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Published: 2003/07/28
by Mick Skidmore

‘The Doctor of Rock and Roll’ an interview with Al Kooper

Al Kooper is one of the most legendary figures in the music industry. He is not only a great keyboardist, but he's a mean guitarist, a strong vocalist and an excellent songwriter. During his long career he has been a Tin Pan Alley songwriter (hitting big in 1958 with the Royal Teens "Short Shorts") a forerunner of the blues revival of the 60s with his influential band The Blues Project. He founded Blood Sweat and Tears, played the distinctive organ on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and appeared on a number of other Dylan albums including the classic Blonde On Blonde and later produced New Morning. He's played with The Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and many, many more artists. He discovered Lynrd Skynrd, produced artists as varied as Nils Lofgren and Joe Ely.

Of course, Kooper has also enjoyed a fairly successful solo career and released some fine genre-jumping albums. He also recorded the groundbreaking jam album Super Session with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills in 1968. That album along with a previously unreleased live recording from the Fillmore East was recently reissued on CD. It gave me the chance to talk with real rock and roll royalty about a variety of topics. Kooper was affable and articulate and often quite amusing. For anyone that’s not familiar with this legend I urge you to check out his double live CD of the 90s Soul of a Man where he revisits his history with some great musicians. If you have to have one Kooper solo album it is this one. Of course, the recent expanded reissue of Super Session and the Live Fillmore East albums are both essential discs and show many of today’s bands how it was done 30 years ago. For several years Kooper also taught at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music where he was bestowed with a Doctorate. He was only forced to give that up after sadly losing two-thirds of his eyesight. Kooper still plays and tours with a band of top-class players called The Funky Faculty. For more information on the man you can check out his excellent website at www.alkooper.com

M.S. It’s such a great pleasure for me to be able to interview you. I must have 50 albums that you were involved in, mostly on vinyl. I guess we should really start with the Super Session CD. It’s really nice to have it back on CD and sounding so good. What was the impetus for doing it now? Was it remixed?

A.K. No, the album is remastered. It's not remixed. For many years, since CDs came out Sony has been putting some of my stuff out and not allowing me to work on it, in other words I have a relationship with them but they would not let me do the work on these things which used to infuriate me. Then finally the administration changed and they called me to do something and it was wonderful. The people that were doing them were people that I knew and I couldn't get mad at them, but I knew I could do a better job than they could, so it was a very uncomfortable situation to be in, but it's all better now.

M.S. I think the album sounds great. The bonus cuts are nice too. It’s especially interesting to hear "Albert’s Shuffle" and "Season of the Witch" without the original horn overdubs.

A.K. People have been asking me about that for years and saying that I should do that. It would never occur to me (laughs).

M.S. I like them both ways. It’s just interesting that you put both versions on there.

A.K. I did that because there had been requests for that over the years and I do listen to what people say to me. That's what's so great about email. For the first time in my life I am in touch with the people that buy my records and now I know what they think and it's great. It's really good and it is very helpful to me too.

M.S. The Internet does seem to have had a good effect. Fans also feel that they are more a part of it as they can communicate with the artists.

A.K. The best thing about it is that I can deal with it on my own time. I answer every piece of mail I get because I can deal with it on my own time rather than somebody coming up to me in a restaurant and saying "here sign this please." It's much better. It's nothing for me to answer somebody's email. It takes like two minutes.

M.S. Going back to the original "Super Session" album when you first came up with the idea of getting together with Mike Bloomfield who personally I think is one of the most underrated guitarists ever and one that never got his just rewards….

A.K. Well, Mick we are working on it.

M.S. Did you really think that it would be a true "super session" which is what it did become? Many people tried to do the same thing afterwards but they can’t match this album?

