The Petty Archives

For Al Kooper, turning 50 was a good excuse for celebrating
By Bill DeYoung
Gainesville Sun - March 3, 1995

Over more than 30 professional years, Al Kooper has had his hand in some of rock 'n' roll's biggest projects, from Dylan and the Stones to Tom Petty and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He's an accomplished songwriter, singer, record producer and arranger, and is proficient on a dozen instruments. He doesn't like to stay in one place for too long.

And yet, despite a prolific career as a recording artist, he's never had a hit under his own name.

In a telephone interview from his Nashville home, Kooper explains that he's always been wary of pigeon-holes. "Short attention span, I guess," he says. "One doesn't want to be bored.
"That's been the biggest problem with my solo albums. There are so many different kinds of music on them; if somebody likes the Beach Boy tracks, they'll be disappointed by the Al Green tracks, and vice versa. But that's too bad. That's what I am."

Kooper has just released "Soul of a Man: Al Kooper Live," a two-CD souvenir of three sold-out nights at New York's Bottom Line nightclub, recorded in early 1994. The concerts were in celebration of his 50th birthday.

For these shows, Kooper reunited with original members of two bands he'd been involved with way back when: Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Guitarist Steve Katz, who played in both bands with Kooper in the 60's, was at the Bottom Line shows, but for reasons of his own asked Kooper to remove his instrument and voice from the tapes.

Kooper complied, but he wasn't happy about it. "He's just wacky," he said of Katz. "I mean, he and I never got along all that well, and I would put that aside for these things. We've played together quite a bit in Blues Project reunions. And last year, we did a BS&T reunion.

"So I would always call him, because he was an original member of the band. You put those differences aside."

After this embarrassment, says Kooper. "I feel that I've done my part with it, and now I probably would never play with him again."

Similarly, the name Blood, Sweat & Tears is owned by another ex-member (drummer Bobby Colomby, who did not participate in Kooper's birthday bash). So on "Soul of a Man," the partially-reunited band is named after its first album, the only one that featured Kooper: "Child is Father to the Man." 

 Born in Brooklyn, Al Kooper was a professional musician by the time he was in junior high school. He played with the Royal Teens ("Short Shorts"), wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis & the Playboys, and in 1965 talked himself into a Bob Dylan session, only to contribute the distinctive organ riff to "Like a Rolling Stone."

He got noticed, and wound up staying in Dylan's inner circle for nearly two years. Kooper's all over the "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" albums.

In the late '60s, he did his stints with Blues Project and BS&T (he was thrown out of the latter group in favor of David Clayton-Thomas) and began a solo career, pausing now and again to report (with Mike Bloomfield and, for the "Super Session" album, with Bloomfield and Stephen Stills). And that's Kooper playing organ on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

In the early '70s, Kooper founded Sounds of the South Records. His first signing was a hot young Floridan band he'd heard in an Atlanta nightclub, Lynyrd Skynyrd. "That was just, 'God, what a great band! I'd like to let a lot of people hear this!'" says Kooper.

"That's sort of why I started producing. I signed them to my label and produced their album." Kooper was the man behind the board for "Free Bird," "Sweet Home Alabama" and other early Skynyrd classics.

Kooper worked with the Tubs on their self-titled debut album ("Sonically speaking, it's probably the best record I ever made") and, in 1975, was approached by producer and label owner Denny Cordell to oversee the first record by another young Florida act, Tom Petty.

"We did half an album, and then it just stopped," Kooper recalls. "And Tom and I were already starting to be friends. Then he disappeared for six months."

The Petty project was on hold. "And then he called me and said 'You've got to hear my album. I put a band together, and cut an album with the band.'"

The band, of course, was the Heartbreakers. Their very first American tour was as Kooper's opening act.

Over the last few years, Kooper has written an autobiography ("Backstage Passes") and taken to waxing journalistic for a couple of rock magazines. "I feel like I can write with authority, more than anything else," he explains. "And I hate when people distort the facts." Because he's a published author, Kooper played with writers Dave Berry and Stephen King in the Rock Bottom Remainders (he was the ad hoc band's "musical director").

Of course, he's writing dongs, too -- "about 50 stockpiled so far" -- and there are plans for a new solo album.

At the end of the day, Al Kooper is content to remain indefinable. "The only thing that really bothers me is that I can't play gigs, 'cause I can't afford it," he says.

"I've love to go out and play for my life's work, but it's not economically feasible at all. So I end up playing like three gigs a year in New York, and that's pretty much it."