He was a participant in some of the great musical moments of the past half century, as musician, songwriter, singer, producer and collaborator extraordinaire. He’s also a great raconteur and in this segment, Al Kooper remembers the time he spent with the Rolling Stones; how he rescued one of the greatest of all rock albums, the Zombies’ Odessy and Oracle; how Stephen Stills rescued Super Session; his early days in the Royal Teens; going to Birdland; playing on a bill with Mose Allison; his love of the band Free; the New Morning sessions with Bob Dylan; and his legendary album cover art.
PKM: Was your keyboard part an overdub on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?”
Al Kooper: No, it was a live session. It took two days. And Brian [Jones] was there…
PKM: What was he wearing?
Al Kooper: [Laughs] Y’know some kinda outfit. But he was high as a kite.
PKM: He didn’t do much on that album [Let It Bleed]. Did he play on the session?
Al Kooper: No, not at all! But he was there. I got there a few days early to go shopping for clothes and records. I spent a fortune! I bumped into Brian at Granny Takes a Trip and he said, “Everyone’s so excited you’re coming to the session. You’re coming, right?” I said, “Yeah! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” But he did not participate. He spent most of the session lying on the floor reading something.
PKM: Did Brian Jones influence your taste in fashion?
Al Kooper: No, I was always into clothes, having come up in the ‘50s playing rock’n’roll. The British thing hadn’t happened when [The Royal Teens single] “Short Shorts” came out [in 1958]. Back then you couldn’t buy the clothes like that off the shelf. You had to go get measured and have them custom made.
PKM: Where did you go buy cool rock ‘n’ roll threads? Harlem?
Al Kooper: Yeah, for a long time. In LA, there were two stores on the [Sunset] Strip between the Whisky and the Rainbow. The first time I was in LA was on tour with Dylan, when we played at the Hollywood Bowl. That was in 1965, with half of the guys from the Band.
PKM: So, that’s where the wild polka-dot shirts came from that you guys wore at Forest Hills…
Al Kooper: My parents didn’t understand what I wore… ever [chuckles].
PKM: Obviously the choir on the opening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was overdubbed, as well as your French horn. Did you start playing French horn in high school?
Al Kooper: I had to play it in college. They had brass class and string class.
PKM: That’s a hard instrument!
Al Kooper: No kidding! You don’t see me playing it much. I can’t believe how long it took to do that part. It was my idea to do that. I had asked them [the Stones] to send me the tape. So, I snuck the tape into Columbia Records [to do the overdub]. Then I had to sneak it back out of Columbia Records. That was no mean task!
PKM: You used it on the descending riff on [Dylan’s song] “New Morning.” [John] Entwistle also played French horn!
Al Kooper: That’s why they didn’t ask me to play it on any Who albums [chuckles].
PKM: Did you play it on any of your solo albums?
Al Kooper: No, I tried not to play it as much as possible [laughs].
PKM: So, back to the Zombies’ Odessy and Oracle.
Al Kooper: I went to London about three or four days before the Stones session and spent a fuckin’ fortune on clothes. I bought forty LPs and one of them was Odessy and Oracle which was not out in America. I was a huge Zombies’ fan. After I got home and listened to it I went to Clive Davis’ office and said, “We have to buy this album put this out! It’s fantastic!” Clive said, “We own this album! We have them signed.” I told him, “I bought forty albums when I was in London, and that’s the best one!” He looked at me like “What the fuck do you know?” and said, “We can’t put it out on Columbia. The deal we have is on some subsidiary.” It was already out in England and there were no plans to put it out in America.” I told him, “You have to put it out.” So, they released it on some label I’d never heard of [Date Records]. It might as well have been Parrot Records (the tiny label the Zombies were originally signed to). “Time of the Season” became a huge hit. It went fucking gold. Then the Zombies flew to America to pick up their gold record. They came up to my office and told me they knew what happened [how Odessy and Oracle was shelved in the States] and thanked me profusely. They said, “This wouldn’t have happened without you!” And so began a great friendship. They had a big week-long show in England in a big theater and they flew me to England to introduce them each night. It was great. One of the things that God gave me is the ability to ad lib, I don’t have to write anything down first. So, I told the story of the Zombies’ album which they were celebrating for their tenth anniversary or something. The album was huge in England.
PKM: I had heard the reason why Columbia didn’t originally release Odessey and Oracle was the Zombies had already broken up.
Al Kooper: That’s very possible.
PKM: So, did they feel like they had to release the album after “Time of the Season” did so well? [climbing to Number 3 on the Billboard charts.]
Al Kooper: Actually, it was the other way around. After the album came out, I think there were three singles from it. They released “Butcher’s Tale” first, and then “Time of the Season.”
PKM: Along with Super Session, Rod Argent’s solo on that song helped open the door for rock band to jam more, beyond the West Coast noodling approach.
Al Kooper: The way that Bloomfield and I understood jamming was different from the Jerry Garcia/San Francisco school… Nor were they Jewish!
