Al Kooper: Living rock history

By Paul Freeman [2010 Interview[

In the history of rock music, Al Kooper has etched a huge chapter. As a performer/songwriter/arranger, he brought the world The Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears. As a producer, he enhanced the work of Bob Dylan, The Tubes and Nils Lofgren, as well as discovering 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 has a fabulous band, but when he plays the West Coast these days, economics prevent him from flying them out here. But a Kooper solo show is equally riveting.

“You can do different songs that you can’t do with a band. And that’s a good thing,” Kooper told Pop Culture Classics. “I have to rehearse for a month before I go out for this tour, to get into playing solo, which is a whole other thing. And then I try to tell the stories behind the songs, while I’m up there. So it’s very intimate, but it has to be in the right place, in a quiet room and then it works great.”

Kooper’s live shows span his whole career, a lot of classic Kooper, as well as material from his most recent albums, “White Chocolate” and “Black Coffee.”

It was the highly caffeinated rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley that first captivated Kooper. “That just completely destroyed me. I just thought that was the greatest thing ever. I studied his guitar player [Scotty Moore] very diligently, almost like schoolwork. I’d come home from school and put the record player on and sit there with the guitar and try and figure out what the hell he was doing.

“Also James Burton [guitarist on Ricky Nelson’s rockabilly hits] 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 really learned how to play.

“I’m fond of saying that women who bought Ricky Nelson records bought them for Ricky Nelson. Men who bought Ricky Nelson records bought them for James Burton.”

For Kooper, born in Brooklyn in 1944, the allure wasn’t fan worship, 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. That was my main concern.

“I was definitely born with music in me. It didn’t come from my family. I mean, it didn't, in that they played the radio and my father had records. But my mother and father were not musicians, per se. But the music really got inside me and I was able to play instruments without lessons.”

At 14, Kooper joined The Royal Teens, as their 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.

“It was surreal. But it encompassed all the things that I was into. So it was very good. Bob Gaudio was the one who accepted me into the band. It was his band. So he really gave me my professional start.

“When I left the band, we didn’t see each other for centuries. I watched The Four Seasons become gigantic and I was going, ‘Boy, that Gaudio, he’s got the magic touch.’

“I was very ambitious and I really wanted to do this. Coming out of that band, I got some studio work as a guitar player and also got signed as a songwriter. Those two things kept me pretty busy for a few years.”

After that experience, Kooper studied music at college for a year. “It was terrible teaching. They were teaching me to be a music teacher, which didn’t interest me at all. Before college, I had studied privately with a guy who taught me a lot of good stuff. And I was already working in the music business, before I went to college.

“So I’d get red marks on my homework, saying, ‘This is wrong.’ I’d play it for the teacher and I’d say,’ This is not wrong.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not the way Bach would have written it.’ I’d say, ‘Well, look up from your papers and you’ll see that I’m not Bach.’ He said, ‘You have to learn the rules before you can break them.’ I said, ‘Uh-uh. This is not the place for me.’ And so I didn’t last very long. But I was already making money in the music business.

“So to spend four years with that sort of mentality, I thought was a huge mistake. I just had to go to war with my parents over it, because where I came from, if you didn’t graduate from college, you were a bum. So I had to overcome that. But pretty soon, I had a number one record and I sort of proved to my parents that I was going to make something of myself.

“I went and took lessons from a guy who taught me theory and also piano. I needed both of those things very much. But then, once I had them, I put them to work right away.”

He landed a job as a songwriter, in the building that served as the heart of the music business.

“The New York music scene was a great scene, so that was tremendously helpful. I couldn’t have done it without that. And actually that building, 1650 Broadway, was where I really went to college. The Brill Building was on Broadway, too, 1619 Broadway. But this was a few blocks away, 1650, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin were in 1650 Broadway, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Dionne Warwick, just millions of people who are credited with the Brill Building sound.

“I learned so much, just going to that building every day. One of the publishers there signed me to a writing contract. So I would write songs in their office. I was only like three floors above Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Neil Sedaka and all those people. They were all in the same building.”

