Courtesy of Al Kooper

He was a participant in some of the great musical moments of the past half century, part of Bob Dylan’s band when he “went electric” at the ‘65 Newport Folk Festival, accompanist for Village folk ‘royalty’ (Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs), shaper of Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone,” ditto the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” player on The Who Sell Out, discoverer/producer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, creator of the “Super Session” concept (with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills). Al Kooper, in short, has a million stories, which is why we are splitting John Kruth’s amazing interview with him into two parts. There’s just too much here for one sitting.

Al Kooper has had one of the most remarkable careers in the history of modern music. While often compared to Zelig, the mysterious protagonist of Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary of the same name, that metaphor doesn’t really fit Al. Although Leonard Zelig mysteriously appears beside everyone from famous authors to world leaders, he is nondescript. We know nothing about the man.

That’s definitely not the case with Al Kooper. Like Zelig, Kooper seemed to be everywhere, all at the same time, with everyone who was anyone, since his early days with the Royal Teens, to cowriting “This Diamond Ring,” (with four million + airplays to date) to working as a Greenwich Village sideman to Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs, to playing the famous organ line on “Like A Rolling Stone,” on (an instrument on which he was a dilettante) to riding shotgun with Dylan at his infamous electric debut at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65. After helping to put the Blues Project on the map, Kooper then formed the original Blood, Sweat and Tears, until he was unceremoniously booted out of his own band. While recording his solo albums, Al jammed with everyone from the Rolling Stones on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” to Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland, as well as the Who, and George Harrison to discovering and producing Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Tubes.

In recent years, Kooper has become hip with hip-hoppers (while no fan of the form himself). His songs and sounds have been sampled by everyone from to Beastie Boys to Pharcyde and Jay-Z.

The Tubes 1975

Talking with Al is like spinning a carnival prize wheel with the names of nearly every influential musician of the Sixties and Seventies printed on each wedge. ‘round and ‘round it goes until it randomly lands on… Jim Morrison… which leads to a tale of a chance meeting with the Lizard King clad in a bathrobe at some “hot girl’s” apartment. “He was totally down to earth, no bullshit, no pretense. I didn’t know he had it in him,” Kooper confessed.

Next up might be Ray Charles, who Al jammed with on guitar, along with Stevie Wonder… or convincing Clive Davis to release Zombies’ nearly lost masterpiece Odessey and Oracle.

So, let’s give Big Al’s Musical Wheel of Fortune a whirl shall we?

PKM: How did you hook up with Moby Grape?

Al Kooper: I thought their first album was magnificent. They played great. They were a great rock ‘n’ roll band. “Omaha” was my favorite song of theirs. But they were recorded and mixed poorly. I cringe whenever I hear those drums. I played on their second album [Wow! – 1968 – which came with a bonus disc of jam sessions called Grape Jam]. I really liked them and got along with them as people. It was a lot of fun. That’s where I kind of got the idea to do Super Session [with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield]. I had just started working at Columbia and had nothing to do, no one to produce. That’s why I did Super Session.

PKM: That was a great record. It really helped bring jamming to the forefront in rock. And there’s also some very cool stuff on the next one [The Live Adventures of Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield.] Could you talk about your relationship with Mike.

Al Kooper: We were friends because of [Bob Dylan’s] Highway 61. Michael was the complete opposite from me. He had a high energy delivery where I’ve always been more laid back. Whatever he was thinking went directly from his head to his mouth, just like the same way he played, right from his head to his fingers.

Michael was pretty uninhibited during the Highway 61 session. He was very demonstrative and had a lot to say about the songs and the arrangements.

PKM: Not only was Bloomfield a great guitarist, he could talk!  Give that guy a microphone and he’d go right off the deep end!

Al Kooper: He was extremely bright. He came from an unbelievably rich family. Every time you walk into a coffee shop or restaurant, every coffee maker has the name Bloomfield on it.

Mike Bloomfield

PKM: And all the salt and pepper and sugar shakers too. Did coming from such a privileged background have anything to do with his early demise?

Al Kooper: No! Smack had to do with his early demise. Heroin was a very Chicago thing to do. It wasn’t unknown in New York either! But I was too smart for that… While I was a drug guy, I wasn’t stickin’ no needle in my arm! But he never did heroin around me, ever.

