Half a Century of Essential Music
Al Kooper was born in Brooklyn February 2, 1944, and started his musical career as a young teenager, as a matter of fact, becoming one of the Royal Teens whose campy "Short Shorts" in 1958 was a bullet on the charts to number five. The guys shout "We like short shorts," while the girls answer, "We wear short shorts," punctuated with smart alecky sax riffs. (I was reminded of this song while substitute teaching in today's school system, and while short shorts were worn at the beach, now they are worn in school!) 1959 saw their "Believe Me" make it to the top thirty. At this time Al Kooper was in demand as a guitarist, not because of his virtuosity, but because he was one of the few musicians who actually like the Rock and Roll he played as opposed to the classical and jazz musicians playing pop 'beneath them' just for the money.
The constant demand for studio work necessitated his learning to read and write music, and learning the audio engineering aspect; and he became more e in demand, and his contacts grew wider. One couple of songwriters, Bob Brass and Irwin Levine collaborated with him to write "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis and the Playboys that has been heard million of times.
Knock Knock Knockin' on Opportunities' Door
Al Kooper became warmly acquainted with Columbia producer Tom Wilson, and when Bob Dylan was in studio, Al was asked by Tom to come and watch. Al, brought his guitar, but when he saw Michael Bloomfield, he put it away, and was ready to be just an observant. Before things got going, he sat down at the organ, and was almost thrown out, when Dylan interceded on his behalf, giving Kooper the chance to play the now famous organ riff captured on the Mega Mega hit, "Like a Rolling Stone." Al Kooper in an interview in 1995 said the booing at their live debut was not because they went from acoustic to electric, as the Chambers Brothers were not 'unplugged,' but because the audience had some wrong signal that the set was over when he put down his acoustic to 'plug in.' He worked on several of the Dylan albums, later as producer, and gives those early electric works a distinctive feel. As a matter of fact Manuel, the keyboardist for The Band was kept "on the bench" on those mid-sixties Dylan sessions until Kooper found other projects.
The friendship with Bloomfield began at this time and lasted until the sad demise of this great electric and slide guitarist in 1981. To turn away the many offers, Al actually tripled the fee, but still got jobs, and one notable acceptance was from the Blues Project, comprised of guitarists Danny Kalb and Steve Katz with Roy Blumenfield drumming and Andy Kulberg bringing up the bass. The live recordings are most memorable with "Two Trains Running" which was on their first album and captured onstage in Soul of a Man. Reproduced also was "I Can't Keep From Cryin' Sometimes," "Violets of Dawn," and the jamming instrumental "Flute Thing." This writer's favorite is the studio cut, "Wake Me, Shake Me" where they plead, "Don't let me sleep too long, got make it to the Heaven doors, two time, before the Heaven Doors close..." Kooper, around 1967, had a aesthetic disagreement with Kalb (who was soon out on a bad LSD trip) on the adding of a horn section, so he left the group. Blumenfield and Kulberg lingered on without much success afterwards.
A New Sound
After leaving the Blues Project, he helped form Blood, Sweat, and Tears in 1968, with his dream of adding horns could be fulfilled. Child is Father to the Man is their masterpiece, but this group became an endeavor he abandoned that same year as he went to Columbia Records for acoustic engineering, and other studio work.
(On a side note: This writer saw the musician with a big band ensemble touring in Maryland, and when I went up to the stage and told him how much I like his Blood Sweat and Tears album, he gave me a dirty look, if only he could have read my mind knowing how much David Clayton-Thomas could never replace him.
He went to work on an oeuvre, Super Session a result of bringing together then superstar Stephen Stills, his childhood friend Harvey Brooks, and others in a jam session type format that saw rock, jazz and blues mixed extemporaneously with long tracks. Particularly satisfying is their cover of Donovan's "Season of the Witch." A little later Al recorded his first solo album, I stand alone, as well as helped Johnnie Otis' kid, Shuggie Otis get
untracked. Session work included playing on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get You Want." He worked with the Who and Jimi Hendrix. He did the soundtrack for Hal Ashby's movie, The Landlord.
