Al Kooper – Don’t ask me no questions
It’s amazing when you think of him. It’s everything from “Who Wears Short Shorts” to “Freebird”. Because he is a little bit of everything — he’s a bit of a blues guy, a bit of a jazz bum, a bit of a rocker, he’s a bit of an off-Broadway kind of guy, he had roots in the Brill Building, he is sort of the walking history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s Al Kooper’s life; we just live in it.
— Dave Alvin
At first that may seem a little overstated, but when you read the credits on the back of countless influential rock, pop, blues and R&B albums, Al Kooper’s name is everywhere, practically from the very beginning of the rock era. He has been called the Zelig or Forrest Gump of rock, somehow finding himself at the right time and at the right place to witness and contribute to major musical events. Chances are, anyone who has an interest in music or pop culture has in their library at least one item he was directly involved with.
Here is a quick sampling of some of the artists, events, albums, song titles, etc. that Kooper has had a hand in, as a session musician, producer, songwriter, arranger, or even A&R executive: Highway 61 Revisited, Blood, Sweat & Tears, “This Diamond Ring”, B.B. King, Let It Bleed, The Who Sell Out, Simon & Garfunkel, Rufus, Staple Singers, Billy Joe Shaver, Super Session, Phil Ochs, Eddie & the Hot Rods, Joe Ely, Gene Pitney, Taj Mahal, “Sweet Home Alabama”, Newport Folk Festival (the infamous one), Monterey Pop (the first one), “All Those Years Ago”, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Positively 4th Street”, Trisha Yearwood, Infidels, Electric Ladyland, Alice Cooper, the Tubes, New Morning, Blues Project, Blonde On Blonde, Ray Charles 50th Anniversary special, the aforementioned “Short Shorts” and “Freebird”, and on and on.
While Kooper will be the first to admit his life is full of happy accidents, he still had to deliver once the opportunity arrived. The much-written-about true story of him becoming a participant instead of a spectator at Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited session, sneaking into the studio and sitting behind the organ, an instrument he had never played before, is rock legend. “It is a complicated procedure to even turn one of those things on,” he reflects, “and thank God it was left on by the person that played it before me or my career would have been over right then because I didn’t have a clue.”
The song being recorded that day was “Like A Rolling Stone”, and when Kooper began to tentatively play along with the guitar chords on the organ, Dylan instinctively knew it was the missing link for the new sound he was searching for.
Dylan never looked back, but neither did Al Kooper. Amidst all his work with other artists, he still found time to make seven solo albums (not counting live or best-of compilations). His first official release in nearly 30 years, Black Coffee, comes out July 12 on the Favored Nations label; we talked to him about that and other highlights of his lengthy career.
I. ONE HAS A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY, AND ONE HAS TO BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN THE WINDOW SHUTS
NO DEPRESSION: Randy Newman has a song about aging rockers who have overstayed their usefulness called “Dead (But I Don’t Know It)”. Was creative burnout the reason you waited so long to record a new solo album?
AL KOOPER: I actually quit the music business in 1989 — because I had watched for years as people’s windows shut and they weren’t conscious of it, which I assume is what Randy Newman is talking about. And it horrified me to think that could happen to me, because I had watched it happen to other people.
It is difficult to watch oneself from a distance, but then it came to me and I thought, “OK, this is it, and I need to get out now.” At the time I was living in Los Angeles and I said “I gotta get out of here” because I knew it wasn’t enough just to stop — I’m still going to run into these people in the market or at the movies and I really don’t want to see them anymore…at all. So I devised a plan to where I would retire until I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I moved to Nashville because it was a place I had been to many times over the years, beginning in 1966 with Blonde On Blonde. To be honest, that first time I was there, outside of the music it wasn’t a great place for me to be in ’66. The sociology was incorrect; the people I was in contact with through playing on the album were all wonderful guys, but it kind of stopped there.
ND: I guess considering how you must have looked to the average civilian down there at the time, they probably hadn’t seen too many people that looked like that. And as the cover of that album shows, Dylan probably looked too weird and wired for just about anywhere in that pre-freak era of 1966.
AK: Yes, and actually they got one of Elvis’ bodyguards for Dylan, his name is Lamar Fike, who is a great guy and famous to the Elvis fan. He bailed me out of trouble twice and came and got me out of situations so I didn’t get beat up or killed or something. Robbie [Robertson] too, because he got in some trouble as well.
ND: So if you ventured outside of the safety of the studio environment it turned into the Easy Rider set or something?
AK: Yeah, I guess, because like I said, at that time Robbie and I didn’t have long hair, but I did dress in black and wore a leather jacket and of course the sunglasses; you know, we just stood out down there. I went back two years later to do a bit of my first solo album [I Stand Alone] because of the experience I had working with the great musicians on the Blonde On Blonde sessions. I came back in the ’70s producing different people, and I used some of the same guys and others. I built up friendships and I thought it was a cool place, and by 1989 it felt right for me to move there.