Al Kooper talks Dylan, Conan, Hendrix, and lifetime in the music business
INTERVIEW BY RICK MASON
Keyboardist, guitarist, songwriter and producer Al Kooper's uncanny presence and participation in landmark musical events over the past half-century have made him the rock equivalent of Forrest Gump or Zelig. His long association with Bob Dylan includes playing the prominent organ part on "Like A Rolling Stone" and being in the band when Dylan "went electric" at Newport in 1965. He also played on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," The Who's Sell Out, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, George Harrison's Beatles reminiscence "All Those Years Ago." He was a member of the Blues Project, collaborated with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills on 1968's Super Session, founded Blood, Sweat and Tears and came up with the groundbreaking concept for its first album, discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Tubes, wrote songs covered by everyone from Gary Lewis and Gene Pitney to Carmen McRae and Freddie Cannon. And that barely scratches the surface.
A one-of-a-kind tribute to Kooper, featuring the man himself, will take place Sunday at the Dakota. It was put together by Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, a longtime Kooper friend. With Levy leading the band (including fellow 'dogs Peter Sands, Trent Norton and Steve Kung), the first set will be a who's who of local singers (John Munson, Allison Scott, Ashleigh Still, Dave Campbell, Kevin Bowe, Martin Devaney, Kate Murray, Paul Metsa, Eric Koskinen, Jack Ventimiglia, Alicia Wiley) airing out the Kooper canon. The second set will be Kooper himself, playing solo and with the band.
In a wide-ranging interview last week from his Boston home (where he moved more than a decade ago to teach at Berklee School of Music), Kooper talked about the upcoming gig, his experiences and philosophies, and even the late-night TV wars.
City Pages: What's the deal on this gig? How did it come about?
Al Kooper: I've been friends with Adam Levy from the Honeydogs for about 10 years. It was his idea. He's been tryin' to get me down there-up there. So he waved this flag in front of me and I thought, well, that is a good idea. And I've never done that before. So I done bit the bait.
CP: How does it taste?
Kooper: So far so good! Looks like it's gonna be really nice. I'm really lookin' forward to it. Like I said, I've never done anything like this before. So it's very flattering, and I'm very curious about it. The concept is that he got what he thinks are some of the best musicians in town. I think there's ten singers that're gonna each sing one of my songs. I sent 50 songs for them to pick from. There'll be a house band backing them up. The first half of the show is gonna be people singin' those ten songs. The second half of the show I'm gonna play mostly my solo show, but I'm probably gonna do three or four songs with the band as well, since it's there. Plus, I think the only time I played Minneapolis was-Is that where they have the Tyrone Guthrie theatre?-then I played there with Dylan. That was in the early '80s, say maybe '81. That's the only time I've ever played Minneapolis. I like gettin' them cities in my backpack. So I'm really happy to do that.
CP: Is this going to seem like attending your own funeral in a way?
Kooper: No, not at all. Ya know, I'm 66 now, and in the last few years I've been gettin' inducted into this and awards for that. I think it comes with the old-age territory. So it's all in a day's work.
CP: Or a lifetime's work.
Kooper: Yeah, there ya go. This is actually my 52nd year of playin' professionally.
CP: So you started when you were 14. What were you doing when you were 14?
Kooper: I was very luckily in this band that had the number one record in the country-the Royal Teens. [The song was] "Who Wears Short Shorts."
CP: So you joined them after they had the hit?
Kooper: I didn't play on it. So I joined them while they were havin' it.
CP: So you got to go out and play it?
Kooper: Oh yeah. Many, many, many times.
CP: An odd song to begin a career.
Kooper: I'll take it. I'll take it.
Kooper: Well, nobody asked me. It always comes down to that, somebody's gotta say, "Do you want to play here?" And nobody did. It's polite to wait until you're asked, is what I say.
CP: It seems you have two or three different bands going at any one time. Is that right?
Kooper: It's mostly two now because my other band, half of them are with Conan O'Brien and they moved to the west coast. So I can't do that like I used to outta New York. The guitar player, Jimmy Vivino, and the bass player, Mike Merritt, and I played keyboards, and Anton Fig played drums, from the Letterman show. We'd go out when we could-weekends-and we played a bit. And Jimmy always comes down and plays at a birthday show I have every year at B.B. King's in New York.
CP: So those guys went off with Conan and Max Weinberg?
Kooper: There's a name you can't say anymore. He's not in that band anymore.
CP: Max? What happened there?
Kooper: They let him go. This is a big transition, and they're all signing new contracts and everything so they replaced him, as far as I know.
CP: Is the band gone as a whole?
