Al Kooper: The Greatest Rocker You've Never Heard Of
That's Al Kooper, Not Alice Cooper!
Many rockers may not have heard of Al Kooper - but they should have! Since the early 1960s, Al Kooper has played rock ‘n’ roll and blues, primarily on keyboards but also on the guitar, in various bands such as The Blues Project, Blood, Sweat and Tears and, most recently, the Rekooperators.
Kooper has also worked as a producer for bands and artists such as The Tubes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Rick Nelson. He’s also worked as a session player for George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, Judy Collins, Shuggie Otis, the Butterfield Blues Band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Who.
Moreover, Kooper has produced over a dozen solo albums and played as a sideman for artists such as Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield, Gene Pitney, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Simon and Garfunkel, Eric Andersen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Moby Grape, Taj Mahal, Rita Coolidge, Brewer and Shipley, Roger McGuinn, Nils Lofgren, Bill Wyman, Alice Cooper, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Leo Sayer, Phoebe Snow, Joe Walsh and Ray Charles.
Kooper also wrote the musical score for the movie, The Landlord, and produced music for the television series, Crime Story and John Waters’ film, Cry Baby.
Wow, impressive, eh? So check out the career of Al Kooper, prince of American blues and icon of rock, a been-there-done-that kind of guy from way back about whom every student of rock history should know.
(Unless otherwise stated, all quotes in this article come from Al Kooper’s autobiography, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor, published in 1998.)
Alan Peter Kooper was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 5, 1944. At age six, Kooper began playing the piano. The first tune he could play was “The Tennessee Waltz,” using only the black keys, as songwriter Irving Berlin used to do. In 1957, Kooper strummed a Silvertone electric guitar and played piano in bands such as the Aristo-Cats, making ten bucks a night.
In those days, the music publishing capital of the U.S. was in New York City (NYC), particularly a stretch on Broadway from 1650 to 1697. At Adelphi Studios, Kooper, having set up his own music company, Ko-op Productions, began his publishing career by making demos of his own records; he also sold songs and arrangements for $90.00 a pop.
According to the Web site, www.alkooper.com, Kooper said, “I was playing sessions on guitar. People would hire me because their only alternative was to hire these jazz players to play this teenage music. These guys were smoking cigars, emulating what kids would play. So, they would hire me to get that ‘dumb kid sound.’ I assume that’s why I was hired, because I couldn’t play anywhere near as well as those guys.”
Then Kooper joined up with songwriters Bob Brass and Irwin Levine, producing B sides for singles. Kooper and Company, in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley, produced their own songs, sometimes selling the same songs to different artists, which could have led to trouble if the song was recorded and released. For the princely some of $300, the threesome sold the song, “This Diamond Ring,” designed to be an R&B single, to Gary Lewis and the Playboys. This tune eventually became a number one hit.
In late 1965, Kooper married his childhood sweetheart, Judy Kerner, and also started smoking pot and taking mescaline.
Then Bob Dylan invited Kooper to play guitar at one of his recording sessions. Kooper intended to play guitar until Mike Bloomfield came into the studio and began warming up, his incredible musicianship blowing away Kooper, who promptly put away his guitar and slipped into another room.
Even though Kooper played piano, not the organ, a Hammond organ had fortunately already been fired up (the organ took three steps to activate it, but Kooper didn’t know how), so Kooper gave the instrument a try - playing a little behind everyone else because he wanted to make sure he was playing the right chord - eventually producing the organ parts for Dylan’s mega hit “Like a Rolling Stone,” which appeared on the album Highway 61 Revisited.
At the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Kooper played a set with Bob Dylan and Mike Bloomfield. At the end of their set, the crowd booed, not because they played electric music rather than acoustic folk, as has been widely publicized over the years, but because their set lasted only 15 minutes! By the time Kooper’s tour with Dylan ended, Kooper’s organ playing had acquired the cachet of that “Dylan sound.”
At this time, Kooper did session work with artists such as Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Dion, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Butterfield Blues Band.
Toward the end of 1965, Kooper joined The Blues Project, playing keyboard rather than guitar. The band, a sextet comprised of six white Jewish guys, played blues their way, not in the fashion of the renowned Butterfield Blues Band or other contemporary blues groups. Unfortunately, Kooper was schooled in jazz and rock, not the blues, so he had some homework to do before he could play with these guys. When Al Kooper was in the band their greatest hits were “I Can’t Keep from Cryin’ Sometimes,” which Kooper wrote, “Flute Thing,” and “Violets of Dawn.”
Ironically, The Blues Project sometimes headlined at venues such as the Café Au Go Go in NYC, when blues icons such as Otis Spann, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker were on the same bill. These old blues players were the band mates’ heroes!
