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Al Kooper

There can be only a few people who haven’t heard AL KOOPER’s Hammond organ work on BOB DYLAN’s `Like A Rolling Stone’; cooked up in the studio after a few listens to Alan Price’s performance on The ANIMALS’ `The House Of The Rising Sun’. However the American muso’s contributions for many of the 20th Century’s most outstanding records remain under-celebrated. From his all-too-brief tenures with said DYLAN and The BLUES PROJECT, to BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS and MIKE BLOOMFIELD, the workaholic artist also became a go-to session man and top-notch producer.
Born February 5, 1944, Brooklyn, New York, Al grew up in nearby Hollis. After leaving school at 14, he formed his first pro-band, The Royal Teens, for whom he played guitar. The group had already secured a minor novelty hit with `Short Shorts’, before the Jewish teenager joined their ranks. In his early days as a noted session man, the first half of the 60s was spent setting up a writing partnership with Irwin Levine and Bobby Brass; penning hits for GARY LEWIS & THE PLAYBOYS (`This Diamond Ring’), GENE PITNEY (`I Must Be Seeing Things’) and The ROCKIN’ BERRIES (`Water Is Over My Head’).
In June 1965, Al was asked by producer Tom Wilson to sit in on a DYLAN session, which led him to play organ accompaniment to MIKE BLOOMFIELD’s guitar. Their electric sound was highlighted succinctly on the aforesaid classic which opened the bard’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album.
The following year, Al stuck around for Zimmerman’s “Blonde On Blonde”, whilst dispatching his inaugural solo 7-inch (MOSE ALLISON’s `Parchman Farm’ as “Alan Kooper”) and sessioning for other folk stars TOM RUSH and PETER, PAUL & MARY. During this prolific period for the young man, Al also joined his first proper “rock” band, The BLUES PROJECT, with whom he released three albums: `Live At The Café Au Go Go’ (1966), `Projections’ (1966) and `Live At Town Hall’ (1967). His departure that spring was due to his formation of R&B, brass-laden hit makers, BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS; however arguments over direction led him to depart after only one early-1968 album, `Child Is Father To The Man’.
Al’s next project was inspired by MOBY GRAPE’s “Grape Jam”, and he decided to do the same on a joint effort with MIKE BLOOMFIELD (ex-ELECTRIC FLAG) and STEPHEN STILLS (ex-BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD). The subsequent album, `Super Session’, was a massive hit on home-soil, resulting in label Columbia asking Al and Mike to do another. Early in 1969, their self-indulgent double-set `The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper’ was complete, and this also reached Top 20 status. Around this time, KOOPER had kept up his session schedule for HENDRIX (“Electric Ladyland”) and The ROLLING STONES (“Let It Bleed”).
The following February, AL KOOPER released his solo debut, I STAND ALONE (1969) {*8}; though it missed out on a Top 50 position and failed, in part, to emulate his collaborative predecessors. A hybrid of post-psych/blues styles that shaped BS&T’s “Child Is Father…” and The BEATLES’ “Sgt. Pepper” (in its opening elements of `Overture’ no less), only the man’s freewheeling singing voice, at times, let the set down. And like BS&T in their post-KOOPER sophomore venture (released a few months back), a reliance on cover versions was the order of the day; these included NILSSON’s `One’, TRAFFIC’s `Coloured Rain’, BILL MONROE’s `Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, ISAAC HAYES’ `Toe Hold’ and JERRY BUTLER’s `Hey, Western Union Man’.
Sandwiched either side of sophomore set, YOU NEVER KNOW WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE (1969) {*6} – covering NILSSON’s `Mourning Glory Story’, STEVIE WONDER’s `I Don’t Know Why I Love You’ and Motown’s `Too Busy Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Baby’ – and equally eclectic double-set EASY DOES IT (1970) {*7} – featuring renditions of RAY CHARLES’ `I Got A Woman’, JAMES TAYLOR’s `Country Road’, J.D. LOUDERMILK’s `A Rose And A Baby Ruth’ and, at 12 minutes, BIG JOE WILLIAMS’ `Baby, Please Don’t Go’, the prolific AL KOOPER had room for another collaborative set, KOOPER SESSION: SUPER SESSION, VOL.II (1970) {*7}.
Recorded a year earlier with dynamic 15-year-old guitarist SHUGGIE OTIS (Al’s protégé), the pair turned in tight and exuberant blues performances of BOOKER T. & THE M.G.’s `Double Or Nothing’, Edward “Little Buster” Forehand’s `Looking For A Home’ and Mercy Dee Walton’s `One Room Country Shack’. And if one was a-thinking where one’d heard the gospel-boogie `Bury My Body’ previously, then slowed-down to a snail-pace the dirge was indeed `In My Time of Dyin’’ (made famous by LED ZEPPELIN).
