He had tried with guitar but could never quiet seem to get his fingers working the way he needed them to. So he made the fateful switch. In the early days (high school?) he played in the Dallas folk scene wherever there was a jam. Eventually he joined BW Stevenson's band, though when old BW got into the cocaine too hard Mickey Jumped ship. Luckily, the University of Texas' football coach Darrel Royal had somehow become a huge fan of his. One night in 1973 he invited Mickey to a hotel party and told him to bring his harps. Willie and Charlie Pride were both there. After they had jammed all night Willie invited Mickey to play with him sometime, which he did.

At the time, Willie Nelson was playing in Austin Texas in a duo that consisted of himself and Paul English his longtime drummer. Now what you should know is that not only was Paul English a former Dallas thug, but he was playing all the shows wearing a cape and sporting a sinister goatee. Legendary songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker stated in his autobiography that Paul English "looked like the devil." Another interesting element of the story was that Willie and Paul were both over forty. They had already seen it all. Mickey was just a young kid with an afro trying to play all the harmonica all the time!

Willie's fans have some good weed too it seems...

Well they played a few shows, then a few more. Then they went to New York and played. Then they kept playing. One day Willie looked at Paul and asked:

"How much are we paying this kid?"
"Double it."

I could write more, but I think you should probably listen to the man himself:

Postscript: I could not check the sound quality of the video because I was listening to a concert while writing this. If you trust me, go look for yourself. Mickey has played with Willie for 40 years, and he is featured on all the albums. Peace!

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