If you read much rock and roll history or if, like the Music Enthusiast you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll know the name Al Kooper. He shows up, Zelig-like, everywhere. This is his remarkable story. Much of this is based on his terrific autobiography, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards. I found Al’s story so compelling I made the “executive decision” to publish both parts in one day. You’ll want to read this one. Trust me.
In 1950, when Al was six years old, he had his first encounter with a piano. When his parents would visit someone’s house who owned one – since they couldn’t afford one – he would play it. By the time he reached his early teens, while still a keyboard player he (like everybody and his cousin) took up the guitar as he was enthralled by one Elvis Aaron Presley. He started a band called the Aristo-Cats which played the usual teen dances “for forty dollars split four ways.”
Through a friend who had a more established band, he made contacts at 1650 Broadway which I detailed in my post on Tin Pan Alley. In between school and the occasional gig, he hung out at 1650 just to see if there was any action going on. Al wound up playing guitar as a member of the long-forgotten Royal Teens. (Most of Al’s early bands are footnotes to musical history.)
By the time he was 16, Kooper was writing songs and trying to sell them up the road a bit at 1697 Broadway. (Al was nothing if not a hustler.) There were other guys there working the same turf. “What we were all grasping at,” Al advises us, “was the opportunity for involvement.”
Al got well-enough known that publishers would ask for his opinion of new artists. One new kid on the block turned out to be Gene Pitney who went on to record any number of hits, most famously a song called “Town Without Pity.” (He wrote a few too including “Hello Mary Lou.” and the great “He’s a Rebel.”)
Having had some lessons in musical theory, Al learned song arranging and could make some nice money (300 bucks or $2500 today) creating arrangements for the Brill Building crowd. One of the publishers suggested that Al might work well with songwriters Bob Brass and Irvin Levine.
One day the three churned out an R&B tune called “This Diamond Ring,” which somehow made its way to comedian Jerry Lewis’ son Gary. This perturbed out heroes as they thought Gary and the Playboys had made it into too much of a pop song. They were very, very perturbed until the song climbed its way all the way to Number One in 1965. (Although, frankly, it still rattles Al’s cage somewhat.)
Kooper and his fellow songwriters “bombarded” producers with their songs, looking for that elusive second hit. One of the producers, a guy named Tom Wilson, invited the 21-year-old Kooper to witness a session by Bob Dylan who was then recording his Highway 61 Revisited album. (We might say that young Al fell into some shit.) Al said ‘yes,’ because at the time his only real gigging was with a not-yet-famous guy named Paul Simon.
But Al, mover and shaker that he was, had no intention of just sitting there watching Dylan lay down tracks. He practiced his guitar all night and came in the next day all set to wail. Alas, the featured guitarist on the album was a guy named Mike Bloomfield. And so once our hero heard Bloomfield play, he returned the guitar to its case where it stayed quietly, unshredded.
Now what happens next is, I don’t hesitate to say, one of the great rock and roll stories of all time. It was decided that the organ player’s part would be better performed on piano. And spying an already turned-on, warmed-up organ Al said to Wilson that he had a great organ part for the song. But Wilson reminded Al that he didn’t even fucking play the organ. Now, from Al’s perspective, Wilson didn’t say yes but conveniently, he also didn’t say no.
And so our intrepid hero, full of the chutzpah of youth, walked in, plunked himself down at the organ and tells us this: “But the tape is rolling, and that is Bob-fucking-Dylan over there singing, so this had better be me sitting here playing something. The best I could manage was to play hesitantly by sight, feeling my way through the changes like a little kid fumbling in the dark for the light switch.”
Now you or I would have been thrown the fuck out, right? But Dylan, well, he dug it. “That cat’s not an organ player,” says Wilson. “Don’t tell me who’s an organ player,” Bobby D. says on hearing the playback. “Just turn the organ up.” And so that iconic, swirly organ that’s on the song to this day is the happy accident of a guy who snuck into a session, never really asking for permission, and just played.
Kooper: “If you listen to it today, you can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band, before committing myself to play in the verses. I’m always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys.”
Kooper wound up playing with Dylan at the infamous Newport Folk Festival concert and swears people were booing because Dylan played such a short set, not because they hated it. Regardless, Dylan came out and did an acoustic “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” as, one assumes, a kiss-off to the folkies who couldn’t adapt.
Dylan decided to take this show on the road. Bloomfield wanted to stay with the Butterfield Blues Band and so he needed a guitarist and drummer. And so it was about this time he met the Hawks and brought Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm into the picture. Together with bassist Harvey Brooks (nee Goldstein), this foursome backed Dylan in Queens and the Hollywood Bowl in 1965. This was the end of this particular incarnation of the band as Dylan soon took on the rest of the Hawks* as his touring band.
Despite that minor setback, much in the same way that playing with Miles elevated one’s reputation, likewise was the situation for those who played with Dylan. Al now became a much-in-demand organ player for those who now sought that “new Dylan sound.” He wound up playing a session for Tom Wilson which morphed into a band called The Blues Project (after an Elektra album of the same name.)
This was all well and good except for the fact that despite his pedigree, there hadn’t been much blues on the radio and so Al hadn’t heard much of it. He had to do a crash course in the genre to get a feel for it. But this band wound up being a three-year venture for Al and continued to allow him to make a name for himself. (They all fell in love with a girl named Gail who hung around the band. None of them wound up with her as she eventually married Frank Zappa.)
Al continued playing with Dylan “on the side,” contributing to Blonde on Blonde, Self Portrait and New Morning. And with the Blues Project, he wound up on package tours with cats you’ve maybe heard of like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and James Cotton. Needless to say, Al’s profile was substantially raised and he started playing on bills – and hanging out with – the guys from Cream.
The Blues Project famously backed Chuck Berry whose idea of rehearsal was to impart the following wisdom: “All you do is watch my foot. When it go up in the air, get ready. When it hit the ground, if you playin‘, stop. If you ain’t, start.”
For a period of time, Al lived – platonically he advises us – with folk singer Judy Collins. One day a pretty Canadian songstress (who he says had a crush on their drummer) wandered into his orbit. He took one listen to her songs and instantly recommended Joni Mitchell to Judy Collins who recorded “Both Sides Now.” The rest, as they say, is herstory.
Al, ever the musical adventurer, wanted to augment the Blues Project with the sound he heard in his head, to wit, horns. This didn’t go down well with the other guys, especially guitarist Steve Katz. Al wanted to progress and play his own music and not somebody else’s blues. So, done with Blues Project, he and his girlfriend Joan moved West to L.A for a change of pace and to see what was happening in music in 1967 California. (Stay tuned for Part II.)
*If you don’t know that they later became The Band, subtract five points.
Sources: Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, Al Kooper; various and sundry Wikipedia and other sites