Sweet Home Atlanta
In 1972 he relocated Atlanta for his own label, Sounds of the South where he produces superstars Lynard Skynard, and markets three hit albums, most noteworthy is the hit, "Sweet Home Alabama," and yeah, man, where's my lighter, "Free Bird."
In 1974 he sold MCA his company, and moves to LA, and by 1977 after chillin' he writes his story, Backstage Passes.
Why Can't Anyone Stay in One Place Anymore?
In 1979 Al moves to England, where his productions are The Hot Rods, and David Essex and Eddie, and his studio work continued helping George Harrison on Somewhere, and even was a Beatle on their number one "All Those Years Ago." His move back to the states the next year had him helping fellow Austin Texan, Joe Ely until in 1981 he's was back in LA to reunite with Dylan and the Blues Project; and putting out another solo release, Championship Wrestling.
West Coast, but, No Coasting
The 80's saw Al working hard at Polygram as their West Coast director of A&R bringing on board Richard Thompson, and working with Miami Vice producer and director on a new series, Crime Story's original soundtracks all benefiting from the neo-sixties feel, that only one who had been there could invoke.
He was part of the Emmy winner, The Drug Wars, and put music on John Waters' Cry Baby.
The later 80's Al took a hiatus from the action, but the cash still rolled in from royalties from five million copies of the hip-hop Beastie Boys version of "Flute Thing." There became a Hip-hop/Kooper explosion as Jay-Z used samples on Dynasty. Robert Redford contributed to the till when Sneakers used "Really" from his Super Session
You Can Take the Boy Out of the Music, but You Can't Take the Music Out of the Boy
1991 Kooper was back on Joe Walsh's Ordinary Average Guy jaunt, while a little later that year directed the musical for none other than Ray Charles on his Fiftieth Anniversary Special. 1993 MusicMasters put out the instrumental concept album Rekooperation, which included late night show guitarist Jimmy Vivino and his old buddy, and fellow Dylan studio musician, Harvey Brooks and the obligatory brass provided by the Uptown Horns; and was much lauded even from the finickiest reviewers. The next year he directed a band made up of a dozen authors including Stephen King and Matt Groening called the Rock Bottom Remainders. They then wrote a humorous book in 1995 about these experiences, Mid-life Confidential. The musicians that collaborated with him earlier on Rekooperation helped him put out in 1995, Soul of a Man. That year he hosted the The equivalent of Qscars for the technical end of the industry in the TEC Awards in NY and of course brought them standing to rave over his solo playing his signature, "I love You More Than You'll Ever Know.
Like A Rolling Stone, Again
That same year the thirtieth Bob Dylan Anniversary Tribute at Madison Gardens would not be complete with out Kooper's presence, and indeed he played along side of John Cougar Melloncamp on "Like a Rolling Stone, " and the always funny, "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat."
The next year he was with Bobby, again, for England's Hyde Park Prince's Trust concert. Woodstock II was blessed that year by his Sunday morning gospel ministry. In a bizarre sequence, which he laughs and almost cries about, he actually protested the original 1969 Woodstock by throwing a two dollar a head Central Park Concert by him. He helped produced Harry Nilsson's For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson.
His work is all over the place from Tom Petty
to Steve Winwood
. The (incomplete) list includes Pete Townshend
, Andy Partridge
, Gene Simmons
, Billy Gibbons
, Gary Burton
, and George Winston
. He is still active, even though he had to step down as Doctor of Music Kooper from teaching since 1997 at Boston, MA Berklee School of Music
-- as his eyesight became two thirds diminished in the new millennium. He still did the Norwegian Notodden Blues Festival
in 2001, and now with Berklee there is the Al Kooper It Can Happen Fund to scholarship handicapped students. That fall his Sony
two CD set was released: Rare and Well Done
containing wonderful remastered masterpieces. What do we have to look forward to in 2002? Released by Sony it will be lost recordings from the Fillmore East