If you have heard Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone or The Man in Me or You Can’t Always Get What You Want with the Rolling Stones, you have heard Al Kooper’s organ. And these songs are but a few of the songs Al Kooper has played on, written or produced during his 50 year run since he started out in the early 60’s. February 5th he is 70 years old.
I met Al Kooper when he played at the Notodden Blues festival in 2001. He played there with his colleagues from Berklee Music College, The Funky Faculty, and NRK P1 were allowed to record the concert. Al Kooper had some questions about the contract, and we sorted this out backstage before the concert. Afterwards he got a copy of the recording. Usually our excellent sound engineers do the mixdown from the concerts, but Al Kooper asked if he could mix it for us in his own studio. He liked the recording himself, and two of the songs on his 2005 solo release, Black Coffee – Green Onions and Comin’ Back in a Cadillac – are from the P1 recording.
Al Kooper’s first claim to fame was when he was 21 years old and played organ on Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. He was supposed to play guitar, but when he heard the other guitarist that had been hired, Mike Bloomfield, he thought that he was much better, so he packed down the guitar and went back to the control room. While the recording was being done, he suggested to the producer, Tom Wilson, that Like A Rolling Stone needed an organ track.
Tom Wilson was against Kooper’s suggestion but when he went out for a minute, Kooper sat down by the organ and laid down the organ track. When they listened to it afterwards, Dylan demanded that the producer should turn up the organ, and that became the version we know. Another interesting fact about Like A Rolling Stone, is that it became Bob Dylan’s highest chart success with a second plac on the chartse. It was also the first time in history a son of more than 5 minutes to climb this high. After Like A Rolling Stone, Al Kooper was hired as a producer on Self Portrait and New Morning, the last one being a frustrating experience for him, because Dylan changed his mind all the time.
In 1967 Al Kooper formed Blood, Sweat & Tears together with guitarist Steve Katz. After their first album, Child Is Father To The Man, Kooper quit because of “artistic differences”. There are dfferent versions of this story, and Kooper’s version is written in his autobiography from 1977, Backstage Passes. In 1998 he reissued a revised version of the book, called Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards. The book is great reading with many revealing facts about his career and also some harsh stories about the men around him.
My first experience with Al Kooper’s music was with the album Super Session from 1968 with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills. The guitarists play on one side of the album each, and the album has become a classic with songs like Albert’s Shuffle with Mike Bloomfield and Season Of The Witch with Stephen Stills.
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield continued to work together and later in 1968 they made a double live album from a concert at the Filmore East venue in New York. The album was called The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. The guest musicians on the CD were Carlos Santana, Elvin Bishop and Paul Simon doing a vocal overdub on The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy).
In 1972 Al Kooper moved to Atlanta, started his own record label, Sound of the South, discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced and released their first three records with among them Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird. Two years later he sold the label to MCA and moved to Los Angeles.
Al Kooper is a good example of an artist who showed his talent as a teenager, he happened to be in the right place at the right time (Like a Rolling Stone), but the rest of his career is based on his own talent and hard work. He knows the business from all sides, as a session musician on countless recordings, as a solo musician, a star on his own, as a producer and as the owner of a record company. In later years he has taught music at the Berklee College of Music and played with fellow teachers in The Funky Faculty and also in another band, The ReKooperators. To me Al Kooper is up there with other legendary musicians from the 60’s, like Steve Cropper, and a few others.
I will strongly recommend reading Backstage Passes & Bakstabbing Bastards, and listening to the following albums: Super Session, The Live Adventures of Mike bloomfield and Al Kooper, Bob Dylan’s New Morning, Like A Rolling Stone, Child is Father To The Man with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and one of my favorites, I Got a Woman from his solo album from 1970, Easy Does It, with a sax solo by fellow BS&T musician Fred Lipsius.
All pictures are © Per Ole Hagen and must not be used without written permission.