Nine O'clock Blues: Al Kooper
Al Kooper, guitarist and keyboard player, has the distinction of having gone from producer for Bob Dylan to being fired from his own band.
Wait, it gets better.
68-year-old Al Kooper from Brooklyn, NYC, has been a successful musician since he was in his early teens. His first taste of success was as a member of the pop group The Royal Teens, who are probably best known for the hit “Short Shorts.” After further Royal Teens success with the hit “Believe Me” Kooper says he was hooked and he became an in demand session musician.
Interestingly, Al attributes his success to his lack of skill: "I was playing sessions on guitar. People would hire me because their only alternative was to hire these jazz players to play this teenage music. These guys were smoking cigars, emulating what children would play. So, they would hire me to get that 'dumb, kid sound.' I assume that's why I was hired, because I really couldn't play anywhere near as well as those other guys."
Kooper says that most of the tracks he worked on were quickly forgotten, though there were notable exceptions, such as the song he co-wrote for Gary Lewis and the Playboys, “This Diamond Ring,” which recently passed 3 million radio air-plays.
One day Al’s friend Tom Wilson invited him to sit in on a Bob Dylan recording session and, though not being a keyboard player before, Kooper ended up recording the iconic organ riff for Dylan’s electric coming out masterpiece, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Guitar giant Mike Bloomfield was on that same session and he formed a working relationship with Kooper that lasted until Bloomfield’s untimely death in 1981. That relationship spawned the million selling landmark album Supersession with Kooper, Bloomfield and Steven Stills.
After working with Bob Dylan, Al Kooper joined that unique and almost inexplicable group, The Blues Project. They deserve a VERY extended history themselves, but I’ll save that for another time and for our purposes here I’ll limit myself to saying that The Blues Project gave birth to 2 of the great horn bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Electric Flag and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Al Kooper was a founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears whose first album, Child is Father to the Man, is a sadly little remembered, even though some say flawed, masterpiece. I don’t agree with the flawed part. It is what it is and stands quite nicely on its own merits. Hence, I would have a hard time understanding why the band fired Kooper after that first album. That is, I would have a hard time if I hadn’t heard David Clayton-Thomas. His voice is third on my vocal envy list, right after Les McCann and Lou Rawls.
After his departure from Blood, Sweat & Tears Al Kooper went on to work with a who’s who of modern music and spent a fair amount of time teaching at what many consider the premier music college in America, Berklee of Boston. Now mostly retired and suffering from degenerating vision, Al Kooper deserves to be celebrated and we’ll do that this week on The Nine O’clock Blues as we revisit that first Blood, Sweat & Tears album.
Also on the show this week we’ll hear from three groups that got their starts at just about the same time as B, S & T; The Allman Brothers Band, Steve Miller Band and the somewhat lesser known English group, Wishbone Ash.