Al Kooper is often referred to as the “Zelig” or “Forrest Gump” of Rock. Somehow, in a career that spans over 50 years, he has managed to turn up at key points in the last five decades. In 1958, Koop began his professional career as guitarist in The Royal Teens (“Short Shorts”). He metamorphisized into a Tin Pan Alley songwriter with cuts by Gary Lewis, Gene Pitney, Keely Smith, Carmen MacRae, Pat Boone, Freddie Cannon, Lulu, Lorraine Ellison, Donnie Hathaway and later was sampled by The Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Pharcyde, and Alchemist to name but a few.
His playing skills have graced the works of The Rolling Stones, George Harrison, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Paul & Mary, Tom Petty, Joe Cocker, BB King, Taj Mahal, Alice Cooper, Roger McGuinn, Betty Wright, Trisha Yearwood, Tracy Nelson and scores more. Major moments include playing piano, organ and FRENCH HORN for The Rolling Stones on “You Cant Always Get What You Want,” keyboards on George Harrison’s #1 hit “All Those Years Ago,” keys on “The Who Sell Out,” and on “Electric Ladyland” for Jimi Hendrix.
As a producer he is best known for discovering Lynyrd Skynyrd and producing their first three albums including “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” and “Saturday Night Special.” His other producing clients included, The Tubes, Nils Lofgren, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Ray Charles, BB King, The Staple Singers, Lorraine Ellison, Bob Dylan, Joe Ely, Thelonious Monster and Green On Red.
“I was hanging around the fringes of the music business,” he says of the period after he did his time with the Royal Teens.
“I was playing sessions on guitar. People would hire me because their only alternative was to hire these jazz players to play this teenage music. These guys were smoking cigars, emulating what kids would play. So, they would hire me to get that ‘dumb, kid sound.’ I assume that’s why I was hired, because I really couldn’t play anywhere near as well as those other guys.”
As time went by, Kooper got better, got confident and got known. Producers called on him to lay down guitar parts for scads of teen records, “Certainly, a lot of them you’ve never heard of,” he laughs. “It was a very educational part of my life,” he continues. “I learned how to read and write music for the studio. I made friends with the players. They were all very nice to me with some exceptions. I didn’t claim to be up to their musicianship, but it was a great university. The difference between the first time and the fifth time I was on a session was immense. The first time they should have thrown me out, but I was lucky!”
In addition to session work, he apprenticed as an audio engineer. He also teamed up with songwriters Bob Brass and Irwin Levine. This partnership yielded the chart topping smash, “This Diamond Ring,” performed by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. It has now exceeded it’s 3-millionth radio performance.
One of the friends he made during this time, producer Tom Wilson, invited Kooper to watch a Bob Dylan session. By the afternoon’s end, Al had played the signature organ riff on Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” alongside blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield. His association and friendship with Bloomfield lasted until the guitarist’s untimely death in 1981, spawning the million-selling Super Session album with Stephen Stills, as well as the highly regarded Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper. His relationship with Dylan has been ongoing for the last 30 years. Kooper has played with him on record and on stage, as well as having produced his “New Morning” album. The catchy organ part on Dylan’s first chart-topping single led to many offers of session work. “I’d get tons of calls,” Kooper muses. “Some of them, I didn’t even want to do, but I didn’t want to say no. So, I’d just charge them triple scale, thinking that would deter them. It didn’t.”
One offer he couldn’t refuse was to join the Blues Project. Along with guitarist Danny Kalb, bassist Andy Kulberg, guitarist Steve Katz, and drummer Roy Blumenfeld, the Blues Project helped spearhead the 60’s urban blues sound with critically hailed records and widely acclaimed live performances. “Two Trains Running” on Kooper’s fiery live album, SOUL OF A MAN (currently out of print), illustrates just how remarkable the Blues Project can still sound live. That album also contains live takes of the Project chestnuts – ” I Can’t Keep From Cryin” Sometimes,” “Flute Thing” and “Violets Of Dawn.”
After two and a half years and three records with the Blues Project, Kooper started hearing another sound in his head. It started with the blues, but added killer horn charts without losing the rock edge. That idea became the trend-setting Blood Sweat & Tears. The original horn section included Dick Halligan on trombone, Jerry Weiss and Randy Brecker on trumpets and Fred Lipsius on alto sax.
Kooper left Blood Sweat and Tears in 1968 after just one album, CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN, taking a job with the Columbia Records A&R department. Here he began recording albums; first with Mike Bloomfield (the top-ten SUPER SESSION), then Shuggie Otis, and his own solo debut, I STAND ALONE. He continued to do session work, adding his keyboards to records by The Rolling Stones (Al played on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), Jimi Hendrix (“Long Hot Summer Nights”), The Who (“Rael”), and innumerable others. He also scored the Hal Ashby film The Landlord in 1970.