PKM: Other than wearing some pretty stoned-looking clothes, you never struck me as much of a drug guy Al…

Al Kooper: Well, Denny Cordell [Cordell produced the Moody Blues’ “Go Now,” Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and signed Leon Russell, Joe Cocker and others] was a very good friend of mine. Once we were getting on a plane to England and we’d taken some serious fuckin’ downers. Then they delayed the flight an hour. And I swear to God, he carried me on the plane! Fortunately, we were flying first class, so they let me be unconscious when they took off. And I was out!  I woke up in the middle of the flight. [Laughs]. Anyway. Denny was a good friend of mine and that’s how I wound up playing on some Joe Cocker tracks early on.

I asked George how he found my house without knowing where I lived. He told me, “A Beatle has ways!”

PKM: Cool! Back to Highway 61

Al Kooper: The studio musicians they had were good, but Bob was looking for a different sound. They had upright [bass] players and he needed an electric bass player, so I brought in Harvey [Brooks]. We’d been partners in Queens, playing clubs and doing some sessions together. Nobody knew who we were.

PKM: Bloomfield’s playing with Paul Butterfield had really raised the bar for anybody playing electric guitar at the time. As I recall there was a strong competition between the Blues Project and the Butterfield Blues Band.

Al Kooper: One night Michael came into our dressing room [The Blues Project and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band played a week-end long gig June 30th – July 3rd, 1966, together at the Cafe Au Go Go, in Greenwich Village] and said, “I heard you guys were shit, but you’re really good!” I took it as a real compliment. The Blues Project were not a traditional blues band. We took a lot of liberties with the music, but he got it, which was great.

PKM: I know you’ve told the story a million times but give us the Cliff Notes version of what happened at Newport [Folk Festival, July 25, 1965, when Bob Dylan “went electric”].

Al Kooper: That was a disaster! It was just like in the film [Murray Lerner’s Festival]. You could only hear Bob’s voice and Michael’s guitar, which really pissed off the crowd. That and the fact that we only played for fifteen minutes.

PKM: I know Mike loved to jam and was always supportive of any new guy who could really play.

Al Kooper: We were playing at the Fillmore [East on December 13, 1968] when Michael brought Johnny Winter back to the dressing room. I had never heard of him before. He said ‘I wanna bring him up.’ We did just two songs [with Winter]. One was like twelve minutes long. Within six minutes Johnny had played every lick under the sun. Michael just let him play. He was playing for his life. The difference was that Johnny was playing other people’s stuff while Bloomfield just played Bloomfield. But he [Winter] got his record deal [with Columbia] that night.

You could only hear Bob’s voice and Michael’s guitar, which really pissed off the crowd. That and the fact that we only played for fifteen minutes.

PKM: OK, while we’re talking guitar legends, there’s a great photo of you standing next to Jimi Hendrix when you were the stage manager at his debut at the Monterey Pop Festival. You looked like you’re in shock. Your mouth was hanging open. Is it true he once gave you his guitar?

Al Kooper: Yeah, when I played on “Long Hot Summer Nights,” I got to the studio early [Electric Lady] and there were all these guitars lined up on stands for him to choose from. They were all strung upside-down, y’know ‘cause he was left-handed and I wondered if I could get any noise out of it. So, I plugged it in, but it was impossible to play. So, in walks Jimi and we were very good friends. He only lived a block away and we saw each other all the time. He said, “You like that guitar?” I said, “How could I like it? Some asshole strung it upside down!” [Laughs] He said, “If you like it, why don’t you take it?” I said, “Because it’s your guitar!” So, we did the session and the next day his roadie shows up at the door with the guitar. I said, “If he wants to go through all that trouble I’d love to have Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.” So, the first thing I did was restrung it. [Laughs]

PKM: Was it a Strat?

Al Kooper: Yeah, a pre-CBS ’65 with a rosewood neck. It was a magic guitar, it sounded great. I used it on a lot of sessions and took it on the road until one day it occurred to me, “What, are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?” I mean I didn’t get up on stage and say ‘This is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar but…

PKM: You might as well have been wearing a sign that said, ‘Please hold me up!’

Al Kooper: Around 1989, I was living in LA when someone broke into my house and,, amazingly enough, it didn’t get stolen. But I thought, ‘great, now people are gonna try and break into my house to steal the guitar.’ Then I moved to Nashville to retire. I’d never had a vacation and really wanted to get out of the music business. It disgusted me. I’d had enough. I wanted to live in someplace that I liked and wanted to retire while I was younger. I didn’t want to work. I was gonna do nothing for as long as I could – which was seven years.