Once again, Kooper played with Bob Dylan, this time in Nashville, Tennessee, recording the Blonde on Blonde double-album set, for which Dylan wrote much of the lyrics while in the studio.
Next, Al Kooper’s group recorded a live album entitled, The Blues Project Live at the Café Au Go Go, the first rock album to hit the charts without a “hit single.” FM radio stations such as KMPX in San Francisco played it to death, and the album also sold very well.
Finally, two white-guy blues groups – The Blues Project and the Butterfield Blues Band – played on the same bill at the Café Au Go Go. Both bands were ready to kick some ass. After the first set, Mike Bloomfield of the Butterfield Blues Band came into the Project’s dressing room and declared, “We heard you guys were shit and played real pussy. Well, it ain’t true. You kicked ass out there and we just wanna acknowledge that.”
In March 1967, The Blues Project did a ten-day stage show with groups such as Cream, which was on its first American tour. The Who also played, smashing their instruments at the end of each set, naturally.
About this time, Kooper met Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell. Kooper loved her impressive and original music and then introduced her to friend Judy Collins. Collins and Mitchell then played at the upcoming Newport Folk Festival, where Mitchell was a smash hit.
Eventually getting around to it like just about every other band, The Blues Project produced their only 45 rpm single, “No Time Like the Right Time,” which hit #73 on the Top 100.
Deciding it was time to leave The Blues Project, Kooper split for California just in time for the upcoming Summer of Love in 1967.
The first place Kooper stayed in California was a crash pad in Oakland filled with party-hardy hippie types. Kooper and his wife had to sleep in the attic. Then Kooper stayed in Hollywood with friends, some associates of whom were planning the Monterey Pop Festival in June. Helping with arrangements, Kooper soon became Assistant Stage Manager for the event.
Kooper flew in a Lear Jet to Monterey. On the plane, among others, was the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, high on flight and something else as well.
At the Monterey Pop Festival, Kooper hung out with David Crosby, Paul Simon, bassist Jim Fielder and Jimi Hendrix, who eventually gave Kooper one of his Stratocasters. Mike Bloomfield had assembled the Electric Flag, which performed at the festival. The Flag was a kind of fantasy blues/soul band with horns that Kooper had wanted to assemble for some time.
Growing broke because of all the traveling, Kooper returned to New York, hoping to form his own group, one similar to the Electric Flag. He came up with the name Blood, Sweat and Tears (BS&T) when he played on the keyboards one night until his fingers bled. One of the most prominent musicians in BS&T was trumpeter Randy Brecker, who, with his brother Michael, would form the Brecker Brothers a few years later.
BS&T’s first gig was at the Au Go Go in NYC, opening the show for Moby Grape. Except for the horn players needing sheet music and music stands to play their licks, the show went great.
The group’s first album, Child Is Father to the Man, took two weeks to produce in December 1967. Columbia Records then sent the band on a ten-week promotional tour, including a stop at the Winterland in San Francisco. Rolling Stone magazine did a three-page spread on the band. And, at the Generation in NYC, B.B. King jammed with the band while guitarist Elvin Bishop was in the audience. Kooper remarked that he never heard B.B. play better.
Then trumpeter extraordinaire, Randy Brecker, quit BS&T and, at about the same time, members of the group began complaining that Kooper’s leadership was too stern and one-sided, and some thought his vocals inadequate, so they forced him to quit after just eight months with the assemblage.
Kooper’s vocals were replaced by David Clayton-Thomas and his organ by Dick Halligan. From this point on BS&T’s greatest hit was probably “Spinning Wheel,” released in 1969.
Interestingly, the promoters at Woodstock invited Kooper to play but he said no, thinking they were charging too much for admission.
Kooper’s departure from BS&T was bitter indeed, because he had formed the group, given it its name, and also claimed he never received a cent in royalties from any of their work!
Still under contract at Columbia Records, Kooper became a solo artist and producer – the only one with long hair. One of Kooper’s jobs as a producer was to discover talent, and this he did when he told Columbia to snatch the domestic rights to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” which eventually became a number one hit in America.
Then Kooper decided to produce a jam album. First, he picked Mike Bloomfield, another Jewish guy with a similar background. Kooper also chose Harvey Brooks on bass, drummer Eddie Hoh and Barry Goldberg on piano. Within hours, Bloomfield recorded his guitar parts on the album, and then couldn’t continue because of insomnia. (At the time, Bloomfield was also suffering from heroin addiction, which killed him in 1981.)