A.K. That was the whole thing….I think in it's time, right now the biggest thing on TV is reality shows. This was a reality record at a time when there were none and that's what made it stick out. Of course, I won't lie to you and tell you I knew this at the time. I didn't know it at the time. I made that record for two reasons. One is that I had a job to make records and I had no one to make a record with. The other reason was as a friend and a fan of Bloomfield's I was at that point very dissatisfied with his recorded output compared to how he played live. I didn't think that he had been captured on disc with the incredibleness that he had delivered on stage. So, I thought, well we can just go in and jam. Our careers were extremely parallel. It was like god was pushing us together. We met on Highway 61 (the sessions for Dylan's album that is!) we were both in blues band. We both quit the bleus bands to start our own horn bands. We both got kicked out of the horn bands that we started. It's pretty amazing. I will say that I did see that at that time and I thought we were being thrown together. We were both the same age and we were Jewish and we grew up with the same kind of music. So I asked him if he just wanted to go in and jam because I didn't have anything to produce. I said it would be fun and it would be like the jazz records. That was the structure of every jazz record at the time. They'd put some great musicians together and jam and then they'd put it out. That's how it was in the 60s and the '50s. I said maybe this will give a little more dignity to rock and roll. That was my concept.

M.S. How long did the jam session go on?

A.K. This album was made in two nights except for the mixing and the horn overdubs.

M.S. When Mike Bloomfield couldn’t make the final sessions was Stephen Stills your first choice?

A.K. It wasn't like that. I called every guitar player that I knew in California. I called Jerry Garcia and I called Randy California and Stephen Stills. I think Steve was the only one that responded. I was glad somebody responded because I was stuck with a pretty big bill otherwise. We had a house rented, a studio booked, musicians, equipment booked and this was my first one. This was the first record I was producing, so if I fucked this up it would have been very bad.

M.S. You certainly didn’t fuck it up. In fact, it’s one hell of a first attempt!

A.K. But you see no one was expecting anything, that's another great thing about it. There was nothing at stake. We didn't expect anything from it. We didn't expect it to be successful. We weren't trying to make it successful other than in the motive for doping it which was for getting Bloomfield on tape as good as he was live, and that was successful as far as I'm concerned.

M.S. Well, you did it more than once with the two live albums, the Live Adventures and the recent Fillmore East album.

A.K. I think the Fillmore East album makes kaka out of the Live Adventures.

M.S I agree but how come it took all this time to release it?

A.K. Well, what you do with Sony is that there stuff is kept in a vault, Iron Mountain. I think it is in Connecticut. They are a security company and it is world famous. I worked for Sony for four years on staff and I'm still involved with them, but I have never been to Iron Mountain. It's just something that you hear about. There are certain Middle Eastern countries where their bullion is stored. That's the kevel at which that place runs at. So, all the masters for Columbia records from way back are in there. I don't know what their catalog system is, and I think for many years neither did they. What you would do is request something and they would send it to Iron Mountain and they would send back what you requested. I started requesting that and they said "we don't have that." One thing that I did learn about iron Mountain is keep requesting it and one day it will show up. When I was putting together my box set which is Rare and Well Done, it showed up and I could not believe it. It's been 33 years I'd been trying to get this tape.

M.S. What kind of shape were the tapes in?

A.K. Well, certain tapes from that era have to be baked and the oxide comes off. Machine becomes all sticky and it won't play the tape. Someone discovered that if you baked the tapes in a convection oven it prevents that from happening.

M.S. Is that a complex process?

A.K. No, only in that you know what you are doing. It's not a complicated process but you have to know exactly what you are doing otherwise you can burn the tapes. It really seems to work. There are, however, only certain brands of tape that have that problem. Scotch tape hold up very well, but Ampex is very guilty of that. So if you have an Ampex tape from 1988 you might have to bake it and much so if you have a 1968 tape. That's just the beginning. Those tapes needed an incredible amount of work. They needed to be baked then they needed to be de-noised and so on and so forth. It was very complicated to get them to sound good. Right now I am remixing Child is Father to Man and Super Session for surround sound and we are remixing, whereas Super Session was just remastering. When I put my hands on those records I feel a tremendous responsibility, so much so that I went and equipped my home studio for 5.1 so I could do them at my home. It's so difficult to do it because it is eight track that I have had to give up and go to a proper studio and work with a real good engineer to get it to work

M.S. Do you think that there will be a huge market for 5.1?

