The roots of American music run deep through Mississippi and are well planted in the soul of Raphael Semmes. For a successful 40-year career as a musician and for promoting Mississippi’s music culture, Raphael Semmes will receive the 2021 Governor’s Award for Cultural Ambassador.
Raphael was raised in Grenada by parents who nurtured his love for all music by exposing him to rock and roll, country, blues, and jazz.
“My mother took me to see Elvis when I was around 4 years-old in Memphis at the Ellis Auditorium,” said Semmes of his early years. “When I was about 11, she took me to see the Beatles, and of course, that was it. Mom, it’s all your fault.”
As a boy, he was naturally drawn toward the bass and even created his own “bass” of sorts.
“I got a Sears Silvertone guitar, and I would listen to my sister’s records and play along to her Motown records,” recalls Semmes. “It became pretty obvious that what I was mostly paying attention to were the lower notes, the thumping part, of course the bass. I didn’t see the need for the two treble strings on the guitar, so I just pulled them off, and I played the E, A, D, and G strings just like a bass until I got a real bass.”
Possibly foreshadowing the trajectory of his career as a musician and a Mississippi enthusiast, Raphael Semmes’ first gig was at a campaign event for the revered late Mississippi Governor William Winter.
“I got my first band, The Vagabonds,” said Semmes. “The guys in our band were ages 9 to 12, I guess, and our first gig was a campaign gig for William Winter in my hometown of Grenada in someone’s driveway. I’m still proud of that gig being my first.”
In his college years in the 1970s, he played with the Ole Miss Jazz Band and in a quartet with his mentor John McCauley. After short stints as a working musician in Los Angeles and Memphis, Raphael came home and pursued playing music and promoting Mississippi’s culture at home and abroad.
While in Los Angeles, Semmes was advised, “Don’t tell them you’re from Mississippi. Tell them you’re from Memphis.”
“Of course,” said Semmes, “I had a fairly formidable amount of information about the great musical legends and records that were cut in the state, and it was fun to talk about that with people. It was always met with a very positive response.”
Semmes has been called on to play with many musical artists including Mississippi Jazz and Blues legends Mose Allison and John Lee Hooker. He toured internationally with Katie Webster and Vasti Jackson and Dorothy Moore. He was a member of the first band to play behind the iron curtain in the 1980s with Joe Frank Carollo and George Sandifer. The second group to do this was Joan Jett.
Back in the state in the early 1980s, Raphael Semmes helped cultivate a live local music scene in Jackson as bass player with Sassy Jones and These Days with Jewel Bass and Nice Try.
Raphael has represented the best that Mississippi music has to offer by organizing talent for Governor’s inaugurations, writing and performing an original song “Mississippi Feels Like Coming Home” for a state tourism campaign, producing music festivals, and performing his “Mississippi Live” show.
When describing Mississippi Live, Semmes says, “It’s a cool thing having that many great musicians in one place and because there aren’t better musicians anywhere than Mississippi.”
Today, Raphael Semmes continues to produce and perform in the Township Jazz Festival, which he co-founded. He plays live jazz regularly at Table 100 and Hal n’ Mal’s in addition to hosting the Fusion Coffeehouse Jazz Series. He is the long-time leader of the Governor’s Arts Awards Combo.
“The arts have endless possibilities, and we’ve got quite a spectacular arts resource right here in Mississippi,” said Semmes. “I’ll try to be a good ambassador.”
Photo of Raphael Semmes in graphic: © Portico, Photo by James Patterson