Al Kooper

Many of the greatest moments in Rock were made possible by Al Kooper. He founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, and played on records by Dylan, Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and The Who.

A fan of the truth with no revisionism, Kooper tells the tales in his memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. It's a fascinating, unfiltered look at what really went down on the tours, in the recording sessions, and everywhere in between. Kooper was kind enough to answer our 8 burning questions.
1) Does today's generation of kids care as much about music as the generation of the '60s did?
I don't think so and it's too bad things like mp3's and cellphones diminish the quality of sound they listen to as well. Hip hop sort of fractured the lyrical base of what is commonly top ten and we don't see albums that will stand the test of time like Pink Floyd, The Stones and The Beatles. There is no comparative Elvis Presley or Beatles for this time period as far as I can tell. I DO think there is a great deal of great music being made, but it is not being made available on radio, in the press or in magazine ads; ergo, it probably won't survive. The threat of everything turning to streaming terrifies people my age. We wanna OWN all the music we enjoy.

2) You make reference to a vast record album collection. What are the favorite pieces that you like to show off?
I don't really "show off" my vinyl collection. It hides in a room upstairs like a quiet documentation of the '50s - '70s. Some of my faves are the original pressings of many Chess Records and Vee Jay Records releases. I was never a collector, just a huge fan. I still am.

3) You talk about your song "Thirty-Eight People" and the Kitty Genovese incident. Fantasy author Harlan Ellison also talks about that extensively in his work, for example in his intro to "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." Why did that incident touch such a nerve in the 1960s?
Because a woman was tortured and killed and nobody called the police. 38 people commented later they heard a fuss but went on about their business not contemplating that someone was losing their life. It helped bring 911 into being and that solved a great many future events like that from happening again.

4) Towards the end of your memoirs, you mention dabbling in graphics art. Could you share some more details?
I was always intimately involved in the design of all my album covers and CD packaging starting with Child Is Father To The Man. Prior to that, I had no input in graphics OR sound and I set out to make sure that never happened again.

5) A lot of musicians have overdosed on heroin. Why do they have a weakness for this drug?
Because being a musician is primarily a hard life. One is dedicated, but rarely properly compensated or artistically satiated. Along comes a powerful drug that makes you forget your troubles momentarily until you find that your new trouble is you are addicted to an illegal drug. I snorted it twice in order to see what it was like, but I knew in front I would go no further. I was just as intellectually curious as you were by asking this question.

6) Your work is scattered to the four winds, but is there one particular song or album that stands out as your finest moment?
By the amount of emails I receive and the press that I get it is undoubtedly the organ part on "Like A Rolling Stone." I kinda like the way Martin Scorsese edited my telling of that story in the documentary No Direction Home.
For me, no one moment or event sticks out. I think reading my resume every ten years or so, is my finest moment - certainly my most incredulous. I cannot believe I did all the stuff I did in one lifetime. One is forced to believe in luck and God.

7) What are your thoughts on music downloading?
I download all my favorite music from the "new releases" section of iTunes every Tuesday. Admittedly, these are artists that are primarily never heard of, but their music reaches me and I want to hear it again. At a dollar a song, I can handle it. I rarely download an entire album - maybe 10 a year. But the single tracks I download mean a great deal to me. It has replaced listening to the radio or going to non-existent record shops in my life and it's actually cheaper and less time consuming than it used to be pre iTunes. The best part is I don't have to leave the house to do it.

8) What are some bands today which show a lot of influence from Blood Sweat & Tears? Certainly horns have gotten more respect than they did before, haven't they?
I dont hear many special horn bands anymore. I think that era is long gone. My favorite band nowadays is called Field Music from England. My favorite band of all time is the English band Free.