Guitarist Stephen Stills, formerly of the short-lived Buffalo Springfield, played guitar on the album’s second side. Perhaps his best offerings were “Season of the Witch and “You Don’t Love Me.”
Vice President Bruce Lundvall labeled the album, Super Session, and six weeks later it hit the racks in record stores. Super Session took two nights to record, cost $13,000 to make and became a gold album, selling over 450,000 copies and made it to #11 on the Billboard Top 200.
Desirous of producing another live recording, Kooper arranged such a gig at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. Mike Bloomfield played well for two nights, and then, once more flaked out because of trouble with insomnia, this time ending up in the hospital. Bill Graham was furious, and Kooper started making phone calls.
In place of Bloomfield, Steve Miller, Carlos Santana and Elvin Bishop all came and played. Then a double album was released entitled The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, the cover art on the album done by art icon Norman Rockwell.
Now Kooper flew to London and did some studio work with the Rolling Stones on the tune, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” featured on the album Let It Bleed. Kooper played piano, organ and French horn for a solo at the intro. Kooper also did work on Mick Jagger’s movie, Performance, and the song “Brown Sugar” on the LP, Sticky Fingers, but this last session didn’t make the final cut.
About the Rolling Stones, Kooper wrote, “I must take this opportunity to say that, over the years, The Stones have always been honorable, great people to hang out with, and the best people to play after-hours music with.”
Feeling his creative oats, Kooper produced his first solo album, I Stand Alone (the album cover showing him as the Statue of Liberty), after which some critics thought he was on an ego trip. One critic called him a “monstrous prick.”
Ego trip or whatever, Kooper then worked on a musical score for the movie, The Landlord, directed by Hal Ashby. Using singers Lorraine Ellison, Melba Moore and the Staple Singers, Kooper loved his work, though the movie, for one reason or another, got mixed reviews.
About this time, Kooper made an album entitled Kooper Session with 15-year-old blues guitarist prodigy, Shuggie Otis. Strangely, though, Kooper didn’t mention this interaction in his book.
After Kooper’s second marriage broke up in 1969, he began using the painkiller Percodan to excess, until one night a girlfriend took some of his pills and would have died if he hadn’t called the doctor in time. After going through withdrawal for days, he finally kicked the habit.
When Kooper’s contract was up with Columbia Records, he began touring as a solo act. He then connected with some friends at MCA Records, moved to Atlanta and began looking for talent. While in Atlanta, he discovered bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Finally Kooper reached an agreement with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s manager and signed the band with MCA.
A rowdy bunch of musicians, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd often fought with others or among themselves. Kooper produced their first three albums: Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, including Southern rock mega classic “Free Bird,” Second Helping, with greatest hits “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and lastly, Nuthin’ Fancy.
In its early days, Lynyrd Skynyrd became a big opening act for arena rockers such as ZZ Top, Savoy Brown, Eric Clapton, The Blues Project and Black Sabbath. But, when producing the band’s third album, Kooper clashed with engineer Dave Evans, and then after someone in the band spiked his soda pop with speed, he vowed this would be his last production with the group.
Then Kooper moved back to Los Angeles and produced the Tubes eponymous first album with A&M Records. Keeping in mind the band’s elaborate and original stage performance, Kooper envisioned the album as the casting of a Broadway show, particularly for the spectacular, anthemic extravaganza, “White Punks on Dope.” Kooper had to change the arrangements on every song, but the band members never complained or challenged his authority. Kooper wrote that this album was the best he ever produced.
Next, Kooper produced Cry Tough, an album for guitarist Nils Lofgren, during the creation of which he inhaled large amounts of nitrous oxide, until he got very sick.
Afterwards, Kooper produced the next album by Rick Nelson, wanting to reunite Nelson with trail-blazing guitarist James Burton, but Burton wanted too much money. Kooper had Nelson produce an electric rock album unlike anything Nelson had done before. Singing-wise it was perhaps Nelson’s best. Unfortunately, the execs at Epic hated it and refused to release it.
In 1978, Kooper banged out a new solo album titled Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, one of his favorite solo works, which included his own arrangement for “This Diamond Ring.“ But the offering sold poorly.
Leary of the upcoming Reagan administration, Kooper moved to London, England in 1979. But all he and his wife could find and afford was a two-bedroom apartment with no TV, bad plumbing and a pay phone in the living room.
While still living in London in December 1980, Kooper did some session work with George Harrison at Harrison’s home studio at Crackerbox Palace, Harrison’s estate. Kooper’s piano work is particularly evident on “All Those Years Ago.” Ringo Starr played drums for the session. Kooper also did some work for Ringo’s latest album.
