Rock 'n' roll Zelig

Al Kooper

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 18, 2004) – In a list of the 500 greatest rock albums of all time published in Rolling Stone, Al Kooper showed up on 12, including two in the top 10 and six in the top 100.

With a list of credits as a sideman and producer that includes Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Simon and Garfunkel, and B.B. King, plus key roles in the founding of ‘60s cult bands including the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears, Kooper is by any stretch a major figure in the history of rock.

Yet to this day, say “Al Kooper” to the casual listener and more often than not he’ll think you mean shock-rock pioneer Alice Cooper – with whom Kooper also worked.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” said Kooper – who performs a solo show at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Saturday night at 8:30 -- in a recent phone interview from his home in Boston. “I don’t really care.”

If there’s any justice, one day they will make room in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for this “Zelig” of rock ‘n’ roll who wound up playing the memorably accidental organ riffs on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and who was part of Dylan’s band that shocked the audience at the Newport Folk Festival by playing electric. Or for the man who dreamed up adding a jazz horn section to a rock band when he founded Blood, Sweat and Tears. Or for the man who discovered a local rock band playing in an Atlanta nightclub, and produced its first three albums, thus launching Southern rock kings Lynyrd Skynyrd into the big time.

In the meantime, however, Kooper is happy playing in his “musician’s Disneyland” in his Boston home. This self-described “hermit,” now legally blind, spends as much time these days tinkering with his website – – and answering E-mail from obsessive fans as he does making music and writing songs.

“The last actual solo album I did was in the Seventies,” said Kooper, “I have one-hundred and forty unreleased tracks. These songs hate me because they don’t get out of the house.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1944 and raised in Queens, N.Y., Kooper is thankful for simply being born at the right time. “I was around for the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, which was great,” said Kooper. “My cousin and I used to fight about who was better, Perry Como or Elvis Presley.”

Needless to say, Kooper sided with the latter. By 1958, he was a member of The Royal Teens, who had a big novelty hit with the tune “Short Shorts.” The guitarist went on to become a highly-valued studio musician in New York as well as an audio engineer and pop songwriter. His song “This Diamond Ring,” performed by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, was a huge hit that recently racked up its three-millionth radio performance.

Everything changed for Kooper in June 1965, when a producer friend, Tom Wilson, invited him to sit in on a recording session with Bob Dylan. He wound up supplying the quirky organ chords that so strongly characterized “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s first and greatest hit. From that day on, the guitarist was a keyboardist highly in demand for performers like Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, who had him drench “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with his trademark sound.

Kooper says that he was so anxious about doing a good job on the Dylan track that he didn’t realize at the time that they were making a groundbreaking recording.

“I was playing with one of my heroes, and that was momentous personally, and I was fighting for my life at that moment because if I f----- up it would be very bad for me and for Tom Wilson, the producer,” he said.

He said there was more of a sense of participating in something momentous when he went to Nashville the next winter to record Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album.

“I can’t believe what I played on it,” said Kooper, talking about his part on the song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”

“If I had to play that today, I couldn’t play it any better than I played it then,” he said. “Also, I did a lot of the arrangements, and I was, like, twenty-two. It’s ludicrous. I’m sixty now. It’s just amazing for me to hear that. There are other things I hear and go, OK, you were only twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. But ‘Blonde on Blonde’ just really sticks out to me. When I hear ‘Child Is Father to the Man’ [the first album by Blood, Sweat and Tears] all I hear is the mistakes. But there aren’t many mistakes on ‘Blonde on Blonde.’”

Kooper’s achievements as a singer and recording artist were showcased several years ago on a two-disk retrospective, “Rare & Well Done” (Columbia/Legacy). The package included 18 unreleased tracks from Kooper’s archives plus collaborations with the Blues Project, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Mike Bloomfield, Stephen Stills, Shuggie Otis and others. The music spans jazz, soul, rock, blues and folk in various combinations and permutations.

The booklet that comes with the package includes testimonials from 30 musicians paying tribute to Kooper, including Pete Townshend, B.B. King, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood.

“Those made me feel better than anything in my life,” said Kooper, “because you’re not being praised by a bunch of jerks. You’re being praised by your contemporaries and your peers and that’s special. And I never really had that before. And there it was, all collected in one little book that very few people got to read. But it was great for me. I was surprised Andy Partridge [leader of British rock group XTC] knew who I am. That’s all I needed. I’m happy now.”

Kooper says his success was based on “ninety percent ambition and luck and ten percent talent.”

“Now it’s completely reversed. I have one of the most bizarre lives ever recorded.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 19, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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