Kooper: No, not at all. That's the only change. But I mean, there was a lotta conflict because of Springsteen. So now he can play with Springsteen whenever he wants. [Although there's no official confirmation of Weinberg's status, he has not been with the band during O'Brien's recent standup appearances, and has, in fact, started a new big band. There are also rumors that Weinberg has approached Jay Leno about taking over the current Tonight Show band when Kevin Eubanks leaves.]
CP: Do you get out and play a lot?
Kooper: I wouldn't say a lot. More overseas than in this country. It's hard to get work here. I don't get hired. It's ironic because right now I have the best band I've ever had in my life.
CP: You have this sort of split profile, where you're associated with all these extremely well-known people and events, but don't necessarily get recognition for it.
Kooper: I'm used to that. All those things I mostly did for the joy of playing. I didn't do them for the recognition. So if I do get recognized, that's like a bonus.
CP: You put a record out a couple years ago, White Chocolate.
Kooper: That came out in 2008. I sort of broke a silence. I hadn't made a solo album since '75. So in 2005 I put a solo album out called Black Coffee. It was probably the best record I'd ever made. I had like 30 years in which I was still writing and recording, just not releasing anything. So I had a great backlog of stuff to pick from that you don't have usually when you make an album. I had over a hundred things to pick from. So I just picked what I thought was the best and then added a few new things. It really got great reviews and I really thought it was a good record. So it was difficult when I did the next one, I had that one sorta lookin' over its shoulder sayin', "What, you're gonna make somethin better than this?" It was very intimidating. I didn't really think I could. But I went back to that stockpile of stuff, and I pulled some more stuff out and I cut some new stuff. And I'll be damned, I think it's a coupla notches better than the other one. And now I'm in the same position of gettin' ready to start another one and I'm goin', "I dunno." Cause you do wanna try and keep on gettin' better.
CP: Are you putting these out yourself or what?
Kooper: The first one came out on Steve Vai's label, Favored Nations. The next one I put out myself and that was a huge mistake. I don't think anybody knows about it, or very few people. The only place you can get it is on my website.
CP: The few reviews I've seen, people have raved about it.
Kooper: Well, god bless 'em. Black Coffee, I put a few of the reviews on my website, and I think there's one or two of White Chocolate as well. There are some people that gimme shit about my singing voice. I have to say that through the majority of my career, it was my weakest link. And I knew it. I just did the best I could, because what else are ya gonna do? But in that time off and as time passed I really learned a lot about what I was doin' wrong and how to improve it and I think I'm singin' better than I ever sang. So there's a guy in England, his review of Black Coffee was: Al Kooper, who played with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix and made a bunch of solo albums, but he never could sing, and this is his new album and he still can't sing. I put that review up too, just to balance it out.
CP: We'll soon find out, won't we?
Kooper: I have found out. I know what I can do and what I can't do. That's why I'm still here.
CP: With you coming here I flashed on that record you put out in 1972, A Possible Projection of the Future, where you're on the cover made up to look ancient and sitting in a wheelchair. Are we at the future you were contemplating back then?
Kooper: No, I think I'm a little short of that. I think I was thinkin' to be like 75 or 80 in that picture.
CP: But still with the electric guitar on your lap.
Kooper: Oh yeah.
CP: You've played with so many different people and done so many things, I'd like to run a few things by you and have you give quick impressions of what you remember, if, in fact, you remember.
Kooper: If, in fact, I remember, yeah.
CP: You were at the infamous Newport performance when Dylan went electric and people were enraged and throwing bottles or whatever.
Kooper: Yeah, I played with him. No. That's a lotta bullshit. That's totally not true. People weren't throwing bottles and people weren't booing. What happened was, everybody played like 45 [minutes] to one hour-length sets at Newport. Bob played 15 minutes. And he was the headliner of the whole thing. That's why people were upset. And then he played like three electric songs. Very Bob.
CP: So the big thing about going electric being controversial wasn't the case?
Kooper: It was controversial to the board of the festival, but not to the audience.
CP: Were they into it?
Kooper: Oh, yeah. I would say 85 to 90 percent were. The reason we only played 15 minutes was Bob decided at the last minute to do it and we only got to rehearse the night before. He had to put a band together also to do it. So everything was pretty last minute. Rehearsing all night we were only able to nail like three songs. So that's what we did. So a lotta people--college kids-they like migrated there to see Dylan, and they stayed through the whole weekend and watched a lotta stuff that they didn't really particularly wanna see. And then when he played 15 minutes, it wasn't good. They weren't happy. The serious folk music people were probably horrified. But I don't think that that made up more than like 15 percent of the audience.
CP: So you played on Highway 61, just because you happened to be there?
Kooper: There were a few of those actually. But that was the first time, which is the story I've told a million times and I ain't gonna tell again. It's also in that Scorsese movie-that Dylan documentary [No Direction Home]. I tell the whole story in that movie.
CP: Jimi Hendrix.
