Al Kooper, may not be as well-known as shock-rocker, Alice Cooper, but he has had a significant impact in the recording industry both behind the scenes and at center stage for several decades.
This week we wanted to share an interview with Al Kooper from the Joe Smith Collection in the Recorded Sound Section at the Library of Congress. The Joe Smith collection consists of interviews that Smith, a record executive and former president of Capital Records, made with a host of popular musicians and producers in the mid-1980s. It is also a goldmine of information on songwriters and musicians like Al Kooper.
Kooper first rose to prominence as the organist on Bob Dylan’s Highway ’61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965). The story of how an unknown musician in his early twenties landed this prime gig is a testament both to the young Kooper’s determination to break into the field and to his irrepressible gumption. In his memoir Kooper states: “In 1965, being invited to a Bob Dylan session was like getting backstage passes to the fourth day of creation.” Kooper had played guitar in several small New York bands and supplemented this with writing songs professionally. Tom Wilson, one of the producers who had seen his work, developed a liking for Kooper and eventually invited him to the Dylan session as an assistant. Although Wilson made it clear that he was only to be a technical assistant, Kooper had different ideas and brought his guitar to the session on the sly. When he arrived at the studio, Dylan was not yet present, but the other musicians were setting. Maintaining a natural demeanor, Kooper sat down and unpacked his guitar. Soon the real session guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, arrived, pulled out his guitar and started warming up. Kooper was so impressed with Bloomfield’s playing that he immediately packed up his guitar and left the room. When Tom Wilson arrived he was none the wiser, and Kooper took up his place at his side in the control booth.
But Al was not to be so easily discouraged. Later in the session when producer Tom Wilson was out of the room, the organ player moved to piano, leaving his organ unattended. As a musician with a facility with a number of instruments, Al seized the opportunity to sneak in and seat himself at the organ. Later he remarked that he was lucky that it’s previous player had left it turned on, because he had no idea of the location of the power switch. By the time the producer had returned, Kooper had laid down the signature organ track on what would become the hit song “Like a Rolling Stone.” Wilson had wanted to axe the instrumental, but when Dylan heard it and liked it, it had to remain. In fact Dylan liked Kooper’s playing enough to invite him on the road to tour.
Kooper went on to produce and play on several important albums and was a founding member of Blood Sweat and Tears. He is also a lively story teller who manages to detail a surprising number of his adventures in this interview with record exec Joe Smith.