When it comes to Al Kooper’s storied career in rock, the multi-instrumentalist man checks every rock box.
Hit songwriter? Check. His credits include “This Diamond Ring,” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys and “I Can’t Quit Her” by the group he created, Blood Sweat and Tears.
Session player? Check. That’s him at age 21 playing the Hammond B-3 organ on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” French horn on the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” piano on Jimi Hendrix’s “Long Hot Summer Night” and guitar playing with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield on Super Sessions, a live album that cost $13,000 to make, sold over 450,000 copies and made it to #11 on the Billboard Top 20. The follow-up LP, The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, even had cover art done by Norman Rockwell—a fella not known to rock particularly well.
Producer? Check. More like multiple “checks” for producing The Tubes’ debut and the first three Lynyrd Skynrd albums, the soundtrack to the John Waters’ movie Cry Baby and co-producing Dylan’s New Morning album.
Movie score writer? Just one “check,” for his work on director’s Hal Ashby’s (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail) The Landlord.
Al’s credits could fill a book larger than his fantastic autobiography Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor. Yet, for all of his years of being a “secret weapon” that rockers frequently utilized, this rock and roll “Zelig” remains pretty much a secret to the general public, especially to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame voters who have yet to put him on a ballot. Not that Bob Dylan’s pointed gibes in Chronicles: Volume 1 helped his cause. He wrote that Kooper is in “eternal musical limbo” and is “the Ike Turner of the white world.”
Other musicians who would never start an “Al Kooper Fan Club” were the original members of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, a band that Kooper formed and named after a night of playing keyboards until his fingers bled. But after BST’s first album, Al’s bandmates decided that Kooper was too bossy and not up to snuff as a singer. He was duly replaced by David Clayton-Thomas. As Al recalled:
“The people that got rid of me in the band, Bobby Colomby and Steve Katz, they wanted to have hit singles and be gigantically popular and all that. I just wanted to play this music that I had in my head. That was what the problem was. And it turns out they were right!”
But Al was not one to stay unemployed for long. After a short stint as an A&R man at Columbia Records, he assembled a couple of his old bandmates from Dylan’s Highway 61 sessions, Bloomfield and bassist Harvey Brooks, and recorded in Los Angeles what became side one of Super Sessions. But the quirky Bloomfield suddenly upped and left L.A., causing a panicked Kooper to call every local guitarist that he knew. Stephen Stills answered the call and brilliantly finished what the band had started.
Other Spinal Tap-ish scenes (like when an unknown member of Lynyrd Skynrd spiked his soda with speed) gradually took a toll on Kooper. After three failed marriages and years of painful lessons from “back-stabbing bastards,” Al decided he’d become a teacher himself. From 1997 to 2001, he taught the history of record production, the history of songwriting, advanced record production, and advanced songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Today, aside from a past DJ gig in 2018 on WVVY in Martha’s Vineyard which was called “New Music for Old People,” Al has left the music world but has earned the right to rest on his laurels, sit back, sip a cold one and ask himself questions like. “If my two co-writers and I hadn’t sold the rights to ‘This Diamond Ring’ for $300, would we have still allowed the Chipmunks to sing it on their Chipmunks A-Go-Go album?”
Photo of Al Kooper: Wikimedia Commons