In 1972, Kooper moved to Atlanta, attracted by the music he heard there. He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd at a favorite hangout. Forming his own label (Sounds of the South) to put out their records, he produced their first three albums, which included the massive hits “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Saturday Night Special,” and “Free Bird.” In 1974 he sold Sounds of the South to MCA Records and moved to Los Angeles.
Around this time, Kooper literally began collecting his thoughts. In 1977, his autobiography, Backstage Passes, was published. A beefed-up version of this critically-hailed tome, covered Kooper’s career from 1958 – 1997. Retitled “Backstage Passes & Backstabbing’ Bastards,” it debuted in the fall of 1998 and then mysteriously went out of print in 2002. The third time’s the charm. In March of 2008, it was republished for AGAIN, and reaching myriad readers it had missed before. Rolling Stone dubbed it “Vonnegut-esque!”
Taking up residency in England in 1979, Kooper continued producing, adding David Essex & Eddie & The Hot Rods to his burgeoning productions list. He played on and arranged three tracks on George Harrison’s SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND album, performing with the remaining Beatles, Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr on the No. 1 single “All Those Years Ago.” His return to the US in 1980 marked the beginning of a busy year for Kooper. He produced a record with country rocker Joe Ely, a native of his new home of Austin, Texas. He returned to LA the next year and toured with Dylan and the reunited Blues Project, additionally releasing a new album (Championship Wrestling) after a six-year recording hiatus.
He next took on the job of West Coast Director of A&R for PolyGram Records, where he was instrumental in signing Richard Thompson. He also met producer/director Michael Mann, who was riding high on the success of Miami Vice. Mann hired Kooper to score his Crime Story TV series. Kooper wrote original music and chose source music for each episode from his vast record collection, giving the show it’s 60’s noir feel. He also did music for the Emmy Award-winning miniseries, The Drug Wars as well as producing some of the soundtrack for the John Waters film “Cry Baby”.
In the latter part of the 80’s, Kooper took a vacation from the music business. “I just took a break,” Al explains. “I considered myself semiretired. I stopped looking for work.” While he stopped looking, the Beastie Boys sampled Al’s song “Flute Thing” on their ILL COMMUNICATIONS album and sold 5 million copies. Many hip-hop producers sample Kooper’s catalogue and in a survey in Hip Hop Magazine, Kooper was noted as the only artist sampled by all of the top producers polled. Recently. Jay-Z sampled some Kooper on the song “Soon You’ll Understand” from his multi-platinum Dynasty album. The Robert Redford film “Sneakers” opened with the Kooper-Bloomfield composition and performance of “Really” from Super Session, and was later reprised in the film. Pharcyde and Alchemist joined the rapping throngs who sample Kooper.
So you see, the music never took a break from Al Kooper. The summer of 1991 found him playing keyboards & guitar as a member of Joe Walsh’s Ordinary Average Guy tour. During the fall, he took on musical director chores for Ray Charles 50th Anniversary cable TV special. In 1992, he became music director for the strangest band of all. Backstage Passes (his autobiography) qualified him as a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a loosely affiliated rock band made up of authors including Dave Barry, Stephen King, Dave Marsh, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening and perhaps ten other writers. Their touring adventures became grist for their own book, 1995’s hysterical Mid-life Confidential, published by Viking/Penguin, now a remainder, itself. “It was hilarious and wonderful,” he laughs. “They are terrific people. It was great to meet them and I’ve become close friends with many of them. We ended up putting on a very entertaining show. I think it was a nice change of pace for them, too. They got the chance to meet and get to know each other. We had the only rock and roll tour bus TV that had the McNeil Lehrer Report tuned in!”
The next ten years have included the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute at Madison Square Garden, where he reprised his classic organ parts for John Mellencamp’s versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” Al also joined Dylan in England in the summer of ’96 at the Prince’s Trust concert in Hyde Park. Kooper also played organ for the Sunday morning Gospel set at Woodstock II. Ironically, he was asked to appear at the original Woodstock, but blew it off. “I played at Central Park that weekend for two dollars a ticket in protest of their comparative high ticket prices,” he laughs. “One of my great career moves, turning down the original Woodstock.”
Kooper had been a dozen years between albums when fate came calling: “The MusicMasters label asked if I would record an instrumental album for them,” he says. “I’d had a concept for an instrumental album in my head for about ten years, and I didn’t know when the right time to do it was. So, here I really had nothing to lose. I decided to take them up on their offer. Had it not been for MusicMasters, there probably would still be no Al Kooper album.” 1993’s result of this synergy, REKOOPERATION (now out of print!?!), came out with coast to coast raves from even usually staid critics. The personnel from that CD made up Kooper’s band The Rekooperators. Boasting late-night stalwarts Anton Fig on drums and Jimmy Vivino on guitar, they were joined by Al’s boyhood chum Harvey Brooks on bass and the Uptown Horns. Their appearance on Al’s 1995 double-live album, SOUL OF A MAN, was one of the highlights of that album. Reprising “Downtime” & “I Wanna Little Girl” from REKOOPERATION, they also churn out blistering versions of Adrian Belew’s “Heartbeat”, “Albert’s Shuffle’ & “Season Of The Witch” from SUPER SESSION, and a killer medley of songs from Al’s solo albums to mention but a few.”
