AL KOOPER:
HE'S BEEN EVERYWHERE

By Terry Roland

Al_Kooper.jpgAl Kooper hardly needs any introduction. He's been there with the biggest names in rock including the Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan. His mercurial organ is a signutare sound on Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone. He helped to create jazz-rock, later picked up by Chicago. He founded Blood Sweat & Tears, but he left for a more experimental sound. His studio work has been constant. But, he also is fine songwriter with a distinct soul/R&B sound. When he comes around on a solo-acoustic tour, it's a rarity. His year old White Chocolate album is his effort to re-invent blue-eyed soul.

In a recent interview, he talks with wit, wisdom and a memory that holds stories and history which can be treasured by all.

TERRY: The first thing that struck me is your book memoir, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. It appears you didn't use a ghost writer. So, you are a writer in the literary sense as well. Many artists over the last 40 years have written biographies, what makes yours stand out from the others?

AL: I don't think of it as standing out. It's just what happened to me in a certain time period. I tried to express it so that everyone would understand.

TERRY: Johnny Cash has this song, I've Been Everywhere.....it seems this holds true of you.

AL: It seems that way. Sometimes I step back from my resume in complete disbelief. I'm just glad I filled in that time from 14 - 66 so well.

Al_Kooper_1.jpgTERRY: Reading over your career left me breathless. You've been on the edge of some historic moments in music. Where did the energy, inspiration and luck come from to accomplish all of this? I mean, is it a mission from God? Did you have this drive that wouldn't leave you alone, was it partially luck....and your own talent?... I've often been told its not so much talent as luck. What did you feel?

AL: Like A Rolling Stone...hahaha...you're leaving out one important thing - New York City AMBITION. I had a great deal of that, sprinkled with luck. In the very beginning, in fact, I was probably 90% ambition and 10% talent (1958-62) but as I became experienced, I learned quickly. I think God was involved as well as there are no other explanations for some of it. But at the age of almost 66, it feels like those numbers are now reversed. I feel like I know a whole lot now but it takes a great deal to get me out of the house nowadays.

TERRY: Most notable for our readers is your being a part of Blues Project and founding Blood, Sweat and Tears. It seems you've specialized in breaking new ground in musical genre. Is this something that you pursued or did it pursue you?

Al_Kooper_with_Blues_Project.jpgAL: I was the last person to join the Blues Project. I don't consider myself a founder or co-founder of that band. Just a 1/5 participant. My role was to write songs, arrange music, play keyboards (and occasionally guitar) and sing. In that order. Blood Sweat & Tears was a concept I had in my head that I finally had to bring to fruition. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending how you look at it, I cast it in such a way that it quickly brought about my demise as a member and writer. Some of my arrangements were used on the second album, but they weren't played at the right tempos, etc. I'm glad, artistically (but not financially) that I got out when I did. I did not agree with the Las Vegas sheen the band had on it from that point on. But they sold a l.ot of records and made a lot of money. I was more interested in the direction I was headed on that first album.

TERRY: Can you describe the scene at Newport Folk Festival in '65? What was your sense at the time?

AL: We completed the Highway 61 Revisited album a few weeks before Newport. It hadn't been released yet when we played there. That appearance was kinda the tip off to what was next for Bob. It took the audience by surprise I must say. We only played three songs because we only had one rehearsal the night before the show. We played for about fifteen minutes. Bob was the headliner of the entire festival and everyone else played 45- 60 minutes. I think THAT was what upset most of the audience. The Newport Board members were upset about the drums & electric guitars but the audience was more upset about the short time we were onstage. I never heard any booing. Just unrest when we left the stage after that.

Al_Kooper_at_Newport.jpgTERRY: Tell me about the Highway 61 Revisited sessions.

AL: The Highway 61 sessions were very disorganized and chaotic on a day to day basis. The producer was fired after Like A Rolling Stone (the first track) was recorded. A new producer came in, but wisely just stayed in the corner out of everyone's artistic way. The arrangements were based on the skills of the individual musicians as opposed to thought out ahead of time. There were some great players on that album - Mike Bloomfield, Paul Griffin, Bobby Gregg, Harvey Brooks, etc - that is the glue that made it work. Of course the songs weren't too bad either - hahahaha. But there is the beginnings of what later was to be punk-rock on that album mixed with blues and folk music and good old rock n roll. I'm proud to have been a part of all that.

TERRY: You've released a new solo record, White Chocolate. Can you tell us about it? The title refers to your love for soul music?

AL: Yeah. It's not so new anymore, however. It's been out about a year now. White Chocolate is a term I'm hoping will replace "blue eyed soul" as I have brown eyes. I released an album three years before that called Black Coffee. I hadn't made a solo album in thirty years before that one. But I had still been writing and recording, just not releasing anything. So I had over 100 things to choose from, which is extremely helpful when one makes an album. When Black Coffee was finished it felt like the best record I had ever made. It got wonderful reviews and won some awards as well. It was a daunting task to follow that. Especially since the concepts of both albums were the same. However I still had a great many songs/tracks to pick from, and I had just written two songs with one of my heroes, Gerry Goffin. So those two went right on that record. I have never made an album of all my compositions because I like other peoples music more than my own. I also enjoy the challenge of coming up with bizarre arrangements of songs that have been done to death previously so that they are nearly unrecognizable but still retain what makes them great songs. Also people like to see songs they think they know on an album every now & then. I'm addicted to doing that so I'll probably not put out all ny own songs in my lifetime. After I go, they can put one out with all my songs on it, but you know they'll pick the wrong ones- hahahaha.

TERRY: Who would you identify as the greatest soul singer of the last 50 years?

AL: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Luther Vandross, El DeBarge- that's the closest I can come to one.

TERRY: Do you hear any bands or solo artists today who are carrying on your pursuit of great American music and especially breaking new ground in terms of innovative genre creation?

AL: I really like XTC, Kings X, Field Music, Amos Lee, Kristina Train, North Mississippi All Stars, Wilco, Anthony Hamilton, James Hunter, Grace Potter, Carolyn Wonderland (although I think she should change her first name to Allison), The Veronicas, The Bird & The Bee, Andy Davis, Paul Thorn, Jeb Loy Nichols, Deerhoof, Jake Shimabukuro and my favorite band of time was Free.

TERRY: Looking back over your career, what do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of it.

AL: That I am still alive.

TERRY: Looking ahead, what do you see for your future contributions, escapades, projects, etc.

AL: I dont know and that is good. I like the fairly open-minded concept.

TERRY: I was in Japan the summer of 1989. I bought an import of New Morning and found this album to be highly spiritual and with this natural element to it. What were you and Dylan going for on that album?

AL: I think it was a hurriedly assembled attempt to wield off negative backlash from Self-Portrait. I dont think people understood that album. So NM was a cross between Self Portrait and maybe Nashville Skyline. It had a few different bands on it. Also some tracks had horns or strings on them that Bob removed before release. We are trying to get those released in the future in his BIOGRAPH series.

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude' at an early age.