Partnered with Bob Brass and Irwin Levine, Kooper penned hundreds of songs. It was “This Diamond Ring,” recorded by Gary Lewis & The Playboys, that shot to number one.

“The publisher would send all these songs out to various acts. He was very good at that. So, in that time period, I had my songs covered by a lot of people. It’s just that they weren’t hits - Tommy Sands, Keely Smith, George Chakiris, The Rockin’ Berries, The Banana Splits - we had tons of records, in addition to the Gary Lewis record. Gene Pitney did five of our songs.

“So that wasn’t the only thing that we had recorded. It was just the most famous thing. You wanted to have a hit and then finally we had a number one record. It was very exciting.

“I just sort of wandered through this thing, doing whatever I could do. I wrote ghost arrangements, I did studio work as a guitar player, I wrote songs, I played gigs in various bands. Everything I was doing was in the music business.

“It was a great way to be raised. It was a great building. The whole music business was represented in that building. It wasn’t the Brill Building. The Brill Building has been very over-emphasized by rock writers. But it really all took place in another building entirely. Not very much happened in the Brill Building, as far as the music that’s associated with the Brill Building sound.

“That’s just part of me watching revisionism, through my whole career. Things where I was present, that they talk about, are always flawed and wrong. Like people booing Dylan at Newport. Didn’t happen.

“And this ‘Brill Building Sound’ - what a bunch of shit that is. It’s just unbelievable. And the sad part of it is, when I leave the Earth, in the next 10 or 20 years, all this finding revisionism will be over. That’s really what I got most out of my career, is what a fallacy history is. You just don’t know the truth, which is not a good thing.”

Kooper played keyboards at Dylan’s infamous Newport concert, where the folk icon went electric and the audience booed. Kooper set the record straight, noting the real reason for the negative reception.

“He got up there and played some rock ‘n’ roll at the folk festival and the purists on the festival board were furious. But the audience, on the other hand, had come to see him. Most every act played 45 minutes to an hour. He was the headliner of the whole festival and he 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 really 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 did most of the arrangements on Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” album.

“I just understood what he was doing. And he understood what I was doing. And so, we understood each other. So he didn’t put much negativity in my path, nor I in his. We just sort of worked together for his benefit.

“He was gigantic at the time. But I wasn’t like as immature as being in awe or anything like that. I was just working.”

Though much in demand for session work, in 1965, Kooper accepted an invitation to join The Blues Project. The band earned raves at a Fillmore, San Francisco concert the following year. Eventually, Kooper’s creative vision led him away from the group.

He left the band shortly before their Monterey Pop performance in 1967, but became an integral part of the legendary festival.

“I had had like a nervous breakdown, for lack of a better thing to call it, and I left The Blues Project. I was not in great shape and I went to California to sort of recuperate, if I could spell that differently than you normally would [re-Kooper-ate]. I was staying at a friend’s house and the second day, he took me down to the Monterey office and just left me there, because he knew that there would be something that I could do. So I just started working there. It was good for me. It channeled me back into doing something, instead of just sitting around, moping.

“I left The Blues Project, because I had written a lot of new songs and they didn’t want to do them, the way I wanted to do them.

“I had a new batch of songs that said to me they wanted to have horns on them. And 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, eclectic “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.

“With The Blues Project, we hung out, went to dinner, socialized. And it didn’t work. The band broke up anyway. With Blood Sweat & Tears, I just sort of hung out at rehearsals and at the gigs and didn’t go to dinner and I didn’t do all these things. I said, ‘With this band, I’m just going to be more professional and I’m just going to hang out when it’s time to hang out and have a little private life, in addition to that. So that’s what I did.

“So while I was having my private life, two of the guys were like plotting against me. And I didn’t even know it, because I didn’t hang out anymore. It reminds me of the Frankenstein story. I built this monster and then it killed me. Except I really didn’t know that the monster disliked me so much. So when I found that out, then it was really impossible to continue.

