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Al Kooper Celebrates a Half-Century of Super Sessions

Posted in MusicWorld on January 11, 2008 by

Guess the two-word answer to a most enlightening list of questions.

  • Who, in 1958 at the age of 14, joined the Royal Teens (Top Five hitmakers with “Short Shorts”)?

  • Who, in 1960, began his career as a BMI songwriter with a number called “My Kinda Love,” which was recorded by Anastasia?

  • Who has written hundreds of songs, all part of his BMI catalog?

  • Who co-wrote “This Diamond Ring,” the 1965 pop chart-topper for Gary Lewis and the Playboys? The song, incidentally, is approaching four million radio performances.

  • Who, also in ‘65, helped create Bob Dylan’s hard, radically new rock & roll sound (and, by extension, what came to be known as “folk rock”) when he played the organ — for his very first time on a released recording — on Dylan’s epochal single, “Like a Rolling Stone”?
  • Al Kooper and Bob Dylan

  • Who, in the mid-’60s, was a member of the Blues Project, the New York-based band that was among the first in this country to spread the joy (and pain) of black-influenced white electric blues?

  • Who, in 1967, founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, the pioneering ensemble that melded rock with the hippest horn arrangements?

  • Who, in 1968, came up with the concept of “Super Session,” and produced the hit LP on which he co-starred with guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Stephen Stills?

  • Who has recorded as a sideman with, among many others and in addition to Dylan (“Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”): the Rolling Stones (piano, organ and French horn on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”); Jimi Hendrix (piano on “Long, Hot Summer Night”; The Who (on the LP “The Who Sell Out”); George Harrison (arranged and played keys on the hit “All Those Years Ago”); Simon & Garfunkel; Alice Cooper; the Butterfield Blues Band; Moby Grape; Taj Mahal; B.B. King; Lynyrd Skynyrd; Judy Collins; Joan Baez; Phil Ochs; Roger McGuinn; Tom Petty; Joe Cocker; Betty Wright; Rita Coolidge; ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman; and Trisha Yearwood? In an issue devoted to the 500 Greatest Recordings of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine included 12 albums with serious participation by our mystery man.

  • Who has produced commercially successful and publicly acclaimed discs by Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd (he discovered them and produced their first three albums, which spawned the mega-hits “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird,” and “Saturday Night Special”), B.B. King, Rick Nelson, the Tubes (who gave the world the timeless “White Punks On Dope”), Shuggie Otis, Don Ellis, Nils Lofgren, and Joe Ely?

  • Who has written original soundtrack music for films like Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and John Waters’s Cry Baby, as well as Michael Mann’s television series Crime Story, and was music director for the 1991 cable TV special “Ray Charles: 50 Years in Music”?

  • Whose songs have been recorded by a diverse roster of artists that includes Freddie Cannon; Lorraine Ellison; Keely Smith; “Gene Pitney (“I Must Be Seeing Things”); Bobby Vee; Lulu; Billy Fury; the Rockin’ Berries; the Blues Project (“Flute Thing” and “Wake Me, Shake Me”); Ten Years After (“I Can’t Keep from Cryin’ Sometimes”); the Staple Singers and Rufus; Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Mississippi Kid” and “Cheatin’ Woman”); Roger McGuinn; the Beastie Boys; Jay-Z; Alchemist; Dakota Staton; and Betty Wright? Then there is “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” the heart-tugging soul ballad that was recorded by more than 25 artists, including Donny Hathaway, Kenny Lattimore, and Carmen McRae).

Answer: Al Kooper.

Any way one looks at it, Brooklyn-born (in 1944) Al Kooper has had an unusually variegated, extraordinary career. He credits Bob Gaudio for giving him his start. Gaudio later found international fame as a member and chief songwriter for the Four Seasons before producing LPs (including Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, the songs for which he also co-composed) and, more recently, for writing the music for the smash Broadway, multi-Tony-winning, . “He was the Royal Teens,” recalls Kooper of Gaudio, “and without him hiring me I never would have begun as early as I did.”

In 2008, as he celebrates his first half-century in music, that career is still moving forward. Kooper is the consummately versatile music business pro. He is, of course, a singer/songwriter. He’s a multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, guitars, mandolin, synthesizers, French horn), and a producer and an engineer. Kooper also has nearly 20 albums as leader to his credit, including the excellent two-disc retrospective from Sony Music, Rare and Well Done.

Further, he warrants induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman, if only for the instantly recognizable approach to the organ he created during Dylan’s paradigm-shattering work of the mid-1960s. And changing the subject slightly, he’s hosted and imaginatively programmed his own spot on Britain’s Radio Caroline.

Kooper continues to tour with two different bands, as well as presenting a one-man show that is by turns, affecting and witty, surveying his life in music through song and anecdote. First and foremost, though is the Funky Faculty, at which he’s been at the helm for the past decade. The Faculty, a sextet, is made up of veteran instructors at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and their specialty is an engaging mix of rock, blues and jazz. Kooper himself formerly taught at Berklee and in 2001 he received, along with the late, innovative drummer Elvin Jones, a Doctorate of Music. (He also holds a doctorate from Long Island’s Five Towns College.) When in New York, he often fronts an all-star foursome that also features guitarist Jimmy Vivino and bassist Mike Merritt (both from Conan O’Brien’s house band) and drummer Anton Fig, from Late Show with David Letterman.

Though a debilitating condition permanently robbed him in 2001 of two-thirds of his sight, it’s not stopped Kooper from taking the Funky Faculty to Norway, Denmark, Italy, England, Spain and all sorts of faraway places; late in 2007 the Faculty played for enthusiastic audiences in the Czech Republic and Japan, and more travels are in the works. Also planned for 2008: an updated edition of Dr. Kooper’s autobiography, “Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards,” which is a fresh, funny, and compelling read. Then there is his forthcoming disc, tentatively titled White Chocolate, due from A Minor Record Company, for which Kooper is CEO. The album is highlighted by two new songs on which he collaborated with the legendary lyricist Gerry Goffin.

During 2007 Kooper also garnered two individual honors: he was honored in New York by the Mix Foundation with the Les Paul Award, receiving an autographed Les Paul guitar from the great man, who was present for the ceremonies. Shortly thereafter, on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Kooper dipped his hands in cement in the Rock Walk of Fame during festivities that also honored Otis Redding and the Mamas & the Papas.

Perhaps closest to Kooper’s heart, however, is the scholarship that Berklee formed in his name: The Al Kooper It Can Happen Fund assists handicapped students in overcoming any difficulties that would prevent them from attending Berklee. “They do a great job,” says Kooper, “and I’m very proud of what has been accomplished thus far.”

As he prepares to embark on his sixth musical decade, Kooper reflects with typical straightforwardness, and speaks of BMI’s significance in his career: “I’ve been ripped off voluminously by record companies, managers, etc. I always thought of BMI as the cavalry, coming to rescue me from a hand-to-mouth existence. When times were really tight, and it seemed as if the end might be around the corner, that BMI check would come crashing through the mail slot and bring me back to the real world. To this day, I could not exist without it.”

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