Nice write up.
Willie Nelson’s guests deserve shows of their own
Mickey Raphael plays harmonica for Willie Nelson.
Arguably the best harmonica player in America will perform Friday, Sept. 10, at Red Butte Garden’s last show of the season. Opening the show will be the musical director of the Tony Award-winning “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical that is selling out nightly on Broadway.
Those musicians are the talents supporting Willie Nelson.
Nelson, the longtime road warrior, doesn’t need to do press interviews. Especially not in Salt Lake City, where tickets sold out in two hours, the fastest-selling show in the history of Red Butte Garden.
Luckily, for the sake of journalism, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael does interviews, as does opening act Chuck Mead, the songwriter and musical director. Both talked about Nelson, as well as about Bono, Adam Sandler, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
Mickey Raphael • The most talented mouth-organ player since Little Walter started with Nelson 37 years ago, when Raphael was just 21.
The first record Raphael played on was 1975’s “Red Headed Stranger,” Nelson’s critical and commercial breakthrough. In 2006, County Music Television named it the greatest album in country music.
The amiable Raphael said he has received more fame from appearing in an Adam Sandler song — despite playing over the years with Nelson, U2, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Chesney and Mötley Crüe.
No, Raphael hasn’t sung with Sandler. But in Sandler’s biggest hit, “The Chanukah Song,” there’s a reference to Raphael: “The guy in Willie Nelson’s band who plays harmonica celebrates Chanukah!”
Raphael, who said he shares a love of Miles Davis with Nelson, met his employer through a mutual friend, a coach at the University of Texas. They were at the same party when Nelson asked Raphael to join in during an informal jam session. “I was never really hired,” Raphael said. “But I’ve never been asked to leave.”
Raphael’s girlfriend lives in Utah, and she loves dragging him to the slopes of Alta, though he prefers bikes to skis. “Next time, I plan on getting a ski instructor,” he said.
Chuck Mead • Many music fans remember Mead as the co-founder of the popular country-rockabilly band BR549, which formed in 1993 but is on hiatus.
But Mead, a guitarist and songwriter who released a solo album, “Journeyman’s Wager,” last year, has earned more attention as the musical director of “Million Dollar Quartet,” which broke box-office records when it opened in Seattle in 2008. It opened on Broadway in April and was nominated for three 2010 Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for Levi Kreis (who plays Jerry Lee Lewis). The musical will open in a London West End theater early next year. “Hillbilly music took me to Broadway,” Mead said with a laugh.
“The Million Dollar Quartet” revolves around the most famous impromptu jam session in history. Purely by chance, on Dec. 4, 1956, Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins ended up playing together in the Sun Record Studios in Memphis.
Producers of the show contacted Mead because of his encyclopedic knowledge of “retro music.” Although he was new to musicals, “you got to put on different hats to keep in show business,” he said.
Mead said he grew up watching Buck Owens on “Hee Haw” on Saturday nights, so he naturally gravitated to the electric instruments and backbeats that were part of The Bakersfield Sound pioneered by Owens and others. “All hillbillies who went to the West Coast [during The Depression] ended up in Bakersfield,” Mead said.
The day “Journeyman’s Wager” was released, Mead was headlining The Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, a nightclub, museum and restaurant in Bakersfield that Owens created and performed at the last night of his life.
Another coincidence is happening this weekend. Tonight, the real Jerry Lee Lewis is scheduled to jam with the cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” on its Broadway stage. While Mead would like to see the performance, his biggest wish is to perform his songs on the same stage as Willie Nelson.
P Willie Nelson performs. Chuck Mead opens.
When • Tonight at 7
Where • Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Sold out
© 2010 The Salt Lake Tribune