After mastering, and then abandoning, the accordion in early grammar school, he joined the school band as a drummer and started a group of his own that performed popular standards. By the time he hit 8th grade, Joel and his combo were playing mostly instrumental surf tunes like "Pipeline" and "Wipe Out," but "once we started doing a few vocals it became clear that I was the only one who could sing," Joel remembers. By his first year in high school, the '60s folk boom had kicked in and Joel's tastes were shifting from the Ventures and Beach Boys to his greatest inspiration, Woody Guthrie, major Guthrie disciples Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan, plus Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia and many others. "Every school had a hootenanny, and the one at my school changed my whole way of looking at things. I knew I could do this."
After much begging, Joel's parents took him to nearby Tijuana to buy a $25 acoustic guitar. "I learned a few chords and a couple songs from my friends and I was on my way," says Joel, who started to write his own songs after a year of guitar playing. "Sort of pop/folk songs, I guess." It was the right time and place for a young folkie - besides school hootenannies and local talent shows, with Joel a frequent winner, all-age folk clubs were springing up around the Los Angeles area. At 17, Joel was offered a recording contract and cut some demos in North Hollywood that led nowhere, but he continued to perform and write songs while attending college.
As the Sixties wound down and the controversial Vietnam War continued, Rafael dropped out of college, lost his student draft deferment and had his "conscientious objector" application rejected. To keep the draft board guessing, Joel moved to the Pacific Northwest, still writing and performing acoustic folk-oriented music even as the genre was overtaken by a more pop-oriented sound. By 1970, Joel and his girlfriend Lauren were living in a riverside cabin in the western Cascade Mountains of Washington state. .
In the spring of 1972, with the war waning and the draft ended, Joel and Lauren, pregnant with their first child, moved back to the San Diego area of California, where their family still lives. Joel spent the next two decades performing around the southwest as a solo artist and in various groups, including a year-long partnership (1978-79) with alt.country/rockabilly singer, songwriter and guitarist Rosie Flores, who has maintained her own career through the present.
With a family to raise and support, Rafael eventually took a day job at the San Diego Wild Animal Park lasting into the mid-'90s. But an important connection was made when Joel first met Arlo Guthrie at the 1993 Troubadours of Folk Festival at UCLA, where he also learned of the annual Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. His 1995 performance at Kerrville won the festival's "New Folk Emerging Songwriter" award and raised the profile of the acoustic Joel Rafael Band, then a quartet, which had already released their first, eponymous CD in 1994 on Joel's own Reluctant Angel label. The CD also won San Diego County's Country Music Association "Album of the Year" award.
The Rafael Band, then as now, including Joel's daughter Jamaica on violin and vocals and his high school friend Carl Johnson on lead guitar, released a second CD in 1996 before their next CD, Hopper, was issued on Jackson Browne's independent label, Inside Recordings, in 1999. Meanwhile, Joel had become a regular performer at the yearly Woody Guthrie Free Folk Music Festival in Guthrie's Okemah, Oklahoma, hometown, where he reencountered Arlo Guthrie.
When the inspiration to record a CD of Woody Guthrie songs struck Joel, it was Arlo who seconded Joel's intention to complete and include one of Woody's unpublished lyrics on the CD, Woodeye, which became Joel's entrÃ©e to the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. The artistic success and critical reception of the project, in which Sing Out! magazine described Joel as "one of the great interpreters of Woody's songs," has fueled Joel to record a second CD of Guthrie material.
Check out the artist's website:
1. When the Curfew Blows
2. 1913 Massacre
3. Don't Kill My Baby and My Son
4. Sowing on the Mountain
5. Pretty Boy Floyd
6. Danville Girl
7. Ramblin' 'Round
8. I Ain't Got No Home
9. Talking Fishing Blues
10. Dust Storm Disaster
11. Dane a Little Longer
12. Dear Mrs.Roosevelt
13. Plane Wreck at Los Gatos
14. Talking Oklahoma Hills