Kooper was still far from semiretirement in 1996. He co- produced the critically-acclaimed FOR THE LOVE OF HARRY: EVERYBODY SINGS NILSSON. This tribute to the late singer-songwriter and longtime Kooper pal, Harry Nilsson, is a strictly charity effort with all profits earmarked for The Coalition To Stop Gun Violence. Appearing alongside Al are Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Jimmy Webb, Aimee Mann & Marc Cohn to name but a few of the 23 artists who appear at their own expense on the album. He hosted the 1995 TEC Awards (The audio industry’s Oscars) in New York City, bringing the crowd to it’s feet with a chilling, solo performance of “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
He answers all his fan e-mail from this website: “It’s great to be one-on-one with my supporters and answer any questions they may have on a daily basis!,” he says. A Kooper hologram also appeared on the Bob Dylan CD-ROM, “Highway 61 Interactive,” explaining how the two met and recorded “Like A Rolling Stone.”
His performances are popping up now on career-encompassing box sets by the likes of Tom Petty, Joe Cocker, The Who, The Rolling Stones & Dylan. Polygram released a 2 CD Blues Project Anthology, while SONY released the landmark “Live Adventures” album on CD featuring Kooper & Bloomfield at The Fillmore West in ’69.”
In an issue devoted to The 500 Greatest Recordings of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine included 12 albums with serious participation by Al.
Al continued his influential forays into his fifth decade in the music business. He scores the occasional film and works almost daily in his home studio. He relocated to Boston in the fall of ’97 to teach at the Berklee School Of Music. Concurrently, Five Towns College in Long Island bestowed an honorary Doctorate of Music on Kooper in May of ’97, to start him off at Berklee as Dr. Kooper. In the fall of 2001, Berklee bestowed their own doctorate on Kooper, in a ceremony also honoring jazz great Elvin Jones.
His teaching was cut short prematurely in 2001, when a debilitating condition permanently robbed him of two-thirds of his sight. “Not to worry,” he said with typical aplomb, “As long as I’ve got my hands and my ears, I can still see my way clear to performing the music I love. Besides, what a great excuse to not have to drive in Boston!” An MRI at the time also detected a benign, walnut-sized brain tumor. With astute New England medicos around him, said tumor was removed on November 12th, 2001. A two-month recovery and some amazing natural hair-regrowth returned our boy to normal!
With DJ offers, concerts and lecture appearances, Al is “finally getting to do a whole bunch of things I always wanted to do, but never actually got around to.” In addition to his New York-based group, The Rekooperators, Al assembled an amazing Boston-based band of Berklee professors dubbed The Funky Faculty. While originally performing in the New England area, they began stretching their performing boundaries to include New York, Detroit, Chicago, a highly acclaimed appearance at the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway during the summer of 2001 and a sold-out tour of Japan in 2003. The floodgates opened and the Faculty hastoured Italy, Spain, Denmark, The Czech Republic and is currently lining up new countries to comcertize.
In 2001, SONY-Legacy released Al’s box set RARE & WELL DONE . This two CD set contains one CD of Al’s most popular tracks remastered in 24-bit digital under Al’s supervision for the first time. Chestnuts such as “I Love You More Than Youâ€™ll Ever Know,” “Flute Thing,” “Season Of The Witch,” “Albert’s Shuffle,” and “Bury My Body,” sound better than they ever have before on disc. The second CD is a collection of eighteen unreleased tracks recorded by Kooper from 1964 to the present, plus Al’s first solo single from 1965, long out of print, “New York’s My Home.” A fact-filled 28 page full-color booklet is enclosed with all recording details, insightful liner notes by longtime rock critic Jaan Uhelszki, rare photos from the SONY archives, and testimonials from Kooper fans as diverse as Tom Petty, Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood, Gene Simmons, Gary Burton, Billy Gibbons, Andy Partridge and George Winston.A long-lost unreleased Fillmore East concert by Al & Mike Bloomfield from 1968 wasan early 2003 SONY-Legacy release as well as a remastered SUPER SESSION CD with 4 bonus tracks!
In 2005, Steve Vai’s Favorite Nations label released Al’s first solo album since 1975’s ACT LIKE NOTHING’S WRONG. Dubbed “Black Coffee,” It was filled with new Kooper songs and bizarre arrangements of cover tunes. Critically acclaimed as no other Kooper solo album, it garnered the Memphis Blues Award for Comeback Album Of The Year.
In 2007, Kooper was inducted into the Rock n Roll Walk of Fame in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Later in the year he was named as recipient of the Les Paul Award for his life’s work and was presented with the award in New York City by Les Paul, himself.