PKM: That’s quite a run!

Al Kooper: It was fabulous! I only did two gigs at the time. I toured as a sideman with Joe Walsh and was the musical director for a Ray Charles’ Fiftieth Anniversary show for a cable special in ‘91. I ended up playing guitar after Ray fired the guitarist I hired. The greatest part was when I played guitar on a duet with Ray and Stevie Wonder on “Livin’ for the City.”

So, in walks Jimi and we were very good friends. He only lived a block away and we saw each other all the time. He said, “You like that guitar?” I said, How could I like it? Some asshole strung it upside down!”

PKM: Wow! Too much! I always heard a bit of Curtis Mayfield’s influence in your sound. Pops Staples too.

Al Kooper: From Curtis, I got that left hand hammering thing he did on the guitar, that Reggie Young took one step higher. I’ve been told that Curtis tuned his guitar differently… Which reminds me of a story about Lynyrd Skynyrd [Kooper discovered the band and produced their first three albums]. They were playing for a week at this club I used to frequent in Atlanta. About the third or fourth night, I asked if I could sit in. And they said, “Sure, what are you gonna play?” They didn’t have a keyboard player at the time, and I told them that I played guitar. So, Ronnie Van Zandt called ‘Mean Woman Blues,’ in C#! I had never experienced that before. I just cracked up. I thought to myself he could do it in C! He did it as a defense mechanism because if you couldn’t play in C# then you really didn’t know your guitar.

PKM: Ouch!

Al Kooper: My ability to play soul guitar fills is equal to my organ skills. I’ve studied that my whole life. And it’s really fun. But as good as I am at that, I’ve gotta say I’m a lousy lead guitar player.

PKM: Were you inspired by any of the old blues men like Reverend Gary Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins or Mississippi John Hurt who played the folk clubs around Greenwich Village or at the Newport Folk Festival?

Al Kooper: Reverend Gary Davis was a bizarre human being but a fabulous guitar player and singer, just amazing. There were many times where I just heard him playing in a room and I could not believe it. Lightnin’ Hopkins killed me too, in another way, but the best guitar player of them all in my book was Mississippi John Hurt. He was just incredible. I was always trying to fingerpick but I couldn’t do it very well. I was hearing that stuff at the same time I was listening to rockabilly. I learned a lot of Scotty Moore’s riffs. He was my main guy, along with James Burton and Cliff Gallup, back when I was 12 or 13. That’s how I learned to play, listening to Elvis, Ricky Nelson and Gene Vincent. Years ago, I started a rockabilly trio and played a few small clubs [around Boston] with a stand-up bass and cocktail drums. That’s probably the most fun I’ve had in decades.

PKM: Speaking of great guitarists, didn’t you sign Richard Thompson to Polydor in the 80s?

Al Kooper: Yeah… Richard Thompson is one of my favorite guitar players. He’s really smart and great company. Later on, I recorded an instrumental of [his song] “When the Spell is Broken.”

PKM: Didn’t the Blues Project once back up Chuck Berry at a gig in 1965?

Al Kooper: [Chuckles] We got a call to open for Chuck at Town Hall [in New York] and we all thought yeah! how great is that? We were nervous about playing Town Hall, which seats about 1,500. And they asked us to back up Chuck for his set. OK cool… uh not cool! He was out of his mind at the afternoon sound check and made us rehearse for hours. We were laughing mostly… but he made it as difficult as possible. We also backed up Bo Diddley. It was piece of cake… but not Chuck…

PKM: You played keys on a few tracks on The Who Sell Out. How did come about?

Al Kooper: The Who were the strangest combination of people that ever made up a band. They were all individuals and there was very little to no camaraderie between them. I don’t think they had anything to do with each beyond the time they spent together making music in the studio or onstage. I met them at the Murray the K Show. [Billed as “Music in the Fifth Dimension,” and hosted by the popular DJ who dubbed himself “the 5th Beatle,” the series of concerts ran from March 25 through April 2, 1967. A mad conveyor belt of black and white artists that included everyone from Smokey Robinson and Wilson Pickett to Simon & Garfunkel, the Young Rascals (as they were still called at the time) and Phil Ochs, the performers were allotted a total of two or three songs each.] The Who’s dressing room was across from ours [the Blues Project], which we shared with Cream. On the first day, Ginger Baker came in. Trying to be friendly I asked him how he liked New York. He got up in my face and screamed, “HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW? I JUST GOT HERE!” And that was my introduction to Cream. Townshend was/is a great guy. We got along very well. He is probably the most American of all the English musicians I met. You have to realize Pete invented all of it. No one was playing like that before the Who. Keith as everyone knows, was out of his mind. The Who were smashing everything and undoubtedly broke the record for buying stuff at Manny’s Music [the late-great music store on 48th Street]. The Who Sell Out was recorded in New York.

