1975 promo photo by Norman Seef
by Tyler FriedmanWhenever I attempt to turn someone on to Al Kooper, almost without fail I get the same response. "Naw bro, I've heard Alice Cooper..." or some other colloquial retort. I die a little on the inside while Britney Spears devours the soul of another family's first born. I can't help but pity these fools who remain oblivious to one of music's most colorful careers and soulful musicians.
His resume bears the names of such luminaries as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ricky Nelson, and everyone in between. "But Tyler, if this Kooper character is so great, why haven't I heard of him?" A fair question, my skeptical reader, and one I hope to both answer and remedy with this brief peek into the career of the Forrest Gump of Rock and Roll: Al Kooper.
Born to a humble Brooklyn family in February 1944, Al hit the "big time" at the naïve age of fourteen. Fate placed him in the right place at the right time when The Royal Teens were in need of a guitar player. It was truly a big break seeing as the Teens had hit the charts with their pre-Al paean to short shorts, appropriately entitled "Short Shorts." Wielding a forty-dollar Sears and Roebuck guitar with the capacity to mangle Link Wray's "Rumble," Al got the gig.
After paying some dues during his short and fruitless stint with the Teens, Al took his fledgling talent to Tin Pan Alley on Broadway. There he wrote the mindless and derivative songs that made early '60's pop so groovy and waited around for the opportunity to make a few bucks accompanying auditions of pretty and pretty talentless hopefuls.
Following several years of the Tin Pan Alley scene, Al enrolled/dropped out of college and worked several nowhere jobs before joining musical forces with lyricists Bob Brass and Irvin Levine. The trio toiled in obscurity, and poverty, until selling an R&B song they had originally written for The Drifters for three hundred dollars. Mutilated from its original form, "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys hit #1 in 1965. Still broke, Brass-Kooper-Levine slid down the charts once again with their song "I Must Be Seeing Things," sung by old Kooper acquaintance Gene Pitney.
But the times they were a-changin', and the record buying public began to care less about Bob B. Soxx and more about Bobby Dylan. So Kooper did what any self-preserving musician would, start smoking prodigious amounts of pot and become a folkie. Fate kissed Kooper again when he was invited to witness a now legendary Dylan electric session by friend and producer Tom Wilson. Twenty-one and musically zealous, Al decided it was not enough to watch. He was going to leave his aural emblem damnit! The story that ensued rivals Antigone defying the king to bury her brother in terms of ballsiness. Al, a mediocre guitarist and even lesser keyboardist, arrived an hour early for the session to practice his self proclaimed seven licks before any nay-sayers could give him the rightful heave-ho back to the control room.
Dylan arrived with some strange cat in tow who was carrying his Telecaster over is shoulder sans case, all the stranger because of the torrential downpour outside. Guitar legend Mike Bloomfield wiped off his guitar, plugged in, and began playing. Al knew the charade was over and headed back to the control room with his guitar between his legs. But when the organist was given piano duties, Al saw another opportunity to make a mark for posterity.
Approaching Tom Wilson, Al explained that he had a fabulous organ part for the song (which was B.S.). Tom looked incredulously at him and stated the obvious fact that Al wasn't an organist and playing with these consummate professionals would embarrass him. BUT before he could give a definitive "no" studio duties called Wilson away. Good enough for Koops who entered the studio and took his historic seat behind the B3. Had the organ not already been on, Al would have had no idea how to do so, effectively silencing an important voice in rock history.
With half the battle won, all Al had to do was create a part on an instrument he didn't play that was suitable to the discerning ears of arguably the most important American musician of the times. So maybe it wasn't quite half the battle. The first complete take of the song ended up as the final. During the play back in the control room, Dylan instructed Tom Wilson to turn up the organ. Wilson protested that the organist was in fact not an organist at all, a fact of little interest to Dylan. If you listen to "Like A Rolling Stone" off the album Highway 61 Revisited, you'll without a doubt hear the famous, albeit tentative, organ work of Al Kooper.
Now in the good graces of Bob Dylan, Al wound up playing with Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The infamous concert appearance that ended in boos supposedly for the use of electric instrumentation. However Al attributes the booing to the brief set played, not plugging in. "Like A Rolling Stone" landed near the top of the charts, spawning a slew of sonic sycophants who attempted to recreate the patented Kooper organ sound (a sound based on inexperience) in their Dylan knock-off records. After the Highway 61 session and Newport, Al briefly accompanied Dylan on his '65 tour. But he soon left to make room for the rest of The Hawks, later to become The Band, to meet up with the already touring members.
