By Paul Freeman
In the rock music history book, Al Kooper has etched a huge chapter.
As performer/songwriter/arranger, he was part of The Blues Project
and Blood Sweat & Tears. As producer, he enhanced the work of Bob
Dylan, The Tubes and Nils Lofgren, and discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd. As
a session musician, he played with such legends as Gene Pitney, Judy
Collins, Phil Ochs, Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, the
Stones and George Harrison.
Kooper is to play a solo show at Yoshi's, San Francisco, on Monday
night. The set offers classic Kooper, as well as material from recent
albums, "White Chocolate" and "Black Coffee."
It was the highly caffeinated rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley that
first captivated Kooper. "I studied his guitar player (Scotty Moore)
diligently, almost like schoolwork," Kooper told The Daily News. "I'd
come home from school, put the record player on, sit there with the
guitar and try and figure out what the hell he was doing.
"Also James Burton (Ricky Nelson's guitarist) and Cliff Gallup (of
Gene Vincent's Blue Caps) that was my triumvirate when I was really
young. That's the first music that I learned how to play."
For Kooper, born in Brooklyn in 1944, the allure wasn't fame, it was
the sound. "I was never trying to pursue pop stardom. I just wanted
to be in the music business. I didn't even know how I was going to do it."
At 14, Kooper joined The Royal Teens as guitarist. The band, led by
Bob Gaudio (later of The Four Seasons) had a big hit with "Short Shorts."
Kooper recalled, "We were playing bills with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck
Berry, The Crickets. I got to see all these bands from the side of
the stage. It was terrific."
Kooper studied music at college for a year. "They were teaching me to
be a music teacher, which didn't interest me at all. I'd play
something for the teacher and he'd say, 'That's not the way Bach
would have written it.' To spend four years with that sort of
mentality would have been a huge mistake."
So Kooper left school. "I went to war with my parents over it,
because where I came from, if you didn't graduate from college, you
were a bum."
He landed a job as a songwriter, in the same building as Carole King
and Gerry Goffin. Partnered with Bob Brass and Irwin Levine, Kooper
penned hundreds of tunes. "This Diamond Ring," recorded by Gary Lewis
& The Playboys, shot to number one. "That proved to my parents I was
going to make something of myself," Kooper said.
He played keyboards at Dylan's infamous Newport concert. The myth is
that the crowd booed, because the folk icon went electric. Kooper set
the record straight.
"He played some rock 'n' roll at the folk festival and the purists on
the festival board were furious. The audience, on the other hand, had
come to see him. Most every act played an hour. He was the headliner
of the whole festival and played three songs 15 minutes and
walked off stage. That's what the audience was upset about. Not the
fact that it was electric.
"It makes you sad about how poorly all history must be recorded, that
we're so far from knowing what the real truth is."
Kooper not only provided the unforgettable organ sound on Dylan's
"Like A Rolling Stone," but also fashioned most of the arrangements
on Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" album.
"We understood each other. So he didn't put much negativity in my
path, nor I in his. We just worked together for his benefit."
Though much in demand for session work, in 1965, Kooper accepted an
invitation to join The Blues Project. Kooper's creative vision
eventually led him away from the group.
"I had a new batch of songs that said to me they wanted to have horns
on them. The Blues Project said to me that they didn't want to have
horns. So I had no choice. I had to leave."
He took those songs to a new group he formed, Blood Sweat & Tears.
The result was the amazingly inventive "Child Is Father To The Man,"
which featured Kooper's soulful keyboards and earthy vocals. But band
members Bobby Columby and Steve Katz maneuvered to limit Kooper's role.
"It reminds me of the Frankenstein story," Kooper said. "I built this
monster and then it killed me. So I left. But I learned from it, in
that I was never in a band again."
Kooper fronted his own groups and began producing other artists. For
guitar great Mike Bloomfield (Electric Flag) Kooper assembled the
landmark 1968 "Super Session" jam album.
"I thought Mike was stilted in the studio, compared to how he played
live. So I wanted to make a record where he was not intruded upon
artistically at all. I wanted to make him as comfortable as possible."
As producer, Kooper's mission was to bring out the artists' essence.
" I don't think I ever put a stamp on the records I produced, other
than I wanted them to be good records. For them to have any
identification musically of Al Kooper would have been an ego-filled
mistake. For me, being a producer was to help an artist to convey
their thing to the public and fill in the gaps where they were
deficient in doing that."
It's rewarding to Kooper that the music he worked on continues to
impact people. "'Sweet Home Alabama,' they're still playing it. It
means a lot to me to watch younger people who weren't even alive
when I made that record enjoy that record."
On his web site, www.alkooper.com, you can order CDs or his
autobiography, "Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards." Right now,
you can gain insights about his favorite 2009 releases, such as Wilco
and Kristina Train. The site also includes a Kooper discography, an
astounding list of great recordings.
"I just think of it as tiring," Kooper said, with a chuckle. "I was
lucky. Like I said in the book, right place, right time I didn't
have time for that. I had to be every place at every time."
E-mail Paul Freeman at email@example.com.