A.K. Yes, I do.

M.S. A lot of people, say Neil Young for instance, think that analog recordings sound better than digital. Do you have any feelings or comments on that subject?

A.K. Yes, He's right. It's more organic but dynamically you can get much more out of digital than you can analog, and now with surround sound you can get an incredible amount of bottom information that you couldn't get before. It's fascinating for me.

M.S. The whole phenomenon of recorded sound is fascinating. Look at what’s happened in the past 30 years.

A.K Oh yeah. Especially me, I'm in my 45th year of being in the record business, so I have seen it go from mono tapes to this.

M.S. One set of your recordings that I have never been happy sonically with and I don’t mean to be rude – are the Blues Project albums. They always seem to be too much high end. Is it just that they were recorded badly?

A.K. I'm with you Mick.

M.S. Is there something that could be done about that at this point?

A.K. No. For one thing at that company they won't let me touch the tapes, so that's a problem and the other thing is that they weren't recorded very well.

M.S. It’s great music.

A.K. Oh, I know, but all I have been able to do is to try and remaster it but not from the original tapes. I have never had my hands on the original tapes but I know they are not recorded well.

M.S. I know a lot of people, myself included, would like to see the other "session" album you did with Shuggie Otis get re-issued domestically. I know it’s out in Japan. Is that anything that might get re-released?

A.K. These are not my decisions. I just did an interview with Japan this morning and they are the only country in the world that has put everything of mine out, no one else has even come close compared to them.

M.S. I’m surprised that other albums like Naked Songs and New York City You’re a Woman haven’t been reissued?

A.K. In America every thing is done by the counting of beans. So if the beans don't come out to the right amount of beans they won't press that up, no way. That's why my CD collection is primarily imports, because the records I want on CD they don't put out in this country so I have to get them from England and Japan.

M.S. Are there any other projects that could come out?

A.K. Well, I have between leftovers from Sony and stuff that I have cut at home I have about 125 tracks. Now that they have I pods which is an Mp3 device that Apple makes, but the sound level is better than on computers. On a machine the size of a pack of cigarettes you can have up to 7000 songs. Categorized, alphabetized automatically and you can find any one of the songs you want almost instantly. You can put your own little mix things in there and how you want to run and everything. It's changed my life dramatically. I've put a category on there called unreleased Al, and every time I find something unreleased in goes into that category. I was able for the first time to collect them all. There are about 125 tracks that have never been out.

M.S. Do you listen to much new music?

A.K. No, because it's not creative in my point of view.

M.S. Have you listened to any of the "jambands" because there’s some good stuff? It’s interesting that there are so many bands out there playing improvised music despite what the industry says.

A.K. Yes, like Phish. But I can't speak with authority about this, but what I have wondered though because in 2003 I had decided to go out and play live more, from this point on. For the past 15 years I have just booked myself and played when ever I want, which is not a band thing. I quit touring in 1976 because I was afraid the music would lose its specialness because every gig was special to me. It meant something to me and then I could see where that was going to get away from me and I didn't want to lose that. Next to sex playing live was the greatest thing in the world, so I quit and it probably cost me my career on many levels, and you know what, every gig is still special to me and that's very important to me. I really wonder how I would fit in that context. The show that I play now is basically old style R&B and soul.

M.S. Do you still play with the Rekooperators?

A.K. I still play with them but it is difficult to play with them because they are on television every night [Late Night with Conan O’Brien]. But I put together another band that's also hard to play with.

M.S. You don’t like doing things easy do you?

A.K. No, no. It's called the Funky Faculty. It's also professors at the Berklee School of Music. We go out and play. I did that because about two or three years ago Jimmy Vivino took over the band and then it sort of became Jimmy's band, and normally in a band situation like that it's a negative thing because it was my back-up band, but in this case it was a good thing because I had discovered Jimmy and I was very proud to see him do that, but I still had to have another outlet for what it is that I do, so I had to put another band together. The Rekooperators did not break up it just became Jimmy's band.