PKM: Now that you mention it – most of the guys on Super Session were Jewish – you and Bloomfield, (bassist) Harvey Brooks and Barry Goldberg (keyboards). It reads like a Jewish jamming conspiracy! Oy Vey, Al!
Al Kooper: [Laughs] It was a blues conspiracy. But being Jewish was an important part of how Bloomfield and I got along. And jamming was just a natural thing for Bloomfield and me. Bloomfield was living in California. I said, “If you want, I’ll come out there, so you don’t have to come to New York. Then of course, there is the famous story how he left after one night. The next morning, Bloomfield called early and said, “I can’t do it” I was like… fuck… what am I gonna do? I took out my address book and called every guitar player I knew in Los Angeles that was appropriate. I called Stills. I kinda knew him. He said, “Sure, it sounds like fun!” And he came down.
PKM: Great guitarist! But Stills wasn’t allowed to sing on the record?
Al Kooper: Yeah, he said he couldn’t sing on the record because he was signed to Atlantic. But his playing on “Season of the Witch” was just fantastic. I had no idea what he was capable of. I only knew him from Buffalo Springfield.
PKM: He hadn’t made the first Crosby Stills and Nash album yet, where we really found out what a great musician he was.
Al Kooper: They were rehearsing at the time, and nobody knew about it.
PKM: The story that really helped sell Super Session was that all three of you were refugees from cool bands that had recently broken up and had come together, free of record company restraints or fans expectations and made this great album.
Al Kooper: My concept was simple – me and Bloomfield jamming with a couple other musicians and then I got Al Kooper-crazy with the production and put horns on it [Laughs]. But they were okay!
PKM: It was very cool when the horns kicked in on “Season of the Witch.” It just took the song up another notch. And that was an eleven-minute jam track! Who was putting out tracks like that other than John Coltrane and the San Francisco bands?
Al Kooper: I didn’t think like that. That’s just what happened. But I did edit it. Originally it was longer. Sixteen minutes, I think.
PKM: There’s always been a certain amount of jazz on all of your albums, Al. I know that “Flute Thing” [from The Blues Project – Projections] was inspired by Maynard Ferguson. And a lot of the first Blood Sweat & Tears album swings like hell.
Al Kooper: I got into jazz first… Horace Silver, Art Blakey… Blue Note Records. I lived in Queens with my parents, and at the time you could get into Birdland if you were underage. I was 15 and told them I was 17. I went all the fuckin’ time, and it was cheap. They had four or five rows on the left side of the stage where you sat if you were underage. They were some of the best seats in the house. I could’ve touched Horace Silver. He was the Jerry Lee Lewis of jazz, the way he played with his hair hanging down in his face… One of the greatest performances I ever saw in my life was at Randall’s Island. All the jazz giants of the day were playing. John Coltrane headlined. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, were the emcees. They sang all their introductions. When they introduced Coltrane, they sang “Who’s the man with all the jams? John… Coltrane… and he came in on the note they were singing and began the set. It was ridiculous… just unbelievable…
PKM: I imagine you dug Mose Allison…
Al Kooper: Mose opened for me one night at the Bottom Line. I thought that’s fucking weird! I asked the guys who ran the club, Alan and Stanley, if we could change the billing around? But they said it was too late. The first night when I finished my set he was still there, and he complimented me on one of my arrangements. Which was huge. I told him, “I’m a huge fan of yours!” He was a great and humble and played me off the stage!
PKM: You did a funky cover of his “One Room Country Shack” on Kooper Session.
Al Kooper: Yeah, we wanted to make it fit for Shuggie [Otis, who was just 15 at the time]. We made that album in two nights.
PKM: I’ve heard you rave about [the band] Free repeatedly over the years. Can you enlighten those of us who never heard anything other than “Alright Now”?
Al Kooper: They just floored me. Everything about them was fantastic.
PKM: Did you see them live first or hear a record?
Al Kooper: I heard recordings. I was over in England, producing a record for my friend, Michael Gately. We’d work all day, have dinner and go out all night, to the Speakeasy, which was the definitive hang. Everybody was there. The first night I went, Todd Rundgren was there. I think it was the first time I met him. He was depressed, moaning after some woman. I said, “Who cares? Come hang with us! If you didn’t notice, there’s some pretty good-lookin’ women walking around here…” So that cheered him up. The second night I bumped into the drummer, Simon Kirke, and lead guitarist, Paul Kossoff, of Free and I lost my mind because I loved that band instantly. They were very friendly. The next night I had Paul come down and overdub a solo on Michael Gately’s record. He played a great solo, because he’s a great guitarist and that began a friendship.