“They treated me very badly in the end, because they didn’t want me in the band. So it sort of coerced me to leave. So I did. I felt like I had just been in two bands that were good bands and people resented me for what I did in those bands. So maybe it was not a good idea for me to be in a band anymore,” Kooper chuckled, “because I’m not very good at politics. And the people who unseated me were very good politicians.

“So I left. But I learned from it, in that I was never in a band again.”

He recorded solo albums, beginning with 1968’s “I Stand Alone,” followed by “You Never Know Who Your Friends Are.” Going solo can be liberating.

“That sort of backfired on me on my first solo album. I just went sort of berserk on that first album and I don’t really like that album very much. I just went berserk, because I could. And I didn’t get it under control until the second album. The second album, to me, is one of the best records I’ve ever made. Certainly some of the best arrangements I ever wrote.”

In addition to fronting his own groups, Kooper began producing other artists. For guitar great Mike Bloomfield, of The Electric Flag, Kooper assembled the landmark 1968 “Super Session” jam album.

Kooper found an instant rapport with Bloomfield. “We were culturally the same. I lived in New York and he lived in Chicago. But we were very similar, same age, writing the same kind of music. That was a very fortuitous meeting.

“We liked each other. We played very well together. And I’m glad that I got to do that in his short lifetime.

“I didn’t really like the way he played on the records he was involved with up to that point, compared to how he played live. I thought he was stilted in the studio, comparatively. So I wanted to make a record where he was not intruded upon artistically at all. I wanted to just capture that stuff that he did live, in the studio, and make him as comfortable as possible, which I surmised that he hadn’t been before, although I wasn’t at those sessions.

“We had a compatibility with each other. We got along and we knew that we played well together, so if we took it into a studio, it would make an interesting record.”

As a producer, Kooper’s mission was to bring out the artists’ essence. “I was just trying to help those people. That’s what you should do, if you’re a record producer. I became very fascinated with it, when I watched the guy produce me in the Blood Sweat & Tears album. I could not have made that Blood Sweat & Tears album without that producer, John Simon. And so I watched him like a student, the whole time that we made that album and I learned so much from him. And it was sort of my foundation, because, right after that, I became a producer. And my whole foundation of producing was based on John Simon.

“I produced The Tubes, which really has not much to do with Lynyrd Skynyrd or Nils Lofgren. I don’t think I ever put a stamp on the records I produced, other than I wanted them to be good records. I worked very hard for them to be good records. But for them to have any identification musically of Al Kooper would have been an ego-filled mistake. And that’s not what I was interested in.

“I just wanted to make great records, that’s all. So what was appropriate for, say, Nils Lofgren, was not appropriate for Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Tubes or whoever else I produced. 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.

“I liked a lot of different kinds of music. I only worked on records where I really liked the music. I was a really big Nils Lofgren fan before I did that album. And I had heard The Tubes a year before I was able to find a way to produce them. And I heard Skynyrd in a bar and thought they were fantastic.”

For Kooper, the motivation remained the music, not the glory or the cash. “Whereas, some people took jobs for the money, I never did that in my whole career. And because of that, I really got cheated out of most of that money, because I wasn’t doing it for the money. I got cheated out of just about all the money that was owed to me. Except for my songwriting. That’s really what supports me. If I didn’t have that, I’d be living under a bridge in a cardboard box today, if I hadn’t written so many songs.”

It’s rewarding to Kooper that the music he worked on continues to impact people. “‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ they’re still playing it. And for me, it stands the test of time, because I mixed that record. I was comparatively young when I did that and it still sounds good to me. I think I did a good job. So it’s great to watch younger people, who weren’t even alive when I made that record, enjoy that record. That means a lot to me.

“Most people don’t know that I produced that record. But that doesn’t really matter. To watch it be in the background in every movie and TV show and all kids liking it and Kid Rock playing it and all this stuff, it’s very satisfying.