M.S. In all your time as a producer, musician etc, is there any artist that you thought that should really have made it that didn’t?

A.K. Well, we don't have enough time for that one. There's a millions of them. First of all I like black gospel music. My favorite instrument is the voice and I would rather hear a great singer than a great organ player, a great guitar player or a great sax player. So, that led me to gospel music because when they are singing about god they just sing better that they do when they are singing about their baby. I've heard some singers that are incredible that the general public doesn't know about. There's a guy in Detroit named Rance Allen, he is probably the greatest singer alive and nobody knows about him unless they are into gospel music, and then classically there's a singer that everybody that became popular stole from whose name is Reverend Claude Jeter. He was the lead singer with the Swan Silver Tones. They were like the Beatles of gospel music. Without the rec. Claude Jeter there would not have been and James Carr or an Al Green. These people will tell you that. I know who he is and I collect his music and my life is much better for it.

M.S. Going back to your band, The Funky Faculty, where do you play?

A.K. We started with gigs in the Boston area but we have played all over. We played in Norway in 2001. We are going to Japan this year. We are trying to play everywhere. I'm dying to play in England but no one has asked me.

M.S. Earlier you mentioned Randy California. He’s my hero and I work on his archives. Didn’t you recommend him to fill in for Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple back in the 70s?

A.K. We played gigs together. Deep Purple wanted me to do it? Can you imagine?
I had the same agent and he called me and said I have this huge tour with Deep Purple and I said I don't want to go on that. I had just gotten off the road and I couldn't even finish my tour and he said "no, no, no. I need you to go down and audition to fill in the guitar slot." I said are you kidding me, I'm going to replace Ritchie Blackmore, what are you nuts. He said, "I just need you to audition to give me time to find somebody." I said that's so fucked up I can't believe it. But he said "I'm asking you as a friend." So, I go down an audition and I figure I'm going to be laughed off the stage but I did it as a favor. So I went down and can you believe it they fucking love me. When the audition finished the roadie says "When you did "Fireball" you started off the solo the same note that Ritchie does and I'm going this is so stupid to myself that is. I couldn't do it. I felt like it was the emperor's new clothes or something. I think they wanted someone so bad that they took the first person that walked in. So I called the agent and I said they liked me and he said "You got to do it" and I said that's where my favor ends. I said call Randy California he can do it, he is great. I was adamant from that point on.

M.S. But I guess Randy was a little odd at the time and did only one gig?

A.K. The story is that he rehearsed with them and it was fantastic and they were just flipping out and they went to Hawaii and he locked himself in the closet of his hotel room purposely and he would not come out and they had to cancel the tour.

M.S. Randy was a great guitar player but the early 70s were strange times.

A.K. I was very influenced by Randy as a guitar player. Are you familiar with my album You Never Know Who Your Friends Are? The guitar playing on that album is completely influenced by Randy California. For instance the guitar solo at the end of "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" is three part harmony like he used to do on "Uncle Jack." I was tremendously influenced by two and three guitars playing at the same time and that album is completely filled with that. It's all influenced by Randy California. And Clapton was influenced by that as well.

M.S. Is there any one album of yours that you would like to see in print again in the US?

A.K. Well, I'm spoiled because of Japan. I have them all on CD.

M.S. You do, but most people don’t because CDs from Japan are expensive.

A.K. What I have done on my website is educate people in how to get them so that everybody that wants I Stand Alone can get it and it doesn't turn out to be all that expensive. On June 4th they are going to going to come out in mini-packs in Japan, which is great. There's an import company on the net called Red Trumpet and they are a big fan sod they are going to carry them.

M.S. Going back quickly to the Super Session album, do you expect it to sell well again?

A.K. You know what, I don't expect anything. My motto what got me through being in the record business is that if you don't expect anything you are never disappointed. That's what has kept me alive all these years.

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