Al Kooper out front
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 21, 2004) – Although he has been active in music for over 40 years and has shared in numerous groundbreaking collaborations and trend-setting projects, Al Kooper has never achieved fame as a solo artist or frontman. Nevertheless, hardcore aficionados know that Kooper boasts one of the most impressive resumes of the rock era, which presumably accounts for the standing-room-only crowd at Club Helsinki on Saturday night for a rare, one-man show by the mystical rock legend.

Part cabaret, part monologue, part concert, Kooper’s two-hour program treated the audience to an in-depth look at the songwriter’s history, which functions as something of a shadow history of rock ‘n’ roll.

He began as a teen-age songwriting sensation, working Brill Building-style with a team of lyricists in a cramped cubicle, churning out hits on demand for groups like the Shangri-Las and the Drifters. As it turns out, Kooper labored in the stable of the Berkshires’ own Aaron Schroeder, a renowned publisher and songwriter in his own right. Kooper told several amusing stories about working for Schroeder, and demonstrated how a very funky r&b song he wrote for the Drifters became “This Diamond Ring,” a multi-million-selling “vanilla” hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

But Kooper dug even deeper into his musical history, elaborating how the culturally sheltered Jewish boy from Queens, N.Y., wound up eventually immersing himself in black music, particularly blues and gospel. He showed how those sounds did more than influence him musically; they touched him to the very essence of his spirit, as he described in his musical creed, “Living In My Own Religion.”

Accompanying himself primarily on electronic keyboard with occasional turns on electric guitar and mandolin, Kooper boasted a rich, honest, versatile voice that tackled the hardcore blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ray Charles-style r&b, and Donny Hathaway-influenced soul. While he is known as something of a virtuoso, he didn’t show off at all. Rather, his strength was in his confident attack. Keyboard can be a cold instrument, but he came to it late in his career after working as a session guitarist for several years. As such, he seems to conceptualize the keyboard as a guitar, and the result is a unique, warm, even loving touch.

Kooper played the old-time rock ‘n’ roll of “High Heeled Sneakers” and performed a dead-on tribute to Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore. He alluded to his brief tenure with Jimi Hendrix with a pitch-perfect rendition of the guitarist’s intro to “Little Wing,” which led into his own “I Can’t Keep from Cryin’ Sometimes,” from his repertoire with The Blues Project. He offered the stirring, soulful ballad, “Just One Smile,” from the original Blood, Sweat and Tears album that he wrote and produced, and showcased a medley of his most-requested songs, including “New York City (You’re a Woman),” one of several of his songs that share musical and lyrical sensibilities with Randy Newman (who, coincidentally, was another songwriter first published by Schroeder).

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 23, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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