In a much saner environment, Al returned to session work with his demand and price higher than ever. One of his countless jobs was for an unknown white blues band known as The Blues Project. After a recording session of Eric Andersen's "Violets of Dawn" (a folk-music-playing blues band?), Al was invited to become a permanent member of the Project. He acquiesced to escape the monotony of session work and to further improve his prowess on the keys. The next few years were spent touring and recording with The Blues Project, recording Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, crossing paths with Cream and The Who (appearing on The Who Sells Out), becoming a father, and convincing Judy Collins to schlep the then-unknown Joni Mitchell to a Newport music festival for her big break.
Al left the Project over creative differences in 1967, and while resting in California, he found himself the Assistant Stage Manager at the Monterey Pop Festival. Concurrently, Al was trying to construct the band he was hearing in his head. He describes his vision as, "[A] band that could put dents in your shirt if you got within fifteen rows of the stage. Like Maynard Ferguson's band from the years 1960-1964, I wanted a horn section that would play more than the short adjectives they were relegated to in R&B bands; but, on the other hand, a horn section that would play less than Count Basie's or Buddy Rich's. Somewhere in the middle was a mixture of soul, jazz, and rock that was my little fantasy." Debuting at Monterey Pop was Al's friend and Dylan sideman Mike Bloomfield's American music horn band, Electric Flag. While similar in formation, the Flag and Al's fantasy band were quite different.
Back in New York, Al had a romantic vision of traveling to London to put together this band. But following an unsuccessful benefit concert, the money proved to be too big an obstacle to overcome. So instead, he settled for adding onto a core group of musicians he had previously played with and found the results to be acceptible. The line up for the group was: Al Kooper (keyboards and voice), Steve Katz (previously of the Blues Project on guitar), Jim Fielder (bass, formerly of Buffalo Springfield and the Mothers), Bobby Colomby (drums), Fred Lipsius (alto sax), Randy Brecker and Jerry Weiss (trumpets and flugelhorns), and Dick Halligan (trombone).
The name of the group, as Al tells it came when he was jamming with B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix late one night at the Café Au Go Go. When the house lights were turned on, Al discovered he had cut his hand and gotten blood all over organ without realizing it. Somehow, he got the name "Blood, Sweat & Tears" out of this experience.
It should be noted that I have not mentioned Blood, Sweat & Tears yet, for a very specific reason. The reason being... I do not like them. At least I don't like the BS&T that most people are familiar with. I have no qualms admitting that "Spinning Wheel" and "Lucretia Mac Evil" make me dry heave. However the original BS&T, with Al Kooper at the helm, is probably the baddest (in a good way) band my ears have ever had the privilege of being assaulted, caressed, and rocked by. All good things must come to an end, indeed, as this incarnation of Blood, Sweat & Tears only released one album, 1968's Child Is Father To The Man.
From the first "ding" of a triangle on the album you know it's not your typical '60's hackneyed psychedelic masturbatory effort. The album begins with what may be one of the first rock overtures, a string section playing melodic themes to come while maniacal laughter wafts overhead. You're left wondering if you made a bad purchase until... BAM, the moan of a fuzzed out guitar knocks you on your ass for ever doubting the merits of this album. Then the incredibly soulful voice of Al Kooper begins explaining to his woman, "If I ever leave youuu, you can say I told you so," quivering and quaking like the funkiest nervous Jew who ever tried to sound like a black cat with a three pack-a-day habit.
Now I have heard too many people putting down Koop's croon. Descriptions like "nickel throat" and "soul asthmatic" (actually I kind of dig that one), are true in their own way but shouldn't be used pejoratively. Al Kooper is not Pavarotti, but he's not trying to be. What is it with people insisting that all vocalists sound like Robert Plant or some other wailing pseudo-virtuoso? (I'll come right out and admit it, I don't like Robert Plant all that much- most of the time I don't really believe what he's saying) I believe what Al Kooper says. Hell, I'd help him break out of prison if he pleaded innocence with that reedy holler he throws down like it's his very last song before dying.