“I was really surprised that it outlasted ‘Free Bird.’ I thought ‘Free Bird’ was going to be the one that was going to be on the tip of everybody’s musical tongue. But it sort of faded out. And ‘Sweet Home’ won the contest.”

On his web site,, you can order CDs or his updated autobiography, “Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards.” Right now, you can gain his insights on Kooper’s 50 favorite downloads of 2010, including such artists as Terri Hendrix, Brandon Flowers, Hanson, Brian Wilson, Solomon Burke, Spock’s Beard, Katie Melua, Andreya Triana and Teenage Fanclub. The site also includes a Kooper discography, which is an astounding list of great recordings.

“I just think of it as tiring,” Kooper chuckled. “I was also 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.”

The site also has info on his own downloadable “50/50,” 50 years of superb Kooper tracks. He enjoys exploring the internet’s musical possibilities.

“I’m very much into that. Record stores are gone. And I haven’t listened to the radio in 30 years. When I discovered iTunes, when it first came out, that changed my life. That became my radio. Every Tuesday, they have every single new release on there, alphabetically. And that’s where I go every Tuesday and I listen to everything except the kinds of music I don’t listen to - modern country music, hip-hop, rap and thrash-metal.

“Everything else I listen to, in fact, lately, I’ve become extremely infatuated with African music. So I’ve been listening to a lot of that and really enjoying it. I don’t mind searching for good music. I enjoy it, actually.”

Kooper is diligently working on music for his next album. “I’ve been working on one track for three months. It’s very complicated, the arrangement that I do. So it’s taking a really long time. But it’s good. I’ve got the singers from Brian Wilson’s current band, singing back-up. So it will be very nice.

“I’m not a perfectionist. But I hear something in my head. I hear the finished record in my head and then I just have to set about to make it sound like that. That’s where the complication comes in. I’m still learning.

“I have a tremendous amount of material just sitting around, because I didn’t record for so many years. I have a playlist on iTunes, that I put together of all the songs that are laying around. And that’s where I go. I don’t write as much as I used to. But I wrote so much in that time period, where I wasn’t putting records out, that there’s over a hundred things in there.

“So to me, it’s no accident that ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘ White Chocolate,’ I think, are my two best albums. It’s because I had a great source of material that most people don’t have.

“Usually, if I had a project, that would get me writing. But it doesn’t work like that anymore. I’ve learned to live with it. Also, I’m spoiled by the fact that I have so much material just sitting here.”

“Here” is his Somerville, Massachusetts home. “I really keep to myself. I hardly ever leave the house. I have my own world there. Really, I can be in this place for weeks at a time without stepping outside.

“Everything I want is in the house, so I don’t have to go out, really. I’m married. My wife gets the food,” he laughed. “So I don’t have to do that. And all the rest is here.

“Also, I don’t sleep much. So I work quite a bit. I only sleep two to four hours a night.”

Always an integral thread in the fabric of rock, Kooper stands apart from the industry. “I don’t know anything about today’s music business. I don’t know any of the players. I quit producing in ‘89. From that point on, I only produced myself or the people in my musical family. So I stopped knowing who worked at the record company and who was the one who decided who produced who and all that stuff. And I didn’t make any real solo albums for 30 years. I wasn’t pushing myself into the record companies as an artist. So I dropped out.”

In 1997, he taught at renowned Berklee College of Music. “It was rewarding. Not financially,” Kooper laughed, “But philanthropically, it was nice.”

In 2001, Berklee bestowed an honorary Doctorate of Music on the artist, who had given birth to so many of rock’s great moments.

A debilitating condition robbed Kooper of much of his sight. But his musical vision is unimpaired.

In the rock ‘n’ roll world, careers are often counted in minutes. Kooper has remained a creative force for half a century.

“I just learned, in the course of my career. I studied a lot of different parts of the business. So I could produce records, I could arrange, I could write songs, I could play in people’s bands. So, if things ever went bad in one area, I could just fall into the other area... and I think that’s how I survived.”