September 23, 2010
-Pete Trbovich
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Comments: 21

  • AnonymousThe irony, of course, about his Hammond Organ work on “Like a Rolling Stone” was that it never should have happened. He wrangled an invite to the studio from the recording engineer just to watch. He showed up with his guitar dreaming that somehow, in some crazy turn of events, Dylan was going to get frustrated with whoever was playing guitar and point at him and say, “get in there kid, and let’s see what you’ve got”. That fantasy lasted for as long as it took him to watch Bloomfield warm up. Knowing he’d never get a chance to enter the studio with a guitar in hand, he began scheming for other ways in. I forget who was playing the session on keyboards but, at some point, the decision was made to go with piano backing rather than the Hammond Organ so the keyboard player moved over to the piano. Cooper took advantage of this break to slide in the studio and sit behind the Hammond. Not only did he barely know how to play basic keyboard chords, but he also didn’t even know how to turn on a Hammond Organ. Thankfully, the keyboard player hadn’t thought to turn it off before moving to the piano. Of course, there was still a little problem: Cooper didn’t even know the chord changes to the song. That is the reason the organ comes in half a beat behind each chord change.... Al Cooper, novice organist, had to wait and see what chord everybody was playing before he could play it. When playing the take back for Dylan, the engineer was mortified when Dylan immediately focused on the Hammond Organ part. He was apologetically promising to cut it, when Dylan asked to have the levels turned up on it. He loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.

    As an interesting closer to this whole story, Al was attending the Newport Folk Festival a few weeks later pretty much as a fan when Dylan tracked him down as asked him to play the Hammond Organ again on stage. This would be the famous first time Dylan would ever play electric in public, to the chagrin of the folkies at Newport but to the eternal joy for the rest of us.
  • Joanne Boor from Chicago Illinois I'm 67 and was part of the music scene back day, purely as a listener. I have such tremendous respect for you. Super Sessions remains my favorite music today, both SS's. I'm a huge fan of LOOKING FOR A HOME with Shuggie Otis. I listen to it at least few times a week, sometimes few times in a row still cry. Your piano and vocals are incredible. When Shuggie breaks in playing as only he could, sends tgchills down my spine. Thank you for everything you contributed. Our music would never be as good without you. I'm going out today and buy your book..
  • Paul B from Ivoryton, CtAl, Greatly appreciated the tribute to Michael Bloomfield at Levon's studio barn last fall. Thought it was a very cool evening of music. Enjoying "From His Head..." and wrapping up "Backstage Passes"... what an interesting read. My son is currently studying Music Industry Business at Loyola in New Orleans, and that has been a great excuse for me to dive into the period I love the most. Also, embarrassed to say how many times I've viewed "Sweet Home Alabama, Southern Rock Saga" on Youtube... it's excellent... in a nutshell, I'm a fan. I clearly remember the first time I [really] listened to "Like a Rolling Stone"... still can't believe that song... never gets old. Rock on..
  • Mark D from Boston, MaI emailed Al Kooper and told him that he is one of my musical heroes. He has met, played with or produced just about every great musician I love. His work is soul stirring, and as others mentioned, it is a shame so many people do not know about the amazing music from his era.
  • Rick from Ithaca NyThanks Al. For all that you've done and the various groups artists I've gotten to based on your producing/performing. From Bloomfield to Otis, to Skynyrd, etc. While I agree with you on the new music to a degree, I'm finding lots of new stuff that is well worth listening to. Daptone Records is putting out some pretty good funky horm music and Tower of Power is still around.
  • Moose73 from CaliforniaIt saddens me to know that the genius of great music like blood sweat and tears santana the animals zombies and such has all but vanished there is no more soul in music now days its just racket or noise. Wish I could have experienced first hand the music my dad grew up with damn i envy him for that, music is the only real connection he and i have not much else in common, when I listen to allman bros, blood sweat and tears everything seems to dissapear the bad along with the good is gone I become one so to speak Thank you Al Kooper more than you'll ever Know.
  • Wilmer Rafael Hernandez from Valencia, VenezuelaAl, thanks for givin´us Lookin´ for a Home. It's part of my life. Wilmer Rafael Hernández
  • Aaron from DetroitTo me, the Kooper - Bloomfield collaborations (including "The Lost Sessions) remain some of my favorite work and are still in constant rotation on my play list. Overall, both Kooper and Bloomfield are terribly under-rated in rock history.
  • Andy from The Hague, NetherlandsI will play Al's '68 double Live Adventures (with Mike Bloomfield) until the day I die. Priceless. Vinyl and CD worn out, now I'm on the download. Highly recommended.
  • AnonymousUnfortunately Al's genius will never be fully recognised. A pioneer and innovator in a business in which the Dollar is the be all and end all. If anyone doubts this try a retrospective of Al's solo albums, they exude a freshness and invention which the current crop of musicians would balk at. His work with his friend Mike Bloomfield is exemplary.
    thanks for all the good music Al.
  • Bob from TupeloThere aren't enough words to say about the first (and only real) Blood, Sweat & Tears album. It is a moment when all the pieces were brought together, and it is a master class in how to do it. Song, playing, arrangement, and, yeah, even vocals, because while Al Kooper is no Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey, his is the perfect voice to tie up the package he assembled. The song selection, besides Kooper's, is inspired -- Randy Newman, Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson. Also, great use of loud-soft dynamics. It transcends genre by not caring about genre, as with Astral Weeks and some other greats. Absolutely essential listening.
  • Larry Launstein Jr from MichiganAt least one band who was one of Kooper's Blood, Sweat & Tears is still going, the one and only Chicago.
  • Fender1967 from St Louis MoSuper Sessions sound led me to the Electric Flag, another unique album. Horn fans may want to check out music from Urge (out of St Louis and Columbia MO) and for a current touring group gathering some aclaim is "Lubriphonic" out of Chicago. Enjoy
  • Tommy from Washington, PaHow about a shout out for Al's introducing the world to Shuggie Ottis?
  • Keith - The Yeti from ColoradoAl -

