“The bad thing about history is that the people who were there are not talking, and the people that weren’t there, you can’t shut them up.” – Tom Waits as quoted by Al Kooper.
Upon his arrival in LA in 1967 and with no prospects in sight, Al Kooper started rekindling contact with connections he’d had in New York. He met up with a promotion man from his Blues Project days who took him to meet a group of people who were planning a festival in Monterey.
In short order and with no experience as such, Al became the Assistant Stage Manager of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. There were several other performers who became more celebrated as a result of this festival so you can be forgiven for not knowing that Al performed there right between Country Joe and the Fish and the Butterfield Blues Band with Al’s old friend Mike Bloomfield. (Al knew Jimi Hendrix from his days in New York and wound up playing on Electric Ladyland.)
But Al still had this dream of a horn-driven band: “I wanted a horn section that would play more than the short adjectives they were relegated to in R&B bands; but, on the other hand, a horn section that would play less than Count Basie’s or Buddy Rich’s. Somewhere in the middle was a mixture of soul, jazz, and rock that was my little fantasy.”
Al’s first venture into California didn’t last long as he winged his way back to New York soon after. In short order, he tied in with drummer Bobby Colomby and (oddly) his old friend Steve Katz* who was suddenly a horn believer. They wanted to put a band together with Al but he told them he would only if he could be in charge, no democracy. The guys readily agreed and thus was born the yet-to-be-named band.
One night, according to Mr. Kooper, he was jamming with Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King at the Cafe Au Go Go in NYC. Lost in the bliss of playing with these dudes, Al cut his hand on the keyboard and didn’t notice he was bleeding. Noticing that there was now blood all over the keyboard, he (oddly) thought, “What a great name for a band.” And thus was Blood, Sweat & Tears named. (For the record, neither B.B. nor Jimi were in BS&T. Just happened to be inspired by that night, not Winston Churchill.)
There isn’t enough room for me to go into all the machinations of what happened within the band. Suffice it to say that Al wanted to do some sort of 10-minute opus, the guys said “No, we’re a band,” Al said, “But you agreed I was in charge.”
And so Al’s dream of a horn-driven band lasted for exactly one album, a good one called Child is Father to the Man. Al left, BS&T went on to become really big and in fact, continue to this day fronted by a guy named Bo Bice who was the runner-up to Carrie Underwood on American Idol.
It was about this time that Al, for a number of years, gave up on being in a band. Between the record company hustle and the band infighting, he’d had enough. He managed to get himself a job as a staff producer at Columbia Records. Al is responsible at least in part for the Zombies “Time of the Season” being released as a single. It went to #1 in the US and Canada in 1968.
Not content to just produce and not wanting to start a band, Kooper called up Mike Bloomfield and asked him if he just wanted to jam on an album. (You could get away with that in the Sixties.) This went well until Bloomfield realized he couldn’t sleep and just … went home to Chicago.
This left Al in the lurch so he called up Stephen Stills who was nice enough to come in and finish it. So when you see the album cover of Supersessions it’s not the three of them playing together and that’s that story.
That album cost $13,000 to make a became a gold record. I think everybody I knew who had a decent record collection owned a copy. Kooper managed to pull together a live version of Supersessions, somehow convincing Bloomfield** to come back. This album, The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper is notable not only for being one of the earliest recordings (1968) to feature Carlos Santana but also for its Norman Rockwell (!) cover painting of our two adventurous musicians.
Al then made his way to London where, somehow, the Stones found out he was in town and wanted to know if he wanted to work on their new album, Let It Bleed. Al wound up playing piano, organ and that French horn intro on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
I won’t here relate every single thing Al did till now but he started releasing solo albums, none quite as popular as anything he did prior. He also continued producing and did some film and television scoring. He also (since he’s a rock star) got hooked on the painkiller Percodan for a while but eventually kicked that.
In 1972 Al – always in the right place at the right time – had settled into Atlanta for a while. He and the band he was with would go to a local club to see what was happening. One night he heard a band that was so good that it made him stop looking for women. Now THAT’S a good band. The band had heard of Al and let him set in on keys. Al offered to produce their record and even get them on a subsidiary of MCA.
Per Al: “They were incredibly well rehearsed (they even composed their guitar solos beforehand), they were the best damn arrangers I have ever worked with, and their musical discipline was everything to them. They understood music organically, not by the book.” And that, my friends, is how Al Kooper came to discover Lynryd Skynyrd. Kooper produced their first album (and plays on “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man,” and “Free Bird.”)
He went on to produce their second and third albums (Tom Dowd produced the fourth.) Interestingly, Al says nothing about their terrible plane accident as maybe it was just too painful for him. He found Ronnie Van Zant to be a hell of a leader and a man of his word. (Did you know that Al convinced Pete Townshend to let Skynyrd open for The Who? Me neither.)
Over the years, Al stayed busy producing the Tubes first album, working with Nils Lofgren, making the occasional solo album and touring with his own band. In 1976, Al met Tom Petty. They recorded an album together but Petty scrapped it and did his own thing. (A couple of the tunes are on Petty’s Playback box set.) Tom opened for Al’s band, giving him and the Heartbreakers their first national exposure.
In the midst of the punk revolution, seeing no real role for his production skills, Al made his way to England where he saw U2 (already signed) and played on George Harrison’s Somewhere in England album. (He was with George when they heard John Lennon had been shot.)
Eventually, back in LA, Al wound up scoring a TV series called Crime Story, which was one of the precursors of today’s multiple-episode series that continue throughout the season. He bounced between marriages and towns, eventually winding up in Nashville. He toured with Joe Walsh for a while, produced the 50th Anniversary of Ray Charles and was even a member of the (sort of) band called the Rock Bottom Remainders with Stephen King, Amy Tan and Dave Barry.
Al finally left the LA life due, in part, to an earthquake and has never looked back. He formed a band called the Rekooperators in the mid-Nineties and has toured a few times with Dylan. By the time he hit his fifties, Al had had enough of the music business and found a job teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston. (And started a band called the Funky Faculty.) I think he retired not all too long ago and may still even live around here. I know I’ve seen his band’s name a few times but never made the connection.
In 2005, through a contact Al hooked up with mega-guitarist Steve Vai. He’d pretty much written Vai off as a shredder but says he’s a pretty good guy. One thing led to another and Al did an album for Vai’s Favored Nations label called Black Coffee. Here’s Al’s take on the classic “Green Onions.”
At 74, Al lives, I believe, quietly. He has lost a fair amount of his vision over the years but says, “I definitely don’t think of myself as blind, or really, not even close. I think I see as well as you do. I really do. I’m in my world, and in my world I see fine. And that’s the best way to be with it.”
In 2006, Numark Industries gave him a Milestones Award, which is basically a lifetime achievement award. In 2007, he was inducted into the Rock Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, and received the Les Paul Award in New York, both lifetime achievement nods.
Why is a guy with this pedigree not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? A very good question. These people think he should be:
There you have it. I think I hit all the high points. Al’s life was somewhat wilder than I’ve depicted (use your imagination.) Or just read his book. It’s quite the thing.
*Katz produced Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal album.
**Mike Bloomfield died of a drug overdose in 1981 at the age of 37.
Sources: Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, Al Kooper; various and sundry Wikipedia and other sites.