The Who were the strangest combination of people that ever made up a band. They were all individuals and there was very little to no camaraderie between them. I don’t think they had anything to do with each beyond the time they spent together making music in the studio or onstage

[Kooper played organ on the complex arrangement of “Rael Parts 1 & 2” which closes the album. And yes, “Part 2” strongly resembles “Overture” from Tommy. Al also appears on the electric version of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” which was released in 1974, on an album of Who rarities called Odds and Sods].  “They played me the song. I wrote it down. It was easy, that’s what I liked about it most.

PKM: Did Kit Lambert know what he was doing in a recording studio?

Al Kooper: He was a guy in a suit and tie. I wondered if he could produce a record by me, or any other band, but he was no stranger to the Who and what they were doing. As far as I’m concerned Townshend was the whole album! You know Townshend did me a tremendous favor…

PKM: What? Smash Jimi’s guitar for you?

Al Kooper: [Ignores my dumb joke…] I had signed Lynyrd Skynyrd to my label Sounds of the South and produced their first album when I bumped into him in LA. I was coming out of the MCA building, carrying fresh test pressings of the record with white labels. I gave him one and asked him to tell me what he thought. I wrote my phone number down on the label and he called me almost immediately and asked if Skynyrd could open for the Who on their ‘72-‘73 tour [in support of Quadrophenia]. Their management was nervous. Skynyrd’s management was nervous. I was nervous! So, I went along with them. Not to play, but to mix their sound. Now the Who’s sound man mixed the band from the side of the stage, so Pete could whack him if he didn’t like it. So, I had to mix Skynyrd from the side of the stage – which was completely counter-intuitive.

PKM: How did all those guys get along?

Al Kooper: Skynyrd became very friendly with the Who. And I got to hang out with Townshend. After two to three weeks, they were totally “Who’d,” in the dressing room high as kites. But it was a great pairing. It really broke them in. They grew up fast, from playing to 300 people to 20,000 overnight. It helped them immensely with the second album. And I don’t think Townshend had any motivation other than his ears… 

PKM: Speaking of great Southern music, Dr. John and you had a lot in common. You both did lots of sessions on other people’s albums. You both wrote hit tunes, and both played guitar before keyboards and then got better known for keys…

Al Kooper: I don’t remember him playing much guitar.

PKM: Yeah, in his early days he played guitar in Professor Longhair’s band until one night he got shot in the hand playing at some New Orleans joint. Fess was worried about him not having a gig while his hand healed, so he invited him to sit with him at the piano and play the left-hand bass parts while Fess played chords and lead. That’s when he really developed…

Al Kooper: He was fucking amazing… Something to behold…A king! He was really known for that funky syncopated New Orleans thing.

On the first day, Ginger Baker came in. Trying to be friendly I asked him how he liked New York. He got up in my face and screamed, “HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW? I JUST GOT HERE!” And that was my introduction to Cream.

PKM: You played nothing like that.

Al Kooper: No, I wasn’t bound to a style. If anything, I was known for being in the right place at the right time and playing the right thing.

PKM: Yeah, you weren’t a flash kind of session player, who the band would hand the solo to burn it down, like Jimmy Page. It seemed like you listened and responded to the song and added the right thing, almost like embroidering the song.    

Al Kooper: That’s what you’re supposed to do. I was a session guitarist for many years and was very familiar with what you were supposed to do on a session. Sessions in those days were so different. You’d have to do three or four songs in three hours. If you couldn’t immediately jump in and play what they put in front of you, or come up with something lucid, you didn’t work. I got a lot of session work after ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and I always tried to discourage people from writing parts for me and just play what I came up with in my head.

