A study of Al Kooper's career is like a study of the history of Rock 'n' Roll.
Just consider: Al Kooper played guitar for The Royal Teens, who had a hit with the song "Short Shorts"; he co-wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis and The Playboys; he joined Bob Dylan onstage in 1965 and 1966; he played with Mike Bloomfield; he co-founded The Blues Project; he formed Blood Sweat And Tears; he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced their first three albums. A session musician, he's performed on hundreds of records.
You won't find many guys like Al Kooper in today's music business. We talked to Al Kooper about his career in music, a career that is nothing less than spectacular!
Q - Al, I would say that what differentiates you from your contemporaries is your appreciation for different styles of music. How did you develop that skill?
A - It's not a skill. It's just taste. I don't mean that I have great taste. I mean that I just like so many different things. I just like music that reaches your heart or your groin, and if it doesn't reach either of those places, I'm really not interested.
Q - I still say you're exceptional in that you can hear something that perhaps most people cannot.
A - I know that's true. I have good ears. But in terms of taste, those are my boundaries. If it doesn't reach my heart or my groin, I'm not interested and really I can't listen to it. That's why I love Gospel music, because it's so real. Those people are not trying to have a hit. They're singing what's in their hearts and souls. They sing better than people who are trying to get a hit. That's why I love that music so much. It's such incredible singing.
Q - You taught music at Berklee School Of Music.
A - Yeah.
Q - Can anyone actually teach someone to play as good as you do?
A - I don't play that good. In terms of organ players, there's like millions of people that can play better than me. I'm not technically all that good compared to people that play. For instance, Joey De Francisco is like the most amazing organ player I've ever heard of in my life. If I lived three lifetimes, I couldn't play as good as he plays. There's a lot of really great organ players. What I'm good at is studio stuff. You play me a song and somebody's singing and I can play nicely behind them. I'm a good sideman. My skill is more of an arranger than as a player. I have to say I think I'm a really good arranger. I think I'm a much better arranger than I am a player. The other thing is, I like so many different kinds of music and I play a lot of different instruments. If you just like one kind of music and you just play one instrument, it's pretty fuckin' boring. That's why I do it...just to keep myself entertained. Otherwise, forget about it! I couldn't believe, I figured it out the other day. I've been playing the organ for forty-three years. That's pretty amazing. I didn't know that. I just figured it out the other day.
Q - Music has sure changed since you started.
A - I know, but I didn't go there. I just play what I like. I stopped listening to the radio 30 years ago.
Q - Why?
A - It was terrible.
Q - If you think radio was bad 30 years ago, you oughta listen to it today.
A - Oh, I know. I was just listening to a bunch of stuff from a long time ago and it sounded great.
Q - Only problem with the classic radio stations is it's the same songs over and over again.
A - Oh I know. I had a radio show for a while on Radio Caroline in England. I just played music that I thought was incredible that I thought people might not have heard. If I ever got another radio show, that's all I would want to do, is just play what I think are great records that most people have never heard. That was a very important station in the late '60s 'cause they didn't have commercials and they didn't have play lists and the jocks could play whatever they wanted. It was pretty amazing. You know, it was a boat offshore and that's why they weren't bound by the rules of the radio. It was a very great idea, and they're still there. So, it's pretty amazing. That's why I went and asked if they were interested when I was looking to do DJ.
Q - When did you stop your radio show?
A - I think a couple of years ago, I stopped.
Q - You worked with everybody who was anybody in the music business. Did you ever work with Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison?
A - I didn't work with them, but I knew them. I spent time with them. I saw the first Superbowl at Janis' house. It's funny, these two cute girls used to live together in New York on 8th Ave. They were named Bonnie and Ronnie. They weren't related. I used to go up there and see Bonnie. I came out in a bathrobe and there was Jim Morrison in the living room 'cause he was seeing Ronnie. And so we had a nice talk. And I'd bump into him there every now and then 'cause we were seeing these girls at the same time.
Q - You found Jim Morrison to be a nice guy then?
A - He was very nice. I mean, in that context.
Q - So, Janis was a football fan?
A - Well, I think she was going out with Joe Namath at the time. So, I think she had a vested interest.
Q - Ever meet John Lennon?
A - Sure.
Q -You have met everybody! Were there a lot of studio musicians around when you started your career?
A - Oh, sure. I had to sort of slowly break through. They were all the big guys and again I didn't play as well as they did. So, I didn't really catch on until I played on "Like A Rolling Stone". Then people wanted that sound. So, they hired me.
Q - But before that, you were doing pretty well weren't you?
A - Well, I wouldn't say pretty well. Before then I was a guitarist. I didn't play keyboards much on people's records. I was known as being a guitar player.
Q - You were also a songwriter. Didn't you co-write "This Diamond Ring"?
A - Yeah.
Q - How long did it take you to write that song?
A - I don't know...an afternoon...two or three hours. I wrote it with two other people you know. I just wrote the music. I didn't write the words.
Q - That's pretty fast for a hit song. But, you probably didn't know it was going to be a hit, did you?