Then, years later, in the ‘90s, Ron Wood called me to play four nights with him at some fucking disco club in New York. He had the drummer from Free in the band [Simon Kirke], along with Mick Taylor on guitar. I was a little worried. I mean, with those two… What was I gonna do? Ron wanted me to play piano, and I said, “At least rent an organ as I’m much more comfortable with that.” I said, “What songs are we gonna do?” He said, “We’re just doing Jimmy Reed songs.” I told him, “Rent a B3 ‘cause it’ll be easier to play those songs and stay outta the way of the guitars.” We rehearsed the day before and we played four nights and it was really good and I was reunited with Simon Kirke.
PKM: What sticks in your mind about the New Morning sessions?
Al Kooper: Bob wrote some beautiful songs for that album and played most of them on the piano.
PKM: What do you think of Dylan’s piano playing?
Al Kooper: It’s great. It’s not influenced by anyone or anything. He’s got his own way of playing, with eight fingers and both pinkies waving in the air.
PKM: Singer-songwriters tend to have a totally unique way of approaching the piano. They’ll do whatever they have to, to serve the song. What was the deal with Bob Johnston? Did he produce that record? ‘Cause it’s got your fingerprints all over it.
Al Kooper: He was there. But he didn’t do a lot. Bob Johnston had me scratching my head a lot. He was big and loud and way too complimentary when we were working, which is not helpful. When Bob recorded down in Nashville, he [Johnston] basically brought him down there and got out of the way and let it happen. [In Chronicles, Dylan’s memoir, he compared working with Johnston to “a drunken joyride.”]
PKM: There were some interesting out-takes from that album that only recently saw the light of day with Another Self Portrait (released August 2013) with your horn arrangement on “New Morning,” and orchestrated version of “Sign on the Window,” and a rockin’ “Time Passes Slowly.”
Al Kooper: Bob’s the boss, so whatever he says goes. I love that record. I dunno if our relationship was ever closer than when we made New Morning.
PKM: Album cover art used to be of major importance and you’ve come up with some great ideas over the years, Al, starting with [the first Blood, Sweat and Tears’ LP] Child is Father to the Man which was pretty freaky.
Al Kooper: The idea originally came from Alfred Gescheidt, who was a master of trick photography. But he wasn’t available, so Bob Cato shot the photo of the band with the kids sitting on our laps and then replaced their heads with the same pictures of us.
PKM: Eight guys with their Mini-Me’s… that was a seriously out-there image… Then you got Norman Rockwell, the master of Americana, to paint that stunning portrait of you and Mike for The Live Adventures. You guys were a couple of hippies and he seemed like Mr. Apple Pie! What was Norman Rockwell like?
Al Kooper: Norman was really nice… Kind of shy. He invited me to an opening for his art and told me to come early. Then we sat around and talked for a half an hour before the people started to arrive. And when they did, he disappeared. I called him a few times to check up on how he was doing with the painting. He was great, very bright, and very careful. Every painting he did, he photographed first. So, first he photographed me and Bloomfield. And then the three of us had pictures taken! It’s a pretty hilarious shot.
PKM: Then came I Stand Alone, with your head on the Statue of Liberty!
Al Kooper: Yeah, and I’m standing up in the torch too!
PKM: Yeah, I know. I had that poster on my bedroom wall for a couple years. I think it really bugged my dad who fought in World War II and told me he didn’t fight the Nazis for his son to grow up to be a long-haired, pot-smoking hippie. But apparently, he had!
Al Kooper: [Laugh] Some critic who didn’t like the record, or the album cover very much said, “This album cover proves why Al Kooper stands alone!” I got a lotta shit for the photo of the Chicago riot on the cover of You Never Know Who Your Friends Are.
PKM: Those were pretty radical times. Then you got Richard Avedon to shoot that beautiful portrait of you and your ex for New York City (You’re a Woman). Were the art-directors at Columbia pulling their hair out ‘cause you were going over budget?
Al Kooper: No! They loved me ‘cause I was bringing in Richard Avedon and Norman Rockwell! I was making their jobs easier… and a lot more interesting! [Columbia’s art directors] Bob Cato and John Berg could and would get anybody I wanted. Any idea I had, they could deliver the photographer.
PKM: Who did the extreme make-up job for the cover photo of A Possible Projection of the Future/Childhood’s End?
Al Kooper: That was the same guy who did Dustin Hoffman’s make up in Little Big Man [Dick Smith]. I sat there for about eight hours while he worked on me. I wanted to look like I was in an old age home. After he finished, he told me something really important. He said, “If you don’t act or feel like old, when they take your picture, everyone will see it in your eyes, and all this will be a waste of time.” That was so educational. He did an amazing job.
PKM: Fantastic! You still don’t look that old Al… Not yet! The last really wild cover you did was for Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, where you put your head on your girlfriend’s body on the front, and her head on your body on the back. I’m surprised Columbia let you get away with it and didn’t wrap it in a brown paper bag, like John and Yoko. But at least you weren’t flashing your penis in public.
Al Kooper: I’d already left Columbia by then. That was UA! [United Artists]. They didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, they liked it! But by then I had complete control.