Working with Bob Dylan is nothing new for Al Kooper. In 1965, at age 21, Kooper provided the unforgettable organ part on Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." But when the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica recently asked Kooper to write Dylan's entry, a part of him felt he had finally merited a gold star.
"Of course, I called my mother and said, 'Remember when you said I wouldn't amount to anything?' That's why I took that job," he laughs.
Kooper just finished writing the entry, an experience he found rewarding but difficult. He wasn't allowed to do two of the things he does best: "I couldn't use the word 'I' and I couldn't be funny."
Last year an updated edition of Kooper's personal and funny rock and roll memoirs, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, was published. His signature isn't backlit at the Rock Hall, but Kooper's story is worth reading (as supporting characters' takes usually are). The same year he recorded Highway 61 Revisited with Dylan, Kooper co-wrote a No. 1 song and helped kick off a blues revival. He later formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, and brought the French horn to rock and roll.
After basically retiring in 1990, Kooper started performing again two years ago. His one-man show at Wilbert's will be his first appearance in Cleveland in twenty years. Most of his time now is spent teaching music production at the Berklee College of Music and writing. "Someone once likened me to Anne Frank with a satellite dish," Kooper says of his current lifestyle. But the itch to perform again is incurable. "I'm ready to play until I drop now," he says, though his gigs are restricted to free weekends and summers.
Something of a prodigy (he was able to play "The Tennessee Waltz" the first time he ever sat down at a piano, albeit only on the black keys), the New York City native spent his teen years hanging around the Brill Building and peddling his songs to publishers. Kooper turned professional in 1958 when he joined the Royal Teens, who had scored with "Short Shorts."
Like a lot of people in New York during the early '60s, Kooper was confused by, and then smitten with, the arrival of Bob Dylan. Kooper pestered Tom Wilson, who had just produced the Bob's first electric single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," with his own Dylanesque folk numbers. He and Wilson became friendly, and an emboldened Kooper simply showed up at a Dylan recording session with his guitar and hoped no one would ask him what he was doing there.
When Dylan called for an organ part, Kooper clambered over to the Hammond, though he knew next to nothing about the instrument. He was petrified and could barely hear himself above the band, but the tape was rolling. As Kooper writes in his book, the "best I could manage was to play hesitantly by sight, feeling my way through the changes like a little kid fumbling in the dark for the light switch."
Dylan and the band moved to the control room to listen to the song. There's a great picture of the scene in Kooper's book: Dylan stands like a thin Buddha in sunglasses as Kooper slouches uncomfortably on a sofa. Dylan liked what he heard and asked the engineer to turn up the organ. The organ sound on "Like a Rolling Stone" is still imitated today.
Earlier that year, Kooper had co-written "This Diamond Ring," which Kooper refers to as a "turkey milkshake" as rendered by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. After finishing Highway 61 Revisited with Dylan, Kooper joined the Blues Project, one the bands credited with percolating a blues revival.
Though he never matched the spate of triumphs of 1965, Kooper was rock's Zelig figure in the late '60s and '70s. After the Blues Project, he worked as the assistant stage manager at the Monterey Pop Festival. There he met Jimi Hendrix and would later be invited to play on Electric Ladyland. In 1967, Kooper formed Blood, Sweat & Tears. He quit, with the band's wishes, after one album. (The other members wanted a stronger singer and resented his need for control.)
Kooper briefly worked at Columbia Records as a longhaired A&R man and brought the Zombies, who had the hit "Time of the Season," to America. Super Session, a rock record made in the jazz spirit with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield, hit No. 11 in 1968. Kooper also found time to introduce Joni Mitchell to Carole King, watch in horror as Eric Clapton's right hand was slammed in a cab door, write and play the French horn part on the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and put out a solo album. (Fun fact: In photos from this period, Kooper bears a chilling resemblance to Branch Davidian leader/rocker David Koresh.)
Asked whether it was fate or talent that put him in such dramatic positions, Kooper says, "I attribute it to ambition and luck. I don't talk about talent much. Self-aggrandizement is not really in my vocabulary. I look at what the deficiencies are and try to rectify them. That was probably my problem as a producer."
But it was as a producer that Kooper pulled off perhaps his greatest coup. He moved to Atlanta in 1972, restless and grumpy, and discovered a wildly talented bar band named Lynyrd Skynyrd. He signed the band and produced its first two records. Recognizing Skynyrd's promise, Kooper says, was his moment of genius: "Everybody was paying attention to progressive rock. The biggest bands were Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. No one was playing basic, three-chord rock and roll. As I watched them, I said, 'If someone could come along and make basic three-chord rock, they'd make a million.'"
Skynyrd (and Kooper, to a much lesser degree) did. Kooper moved to L.A., bought a big house, and lived the life of Swinging '70s Man, participating in orgies and having a brief (two days) fascination with nitrous oxide. In hindsight, Kooper's decisions to next tether his production star to the Tubes, Nils Lofgren, and Rick Nelson (the Nelson record was never released) look pretty dumb, but music was much more adventurous in the '70s. And hell, he needed the work.
Kooper left for London, where--Zelig strikes again!--he recorded with George Harrison the day John Lennon was killed. Ever the vagabond, Kooper spent the next years living in Austin, L.A. again, Nashville, and the Boston area, where he currently resides.
Kooper's taken home only a fraction of the royalties he should have received. (He blames the greed of executives and former collaborators as well as himself.) He encourages younger artists to leap through the window of opportunity. "It's your responsibility to collect as much financial recompense as you can," he says. "When the window shuts, it ain't going to be there anymore."
Today Kooper stays in regular contact with only a handful of people from his colorful past: producer Bill Szymcyzk, Nashville music writer Beverly Keel, and Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, one of the many organ players to worship at the throne of "Like a Rolling Stone."
"I think a lot of people are influenced by it," Kooper says of the song, "not because of the part, but because of the popularity of Dylan. I think Benmont Tench is the foremost exponent. And now, Rami Jaffee [of the Wallflowers] is going to cause Benmont all the grief Benmont caused me."