A - No. We wrote songs for a living. We wrote songs all day. That's what we did. We went to work everyday and wrote songs all day. That's what we did for a living. Actually, that was pretty normal.
Q - You went to four different high schools.
A - Yeah.
Q - Because you were a rebel. What would you do or not do that got you this reputation?
A - I wasn't called a rebel. I was called a juvenile delinquent. That's what it was called back then. I did whatever wasn't correct. I was a Bad Boy.
Q - Were you hitting the teacher or speaking out in class when you weren't supposed to?
A - They actually in one of the schools I went to, which was a public school, threw one of the teachers out the window. He was a little guy though.
Q - That was one tough school
A - Oh, yeah. Definitely. So, that's where I learned all that stuff. Before I want to junior high school, I lived in a lower middle class neighborhood, where everybody was the same. It was primarily Italians and Jewish people. From grades one to six, everybody was the same in school. Everybody lived in the same kind of houses. It was a nice neighborhood. Then they bused us to junior high school in the seventh grade. It was a different kind of neighborhood. There were different kinds of people living there. I just found it fascinating. I was sick of the same thing all the time. Here were people that I thought were really interesting. So, that changed my life at that point.
Q - What was so interesting about these people?
A - They weren't the same as all these people I grew up with. They were a little dangerous actually and I found that interesting.
Q - Unfortunately, that didn't help your education, did it?
A - No, not really. But, I learned some very good things from some of them. That's where I first heard Gospel music and that changed my life in a big way. The way I played the organ on "Like A Rolling Stone" was very Gospel derivative. It's what a Gospel organ player would have played.
Q - Now, after high school, you went to college for a year.
A - Yeah.
Q - What did you take in college?
A - Music. What else?
Q - Why did you leave?
A - Because they were teaching me to be a music teacher, which I really wasn't interested in doing. And I was already working in the music business. I started turning professional when I was 14. So, I'd been in the business for 3 years and I was making a certain amount of money. I wanted to learn more. That's why I went to college. They weren't teaching me anything that was useful for what I wanted to do. So, I thought that I was wasting my time. I just went into New York everyday and in this building where I got a deal as a songwriter. I learned 50 times more than I could have possibly learned in college, in that building.
Q - How did you get that job?
A - I went in and played songs for them that I wrote and they signed me to a contract. That guy's name was Aaron Schroder. He signed me, Randy Newman, Barry White and Jimi Hendrix.
Q - That's not a bad line-up at all.
A - Did I say Gene Pitney? So, I felt like I was in good company.
Q - Why did you leave Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1968 after just one album, to take a job as an A&R guy at Columbia Records? Were you tired of being a musician at that point?
A - Well, I sort of got thrown out of the band, so that made me tired of being in bands I was in and I found it extremely annoying. All I wanted to do was to do what it is I did and people had problems with it. So I said, I don't want to piss people off. I just want to play music and I can't make these politics. There's so many politics in a band. So, I said I'm not doing this anymore. It doesn't make any sense. I don't want people to be mad at me. I just want to play music. In Blood, Sweat and Tears, I had an idea and I brought it to fruition. I didn't know if it was going to be a hit or not, but it was certainly music that I thought people should hear. The other guys in the band that stayed in the band, wanted to make hit record, period. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to explore this sound that I came up with. And so I left. And frankly, I don't think I could have stood behind what they did. I found some of it embarrassing.
Q - Like what?
A - "Spinning Wheel". Their version of "God Bless The Child". Stuff like that. So, it worked out for the best.
Q - I take it the record company loved these records.
A - Yup. Rolling Stone put out the 500 Best Albums of all time and the only Blood, Sweat and Tears album that was in there was the one that I did with them. I thought that was interesting.
Q - What a compliment to you!
A - That's what I thought.
Q - Your first break in the business was when you joined The Royal Teens?
A - Yes, definitely. I don't know what would have happened to me and I have one person to thank for that and that is Bob Gaudio.
Q - The Four Seasons.
A - He was also a songwriter in The Royal Teens. He's the one that said "Yeah. Let's use this guy."
Q - How did he hear about you?
A - I had a friend who was involved in the record label they were on and he brought me up there to audition. Like I said, this was when I was 14. Everybody else was 16. So I was the young one.
Q - You discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd at a favorite hangout. I assume it was a favorite hangout of yours?
A - Well, actually I was in Atlanta producing a record and I lived in New York at the time. I was staying in a hotel and I met a guy I went to summer camp with and he managed a club. He invited me and the band I was producing to the club. So, we went down there one night and they put us in like a VIP balcony. We had our own waitress. The women were very beautiful. So we started hanging out there. We worked from like noon to eight o'clock everyday in the studio. Then we'd go to the club every night and had a good time. About the second week I was there, Skynyrd was playing at the club. In those days you didn't play for one night. You played for a week, from Tuesday to Sunday. So I heard 'em every night and I thought it was pretty amazing.
Q - They were playing original material weren't they?
A - Yeah. They were playing the stuff from their first album. By the end of the week I offered 'em a deal.
Q - It is surprising to you that up to that point no one else had come along and offered them a deal?