    I just "discovered" you album Super Sessions that you cut with Still's & Bloomfield. What an incredible album!!! Just wanted to let you know that you make some great music, and it's great to discover something that sweet from 40 years ago. (It was made the same year I was born!) Thanks!
  • Carl from Arlington, VaAl, with Steve Katz, both of whom were members of the Blues Project, formed BS&T. On their first album, Child Is Father to the Man (take a look at the album cover he mentioned -- each group member is sitting in a chair with a child-sized dummy of themself, truly inspired but weird), Al wrote several of the songs and sang most of them. The album didn't sell at all and, from what I've read, the group forced him out. As Jim said, Clayton-Thomas was the replacement. His singing was a big part of the group's sound, but I think the horn players and drummer Bobby Colomby were as much the driving force as he was, in terms of song selection and certainly in the arrangements of the songs. I don't know if Al stands with the 3 organists that Don mentioned, but he was no slouch. Listen to his playing on the live albums he made with Mike Bloomfield. A lot of it is pretty impressive. I think if he had stuck to just one instrument he could be known for being great on that instrument, but like Steve Winwood, he dabbled in playing a whole bunch of things. I saw him in a club gig in the mid-70's and he mostly played guitar. He was OK on guitar, but not nearly as good as he was a keyboard player.
  • Jim from Brooklyn,nyDon, you must be kidding! Read Al's take on LaRS. He was just foolin' around. He came to play guitar but put it away after he saw Bloomfield.
    Compare him to Garth? Come on. David C.T. was Al Kooper's replacement on vocals.
  • Simone Simoneau from ScarboroughI thought David Clayton Thomas was the driving force behind BS&T?
  • Don ForsytheHis organ work on Like a Rolling Stone puts him right up there with Alan Price of the Animals, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, and Garth Hudson of The Band, in my not so humble opinion. One of the most important rock songs
    and yet it peaked at #2. Go figure.
  • Mitch from Chicago, IlSaw BS&T w/ Al in Cleveland 68-69 at La Cave....east side.....Super Session with Stills and Bloomfield....what a piece of music!!!!!
  • Zhivko from Bourgas, BulgariaAwesome interview! He is so honest and the honesty is always needed.
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