Al Kooper: Kooperman returns!

He played on Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone', not to mention records by Hendrix and the Stones. Al Kooper talks to Pierre Perrone
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Those credits would be enough to secure Kooper's place in the rock pantheon, but in the Seventies he also discovered and produced the Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd - famous for the anthemic ballad "Freebird" - and in the Eighties, he featured on George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" and did sterling soundtrack work for the director Michael Mann.

In the Nineties, Kooper was back with Dylan, lecturing at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and writing his autobiography Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards. Even now, despite losing two-thirds of his vision, Kooper keeps busy, playing gigs backed by the Funky Faculty or jamming with the Rekooperators. He's a singer-songwriter of note and recently released Black Coffee, his seventh solo album and his first for many years.

"I'm old, and I've seen everybody!" says Kooper, lounging in the basement studio at his home near Boston. He's not joking. "I was fortunate. I grew up with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. I played guitar with The Royal Teens, who had a couple of novelty hits, "Short Shorts" and "Believe Me", in the late Fifties in the US.

"We did a lot of those rock'n'roll package shows, so I got to see Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Jackie Wilson, all those people. Really incredible. It was a great way to start," remembers the singer and musician who went on to pen songs for Gene Pitney and co-wrote "This Diamond Ring", a US chart-topper for Gary Lewis and The Playboys in 1965.

In hindsight, it might look like the Brooklyn-born Kooper had a masterplan. He didn't: "I just wanted to be in the music business. I did whatever I could to stay in there. And, over the last 47 years, there's been an awful lot of moments where I've pinched myself," he admits. "The session with Dylan for 'Like a Rolling Stone' was probably the most amazing."

The musician takes up the story of the day he showed up at Columbia's Studio A on 15 June 1965. "I was invited as a guest by the producer Tom Wilson, who was a friend of mine. I was supposed to watch, not to take part in the recording. I was 21 and very ambitious, so I thought I would play guitar because I was actually a session guitarist at the time.

"I heard Mike Bloomfield warming up. He was way better than me, so I packed up my guitar and went in the booth where I belonged. Then they moved the organ player, Paul Griffin, to piano. I had this idea for a good part on the organ and I kind of snuck in while Wilson was away and played the organ.

"In those days, I was 90 per cent ambition and 10 per cent power. Now it's totally reversed," muses Kooper. "I had grown up in studios, but there was no one in charge of the general chaos at that session. My biggest advantage was that I do have big ears. I didn't completely know the song and I couldn't hear the organ properly because the speaker was on the other side of the room with a blanket on top. In the verses, the band would play the chord and I would come in after that.

"I tried to stay out of Bloomfield's way because he was playing some great guitar licks," Kooper says. The session delivered only two completed takes in 15 attempts. Take four became the master for the single, which peaked at No 2 in the US charts behind The Beatles' "Help" in September 1965. The Dylan track changed rock. "As a song, 'Like a Rolling Stone' is pretty timeless," says Kooper, who was well placed to assess its impact. "It instantly put a lot of songwriters out of work."

Kooper recorded the rest of Highway 61 Revisited and played with Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in the summer of 1965, before the rest of The Band joined guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm behind Dylan.

In-demand as a session player over the next couple of years, Kooper worked with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Cream, The Who and Simon and Garfunkel, and still fronted the Blues Project and the horn-driven, genre-defining Blood, Sweat & Tears before becoming staff producer for Columbia Records in 1968.

"I was very influenced by Phil Spector and George Martin and John Simon, who produced the Blood Sweat & Tears album that I did, The Child Is Father to the Man. I just watched what he did. When you're producing, it's like directing a film. When you're playing on a session, it's like acting in a film. And when you're the artist and the producer - well, it's not the toughest. In many ways, it's the easiest because you don't have to answer to anybody."

Keeping a busy schedule, Kooper jammed with Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield on the Super Session album, discovered the guitarist and songwriter Shuggie Otis and released I Stand Alone, the first of six solo albums that arguably pioneered the blue-eyed soul genre. But, when Act Like Nothing's Wrong flopped in 1975, he simply "decided not to do it solo any more".

He'd already moved to Atlanta to launch his own label, Sounds of the South, and had discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972. "When I heard them in a bar, they were pretty much playing the first album. I just knew how good it was. I've only ever felt that way about another band once, when I saw U2 supporting The Photos at the Marquee in London in 1980.

"Lynyrd Skynyrd had 'Sweet Home Alabama' and 'Freebird' worked out. They were probably the best arrangers I ever worked with. I added very little," he stresses. "Ideally, a record producer should fill in the gaps where an artist is deficient in getting his ideas across. That's how I treat the job. If you work with somebody who has that covered, it's sort of a spectator sport. There really wasn't much to do on the three Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. If it wasn't for that plane crash [in which vocalist Ronnie Van Zandt and guitarist Steve Gaines died and several group members were injured in 1977] they could have been one of the biggest bands ever."

Kooper moved on, to California, where he produced Nils Lofgren and the eponymous 1975 debut album by The Tubes - the one with "Mondo Bondage" and "White Punks on Dope".

In the late Seventies, Al Kooper came to Britain, produced David Essex and Eddie and the Hot Rods and spent a lot of time with the bassist Herbie Flowers. "He got me the gig with George Harrison on 'All Those Years Ago'. Ringo Starr was on about half the sessions I did at George's house, and Paul McCartney was involved too."

Back in the US in the Eighties, Kooper became an A&R man for Polygram, signing Richard Thompson to the label. He scored Crime Story, the Michael Mann TV series, and the John Waters film Cry Baby before moving to Nashville, and then Boston, where he taught record production at Berklee.

Kooper did indeed forget about his solo career - until 1995. "I had so many songs that wanted to get out of the house, but I couldn't get a record deal because I was over 50. And then I got a deal when I was 60. It was like a miracle! I'm on Steve Vai's label, and he's very supportive of musicians he likes.

"The album is called Black Coffee because it's a very dark, sobering collection. I had 150 songs to pick from and I picked the best."

The former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham wrote the sleeve notes for Black Coffee and teamed up with Kooper to write the liner notes for the soundtrack album to No Direction Home, the Dylan documentary. "That was fun. It wasn't so much a matter of revisiting that stuff, it's always with me. The result is amazing. Martin Scorsese did a great job just assembling the footage.

"If you're a Dylan fan, from the beginning to the motorcycle crash, you'll think this is just the greatest thing that ever happened to you. Everything's unreleased. I played on probably half of it, and I still think it's amazing. I had not heard most of it in 40 years," says Kooper.

No matter what, Kooper can't get away from Dylan's shadow. He worked with him again in 1981 and 1985 and also took part in the 30th Anniversary Show at Madison Square Garden in 1992. "The last time I was in England was with Bob in 1996 for the Prince's Trust concert at Hyde Park. Ronnie Wood played with us, The Who and Clapton were on the bill..." Sounds like just another day in the life of Al Kooper.

'Black Coffee' is out on Favored Nations