AL KOOPER’s first and only soundtrack, THE LANDLORD (1971) {*8}, found him in top form; stretching out with exemplary taste and invention to shape an album that – if it wasn’t for the tiresome (and puzzling) inclusion of a couple of tracks of abstract atmospherics – would walk into any self-respecting pop-soul record collection. The standouts were two gospel tracks, Jimmy Holiday’s `God Bless The Children’ and Al’s own `Brand New Day’, both delivered with typically infectious passion by The STAPLE SINGERS. KOOPER had surrounded himself with the cream of New York’s session musicians, too: Chuck Rainey, Eric Gale, Al Rogers and Frank Owens, as well as the under-exposed husky soul voice of Lorraine Ellison; and he buffeted them with the clarity to make the ordinary shine.
1971’s NEW YORK CITY (YOU’RE A WOMAN) {*7} was another fine example of how his street-smart coda worked, because most of the album was either cut in L.A. (with musicians Louis Shelton, Carol Kaye and Paul Humphries) or indeed London, England (alongside ELTON JOHN’s “Tumbleweed Connection” musos HOOKFOOT: i.e. Caleb Quaye, Herbie Flowers and Roger Pope). Whilst one could easily mistake Al’s vox for that of The BAND’s Rick Danko, peppered among an array of introspective numbers were `John The Baptist (Holy John)’, `Going Quietly Mad’ and a cover of said Elton’s `Come Down In Time’.
The formula was as close to the groove on A POSSIBLE PROJECTION OF THE FUTURE / CHILDHOOD’S END (1972) {*6} – taking in covers of BOB DYLAN’s `The Man In Me’, CURTIS MAYFIELD’s `The Monkey Time’ and SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `Swept For You Baby’ – and his eighth album in four years, NAKED SONGS (1973) {*7}.
The latter was probably his most charming and endearing set of songs yet, but by this stage Al’s commercial clout had been posted AWOL. Still, as usual, among several eclectic originals (including opener `(Be Yourself) Be Real’ and the country-rock `Blind Baby’), were fine versions of SAM COOKE’s `Touch The Hem Of His Garment’ and JOHN PRINE’s `Sam Stone’.
For the next wee while, KOOPER concentrated on extra-curricular session and production work for LYNYRD SKYNYRD, NILS LOFGREN and The TUBES. In the early 70s, the musician re-united for concerts with old haunts, The BLUES PROJECT, and set up own Sounds Of The South imprint. There was one further addition to his CV, and that came via United Artists-endorsed LP, ACT LIKE NOTHING’S WRONG (1976) {*5}. A soulful pop record that embraced more than a side-serving of good ol’ country nostalgia, Al – as well as guests JOE WALSH, Reggie Young, Little Beaver and TOWER OF POWER – trucked on with a handful of covers and organic originals such as `Hollywood Vampire’.
A fresh new decade saw Al complete a “comeback” album for Columbia, CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING (1982) {*6}; superseding his involvement in ad hoc outfit Sweet Magnolia. This set was notable for the absence of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who dropped out when it was presumably mooted as another “Super Session” set. Produced by Bill Szymczyk and once again with TOWER OF POWER in tow, the man was self-conscious about his singing abilities, although that was a little unnecessary when zooming in on re-treads of `I Wish You Would’ and `The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’; the remainder he allocated to Mickey Thomas, Valerie Carter and Ricky Washington.
Having worked at the decks with EDDIE & THE HOT RODS (`Fish & Chips’), LEO SAYER (`Here’), DAVID ESSEX (`Be-Bop The Future’) and an album for Johnny Van Zandt, KOOPER came out of semi-retirement in Nashville to produce GREEN ON RED’s `Scapegoats’ of 1991.
Back on track under his own steam, and featured backing by The BLUES PROJECT, The Rekooperators and BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS, Music Masters Rock endorsed the release of SOUL OF A MAN: LIVE (1995) {*5} – recorded the previous February 1994 when angling the comeback aspect of that year’s mostly instrumental REKOOPERATION {*7}. At 50 years old, Al was still weaving his wizardry on a handful of other people’s songs; on this occasion, highlights came through ROBERT PALMER’s `Looking For Clues’, OTIS BLACKWELL’s `Don’t Be Cruel’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Johnny B. Goode’ and RICHARD THOMPSON’s `When The Spell Is Broken’.
A decade passed before the ageing multi-instrumentalist/singer AL KOOPER ventured solo once again; he’d weathered a few storms that was for sure. Augmented only by drummer Anton Fig, BLACK COFFEE (2005) {*7} pressed-played his facility to embrace a whole smorgasbord of styles. Re-arrangements were the man’s forte, and on this occasion he shone with versions of `Green Onions’, `Get Ready’ and KEB’ MO’s `Am I Wrong’.
And what better way to follow-on from his previous sobering effort, the Japanese-only WHITE CHOCOLATE (2008) {*7} album added some sugary assurances in KOOPER’s quest to stay compos mentis. A melting pot of retrospective Southern soul-pop; with the kitchen-sink thrown in, the man rewound his axels via an homage to BOOKER T. and Stax Records (plus Hi and Philadelphia International) and the rock’n’roll/blues era in general. If this was to be Al’s swan song, then his re-take of DYLAN’s `It Takes A Lot To Laugh (It Takes A Train To Cry)’ and the semi-autobiographical `Cast The First Stone’, would send him off in fine fettle.
© MC Strong 2000-2009/GRD-LCS-ND // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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