PKM: You were obviously a big Harry Nilsson fan… [The original Kooper-led Blood, Sweat & Tears cut a groovy boss nova rendition of Harry’s “Without Her,” on their 1968 debut album, Child is Father to the Man. And Al’s first solo album, I Stand Alone, included a soulful version (and infinitely much hipper take than Three Dog Night’s overblown reading of) Nilsson’s “One.” On his following album, Al cut a Beach Boys-inspired arrangement of Harry’s “Mourning Glory Story” for You Never Know Who Your Friends Are.]

Al Kooper: “I spent a lot of time with Harry around the time of his first album. [Spotlight on Nilsson – 1966] I went to visit him at his home in L.A. That first day we smoked a lot of pot and just laughed. Then we went swimming in his pool, with our clothes on, for what was the first and only ‘Brian Jones Memorial Swim Party.’ Later on, we sat down at his piano and traded songs. His voice and songs were fantastic, some of the greatest I’d ever heard.

PKM: The Beatles really loved Harry. Which might not have been such a good thing for him in the end… [John Lennon produced Nilsson’s 1974 album Pussycats during his “Lost Weekend” in LA (summer 1973–early 1975). Nilsson’s 1974 album, Pussycats. At this point, Nilsson and Lennon (along with Ringo, Keith Moon and auxiliary Beatle bassist and designer of the iconic Revolver album cover, Klaus Voormann) got more press for their rowdy escapades than the music they made.]

Al Kooper: Harry was an unbelievable singer, but he killed his voice with alcohol. The whole alcohol/drug thing just became too much… I couldn’t hang with him anymore.

   [Following Nilsson’s death in 1994, Al Kooper and Danny Kapilian produced the tribute album For the Love of Harry – Everyone Sings Nilsson, released the following year with performances by Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb and Adrian Belew.]

PKM: You played with George Harrison on “All Those Years Ago,” after John was shot. How’d you find George…

Al Kooper: Well, he found me! When I was in LA I lived in a house in the heart of Hollywood that was… not quite as magnificent as I would’ve liked. One night the doorbell rings at eleven PM and I answer the door, saying, “Who the fuck is…. Ooh! a Beatle is at my door! We hung out for a while. I asked George how he found my house without knowing where I lived. He told me, “A Beatle has ways!” The next day we went down to the music shops that were all in a row. I set it up so that after they closed, George could walk in and check out the instruments without anyone bothering him. I always liked the fact that he got close to Dylan without any of my input.

I was working at Columbia Records at the time as a staff producer and I had a secretary and she came to my door and said, “Some guy who says he’s Mick Jagger’s on the phone.” I said, “Well, it probably is Mick Jagger!” And then I had to get another secretary 

PKM: With all this talk of LA, I gotta ask you about Brian Wilson.

Al Kooper: [Producer/artist] David Anderle was one of my closest friends. He worked at A&M… and painted my portrait! David looked after Brian and was a great help to many people and he once asked me if I wanted to go to Brian’s house. I said, “Of course!” So, we spent an afternoon with Brian, listening to a test pressing of… Pet Sounds!

PKM: Holy shit Al! Okay, I was 12 years old then, so it wasn’t like I figured this out the first time I heard that record. But that album contains some incredible sounds that were/are unlike anything else before or since. With maybe the exception of the Gil Evans’-era Miles Davis albums like Sketches of Spain, nobody blended tonalities like that with flutes and French horns. Had you ever heard sounds like that before?

Al Kooper: Well, the vocals kinda reminded me of the Hi-Lo’s [chuckles]. It was Brian… So, I knew I was gonna hear something I’d never heard before. And the minute I heard it, I knew what it was! He was not uptight at all. He was so nice. So was [his brother] Carl, who was one of the nicest guys – ever! When we got to the end he asked if I wanted to hear it again! I did!!! In return I gave him a record of Bulgarian singers that he really liked.

PKM: Wow… that’s a whole ‘nother realm of harmony singing. After Pet Sounds, I think the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle was one of the most beautiful albums of that time. How did you figure into that picture?

Al Kooper: I really didn’t have anything to do with that album. What happened was I went to England to play on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” And I left a few days early because I’d never been. I was working at Columbia Records at the time as a staff producer and I had a secretary and she came to my door and said, “Some guy who says he’s Mick Jagger’s on the phone.” I said, “Well, it probably is Mick Jagger!” And then I had to get another secretary [laughs]. He said, “We’d like to fly you to England and play on a couple of tracks for us.” I said, “That sounds great!”