Then, early one morning, Kooper heard on the radio that John Lennon had been murdered by a deranged fan. Harrison then dedicated the album, Somewhere in England, to John Lennon’s memory. Kooper spent that entire following day with Harrison, who took calls from Paul and Yoko, while drinking heavily.
Eventually moving back to the States, Kooper found himself in Austin, Texas. One night at the Steamboat Club, Stevie Ray Vaughan invited Kooper to come up and jam with him on the guitar. While he and Vaughan blazed away up there, Vaughan began playing the guitar behind his back, so Kooper, thinking what the heck, began playing his axe behind his back. When Kooper looked over at Vaughan, he was pissed. Soon, Kooper put down his guitar, waved at the audience and left the stage.
When Kooper moved back to L.A., he began a three-month tour as a sideman with Bob Dylan. (He and Dylan teamed up many times over the decades.) Kooper played Dylan’s new religious music, such as the tune “You Got to Serve Somebody.” They also got around to playing oldies such as “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Now the record execs wanted Kooper to produce another Super Session. (Kooper said they were always asking him to remake it.) This work, however, would have more rhythm and blues than blues. Kooper assembled a talented backup ensemble, including Tower of Power’s horn section. The resultant album was called Championship Wrestling. The Execs hated the album and the title too! But it was still released.
Work for Kooper dried up in the early 1980s and, at times, he had trouble paying the rent, though eventually he got a job as the West Coast Head of A&R for Polygram. But this job didn’t bear much fruit.
In 1985, Kooper scored some episodes for the TV show, Crime Story, the dark humor of which Kooper really liked. Kooper’s friend, Charlie Calello, split the work, for which they built their own up-to-date recording studio (including a computer and synthesizers), called the Slammer, at Amigo Studios. Much of the music they wrote was for the “cues,” short transitional pieces played during scene changes. Kooper eventually became the music supervisor of the show, but it was canceled after the second season.
Meanwhile, in 1988, Kooper married his third wife, Vivien.
Kooper then produced two tracks for B.B. King’s next album, King of the Blues, including the tune “Drowning in the Sea of Love.” But the execs at MCA remixed Kooper’s work, infuriating him. Incidentally, Kooper wrote that he had never met anyone nicer than B.B.
In May 1990, finally sick of the rat race and back-stabbing bastards of L.A., Kooper moved to Nashville, bringing along his collection of 10,000 LPs, 2,500 CDs and 4,000 singles.
About this time, Kooper sold his Jimi Hendrix Strat for $250,000. He wanted to keep it but was afraid somebody would steal it since his house in Nashville had been broken into numerous times.
In the early 1990s, Kooper became the musical director for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band comprised of authors such as Stephen King, who sang and played rhythm guitar, and a chorus of literary critics. All proceeds from the project went to charity. The tour spawned the book, Mid-Life Confidential, published in 1995.
When Kooper returned to L.A. for just five days early in 1994, an earthquake hit, leveling parts of the city, and he vowed to never return.
In the summer of 1999, Kooper worked as a sideman for guitarist/singer Joe Walsh on his three-month, Ordinary Average Guy Tour. Kooper had known Walsh since the middle 1960s. During the tour, Kooper’s third wife left him.
After a 12-year hiatus for such matters, Kooper produced another solo album, Rekooperation, an instrumental album, and in time for his fiftieth birthday. In general, critics liked the album, but it didn’t sell well. Then Kooper, along with the Rekooperators, his latest band and special guests such as Randy Brecker, Stephen King and Steve Katz, recorded a live jam at Kooper’s fiftieth birthday party, resulting in the release of Soul of a Man, a two-CD set.
In 1996, Kooper co-produced the critically acclaimed album, For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, with all proceeds going to The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Appearing with Kooper were artists as Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and many others.
In the late 1990s, Kooper received an Honorary Doctorate of Music at Five Towns College on Long Island. Then Kooper began teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston. His courses were advanced record production, advanced songwriting, history of American popular songwriting and history of record production.
In 2008, Al Kooper was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and recently produced the album, White Chocolate. And, after 51 years in the music business, Kooper keeps touring with his band.
These days, Al Kooper writes a monthly column for EQ magazine, and has contributed to other publications such as Rolling Stone, Musician, Live, Blues Review and Goldmine.
Now that rock ‘n’ roll has been around for a long time, many of its forerunners, legends, heroes, divas and rebels have died or are now getting on in years, but their contributions will never grow old. Al Kooper’s licks and inspiration will remain alive in the fingers and feet of present day rockers and those of the future, you can bet on that!
Montage of Kooper, Bloomfield, Dylan and others
Kooper walks and sings . . .
Here's some Al Kooper material . . .
© 2009 Kelley Marks