Child is a veritable olla podrida of genres (a mixture... and you thought you'd only learn about Al Kooper in this article). It contains a classical overture and underture, R&B, good ol' fashioned rock and roll, bossa nova, blues, and other mixtures that I feel guilty labeling. There were covers of Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Carole King-Gerry Goffin, a tribute to Otis Redding/James Brown, a Bob Dylan-Curtis Mayfield-esque arrangement, a tip of the hat to Janis Joplin, a staged bar fight, a chorus of screaming kiddies and so much more. Even so, the album only peaked at #47 on the Billboard charts with no Top 40 singles. After a brief tour and much bad blood in the band, Kooper left the very group he had created, only to be replaced by David Clayton Thomas who would remain with the group while they released records that, in my opinion, pale in comparison to the first but became widely popular.
Free from BS&T, Al moved on to other endeavors. Later in 1968, he devised, played on, and produced Super Session with Mike Bloomfield and Steven Stills, a record that turned gold at #11 on the charts. Super Session is one of rock's first recorded jam session albums, predated by Moby Grape's Wow/Grape Jam album that Kooper played on. Boasting some of Bloomer's finest guitar labors, Super Session is yet another relatively obscure member of the criminally overlooked Kooper oeuvre. As I see it, this record should be required listening for budding guitarists who would be well advised to learn from Bloomers. On the first track alone, "Albert's Shuffle," he cajoles out of his Les Paul tone that's so sharp it'll draw blood and phrasing so tight you'll swear the guitar is telling a story. A few years later, Al moved to Atlanta and started Sounds of the South Records where he discovered and produced a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd for their first three albums. I deem myself unqualified to speculate exactly what Al's production added to Skynyrd's sound but I do know that he opened the door for this comparatively simple Southern rock outfit when it was commercially chic to indulge in progressive rock excess.
Al has never quit working, but has significantly strayed from the spotlight. He, until recently, quit making solo records after several commercially unsuccessful tries and focused more on producing. Koop's manned the controls for such acts as The Tubes, Ricky Nelson, Nils Lofgren, B.B. King, Skynyrd, and many others still somehow not receiving his rightful respect. He also released Rekooperation which was recorded and released in 1994 with an all star line up (including his guitar player at the time Jimmy Vivino) and led to the 1995 release of a live recorded 2-CD box Soul of a Man (both on the Music Masters Rock label). Lately though, health issues have slowed him down by taking two-thirds of his sight, and also ended his stint teaching at Berklee College of Music.
Howerver, in 2005, Al released his first solo album in a decade, titled Black Coffee. The album kicks off with "My Hands Are Tied," a song that I think stands up to any song in the Kooper catalog and an ending guitar solo that still gives me goose bumps after 63 listens. He then jaunts through a Keb Mo tune, a live version of Booker T. & the MG's "Green Onions", Ray Charles' "Just For A Thrill" and of course, more originals. He's not quite what he used to be, and in my opinion now people can start taking shots at his voice, but there's some genuinely good stuff on the disk.
At the height of my personal Kooper-mania, a few friends and I decided to drop some lucre and go see Al in concert. The show took place in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. Two of us flew from Cincinnati and another from Boulder to stay with a friend at UPenn. We wore perpetual grins and readied ourselves for what we convinced ourselves was sure to be the greatest concert ever.
After navigating roads that curved and confused like a heavyset Victoria's Secret model, we reached the promise land. Somewhat dismayed by the landing in Creepsville, our spirits were rekindled by a dingy marquee depressingly heralding the coming of Kooper. Soon in our front row seats, we took to regaling each other with secondhand stories of Al's experiences until the lights dropped down.
I've considered lying and telling you that Al lived up to every fanciful dream we had, but I call 'em like I see 'em. The musical performance was atrocious. No B3 in sight, just a Korg Triton that spat out cheesy synth sounds that belonged in the early '80's. Al's once soulful voice had mutated into what sounded like a wan imitation of a Ray Charles impersonator with a sinus infection. After the show, we approached Al still star struck by our personal deity, and were lambasted with a first class show of curmudgeonry. We managed one out-of-focus snapshot, before we were verbally pushed aside.
But I remain a believer. I will consider using my dying breath to attempt to turn someone onto Al Kooper. He deserves it. He paid his dues and hasn't received rightful recognition, and until this day comes I will continue to lead the Kooper Revolution. Viva La Al!
Also see Al Kooper's official website
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