Kooper: An amazing musician, and a very sweet guy. He lived about a block away from me for quite a while in New York. We saw a lot of each other. He gave me a guitar when I played on one of his albums. I turned it down, then he had it sent to my house. So that was pretty wild. We just had a lotta good times together. I miss him.
CP: Blood, Sweat and Tears. Where did the idea come from for that concept?
Kooper: Between the years '60 amd '64 I was a really big jazz fan. I used to go and see this band of Maynard Ferguson. They were unbelievable. I was like a groupie. I went every time they played New York. I just always wanted to have a band like that if I could. And that was the closest I could get, the Blood, Sweat and Tears thing. That was my inspiration. Also I had written a bunch of songs that were cryin' out for horns.
CP: Nobody had done anything like that at the time.
Kooper: Well, they did, but I was unaware of it. Chicago was pretty much on the same time frame as I was. They were Chicago-based, so they were doin' something different than I was doin', but certainly as valid.
CP: But after the first BS&T record you left.
Kooper: Oh, no, no, I got kicked out. Ya know, internal strife in the band. Politics. The people that got rid of me in the band, Bobby Colomby and Steve Katz, they wanted to have hit singles and be gigantically popular and all that. I just wanted to play this music that I had in my head. That was what the problem was. And it turns out they were right.
CP: In terms of getting hits?
Kooper: Yeah. So, there ya go. But I couldn't have stayed in that band because I couldn't stand that band after I left. So it was good that we split up because they got to do what they wanted to do and I went on with my life.
Kooper: That was great. It was very comfortable. It was in England at George's house. I had a good day in the studio. I think I played real nice on that. And you can hear me playing. Sometimes you can't on some of these records I play on. It just was perfect.
CP: Did you know those guys before?
Kooper: No. Not really.
CP: Even for somebody who has played with lots of legendary guys, playing with Beatles still must have been something out of the ordinary.
Kooper: Well, yeah, but it's all down to the music, isn't it? I think it was more exciting-course I was a little younger-when I did that Stones session. That was exciting. "You Can't Always Get What You Want." I did play with them two other times, but those never came out. I played on one Sticky Fingers track; like I said, it didn't come out. And another version of "Memo From Turner," which I think did come out on some album.
CP: Is there a big difference in the vibe among different groups in the studio, or does it all come down to the music, as you say?
Kooper: That's what it's about. Also I had a few years as a studio musician. So I learned the craft. You have to walk into a room and play music that you've never seen or heard before. My attitude is, what would the artist do if he was me? I just try and blend in and help play the best thing I can for what I just heard. But the speed and the spontaneity is the thing that you have to be good at. In other words, learning it quickly, and then coming up with something that's good. So it's quite a difficult job.
CP: Do you have a philosophy when you're producing something?
Kooper: Yeah. My job is to fill in the gaps where the artist is deficient in getting their thing across to the public. Sometimes I have to work very hard, sometimes I don't have to work very hard at all. Depends on the act.
CP: I know you write songs for yourself, but have you written songs for specific people?
Kooper: When I started writing songs , which was in like the early '60s, I didn't write any songs for myself, I was writing entirely for other people.
CP: For specific people?
Kooper: Yeah, although very rarely did those specific people record the songs. Then they were just played for other people and then the other people recorded them. I used to write with these two other guys when I first started, and a lot of our songs were recorded by some bizarre people. That was one of the ways I started in the business.
CP: "This Diamond Ring" [a #1 hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965] was supposed to be for the Coasters?
Kooper: The Drifters. Whereas "I Love You More Than You'll Ever know" I did write for myself when I had the Blood, Sweat & Tears record. But then Donny Hathaway recorded the definitive version of the song, and then a million people recorded it after that.
CP: "Brand New Day," was that for the Staples?
Kooper: No, not at first. I did write it for a movie, though, the first film that I scored. It was called The Landlord, it was Hal Ashby's first film too. I recorded it first, and then I decided to ask the Staple Singers if they would do it. It was a good song for them lyrically and musically cause it was a message song. And they did a great job.
CP: You taught at Berklee for a while?
Kooper: I did, from '97 to 2001. I was teaching history of record production and history of songwriting and advanced record production and advanced songwriting.
CP: Was that a good gig?
Kooper: I did like it. My motivation was to pass on all this stuff that I knew before I left the planet so that other people could benefit from it. I would have still been doin' it, but I lost a great deal of my eyesight in 2001 and it made it very difficult to still do it. That's why I stopped.
CP: Is that still the case?
Kooper: Oh, yeah. It's permanent, but it's not a big deal. You get used to it, and then it's OK.
THE AL COOPER TRIBUTE feat. AL KOOPER takes place this SUNDAY, MAY 2, at the DAKOTA JAZZ CLUB. $45. 7 p.m.
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