A - That's not true. They made an album for the guys at Muscle Shoals, but, it was too early. They weren't ready yet. The record they made was Muscle Shoals people. I think I had a better vision. I think a combination of those two things. I knew what I wanted it to sound like and I used the studio a little bit in the making of their sound, but they were very good when I heard them. I think they were much better than that album that they made for Muscle Shoals, which came out later, after they'd become a hit.
Q - In the '80s you said "I'm still getting better on guitar. I practice 5 hours a day when I'm not playing gigs." 5 hours a day? That's no exaggeration?
A - I said that?
Q - Yes, you did.
A - That's interesting. If I was practicing at home, I was probably playing along with records. There came a time when I stopped playing guitar for a while in the '80s, probably about '84. I went down in my ability to play lead guitar, but everything else was fine. Playing rhythm guitar is sort of a lost art form. That's what I do pretty good. It doesn't bother me that I lost the ability to play lead guitar. The guy who plays lead guitar in my band is amazing. I could never play as good as he plays, so I wouldn't have been able to play anyway, (laughs) if he was in the band. So, on our albums, we've done two albums together, he plays ninety per cent of the solos and I play rhythm guitar. Everybody wants to be a lead guitar player, so not many people concentrate on rhythm guitar. I love people that play great rhythm guitar. It's a great thing.
Q - What was it like working with Jimi Hendrix in the studio?
A - Well, we lived near each other so we saw each other all the time. So, we were friends. He lived like a block away from me in Manhattan. We'd eat at the same places and go to the same places and go to the same clothing stores. So, we'd always bump into each other. We just saw each other a lot. One night he asked me if I'd come down in a couple of days to play on his record and I said "Sure!" I was very flattered. So I went down there and played. I thought that the track was...I mean, after I left they put a lot of things on that track and so I think you can barely hear me playing and there's too many things on that track. I think that album was, in a lot of ways, over produced. But I love his first album where it's just the three of them. It's just so good. "Are You Experienced". I love that album. So, I think that was not one of the better things I've done in the studio. If it was, you sure can't hear it.
Q - Do you watch TV at all?
A - Yeah. I didn't watch TV 'til about 2 years ago. I started watching TV again.
Q - Do you watch American Idol?
A - Oh, no. I wouldn't go near that.
Q - Have you seen the judges on that show...Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell?
A - Yeah.
Q - What do you think those people would say if Bob Dylan auditioned for them when he was starting off?
A - I don't know and I don't care. I don't watch that show because I couldn't watch that show. I have no interest what-so-ever. In a way, it's like entertainment for fools. I don't find it entertaining. I find it incredibly annoying. Those people are playing God and it's like horrendous. It's like The Grammys. I wouldn't watch the Grammys either. It's like horrible. I wouldn't listen to the radio either. There's so many great things on television, why would you want to watch that? But of course it's the number one show. What does that tell you?
Q - A lot of people like it!
A - Well, yes. That's why I don't leave the house much. Let's not even waste time talking about American Idol. Nothing could interest me less.
Q - Well, since you don't really watch it...
A - I mean, you see it on the news. I've seen it on clips on other shows. I'll tell you what really moved me though was the guy who was on the English version of that.
Q - I haven't seen that.
A - I saw it on YouTube. It's an opera singer. He was just a regular guy, like a plumber or something. He had the most amazing voice. It blew people away. My friend sent it to me. He said "You're gonna love this." And I watched it and it made me cry. It was incredible. The guy is just an amazing singer and I don't even like Opera, and I was incredibly moved by it. I don't think you're gonna see anything like that. It was great because the judges as they were, were all floored because I guess they don't see much real talent, and the audience went berserk because the guy was the next Pavarotti. That was a beautiful thing. That was an amazing thing to see.
Q - There's a lot of talent out there and I don't know how they can get discovered anymore.
A - Here's how they could get discovered: Remember I didn't listen to the radio because I thought that all the stuff that was of any consequence was on the radio and I didn't like what it sounded like. So, I stopped listening to it 'cause it annoyed me. So, about 5 years ago, boy, it's unbelievable it's 5 years already, I started listening to itunes and I heard great music on there. And I went, there's some great bands out there. Of course, none of it was on the radio. Then I realized there probably was always great bands out there, but there was no arena for them to appear in.
Q - Exactly.
A - And then all of a sudden this new arena came along and there was more room. I started hearing amazing stuff and my life changed again in 2003 because I had new music to listen to that was wonderful, and I was very excited. I still hear great music. I started, every month on my website (a href="http://www.alkooper.com/" target="_blank">AlKooper.com); I put down the really good stuff that I download a list of it so that other people don't have to go through all that I go though, listening to find something good; If your tastes approximates mine. I get e-mail from people and they thank me 'cause they found this through that. But, then I get e-mail from some of the people I write about and that's wonderful. I don't even know how they see my website. They just thank me for supporting them 'cause I guess they just don't get much support. They're just out there and that's it. One of the things that I love about what's happening now is that I lived long enough to see the death of the major record companies. And believe me, I have high hopes of attending every single funeral.
Q - What will take the place of the record company?
A - Well, if I knew that, I'd be very happy about putting out my new album. I don't know.