Woody Allen’s 1983 film “Zelig” is the story of a human chameleon who astoundingly shows up to rub shoulders alongside major figures in the early century, including Adolph Hitler, Al Capone and F. Scott FitzGerald.
To call Al Kooper a latter-day Zelig would not be too off the mark.
Beginning in 1958 when he was a member of the teenage pop combo The Royal Teens, Kooper has fulfilled a myriad of roles in music history, including sideman (for The Who, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, George Harrison and dozens of others), talent scout (discovering Lynyrd Skynyrd), frontman (founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blues Project), songwriter (with hits covered by everyone from Gene Pitney and Pat Boone to Carmen McRae and Roger McGuinn), producer (Joe Ely, B.B. King, Lynyrd Skynyrd) and solo artist (with hits including “New York’s My Home”). He also recorded “Super Session,” rock history’s only top 10 jam session album featuring himself with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills.
Kooper’s most legendary contribution to rock lore is his accidental organ playing on the Dylan classic, “Like A Rolling Stone.” As the story goes, Kooper wandered into the studio when the session was taking place in 1965 and proceeded to goof along on an organ. When Dylan heard it played back on the mix, he told the engineer to bring it up – and rock’s most famous organ riff was born.
Considering his resume, it’s no surprise that sooner or later, his entire career would get boxed. That’s the case with “Rare+Well Done: The Greatest and Most Obscure Records 1964-2001” (Sony Legacy), which collects home demos, rehearsal tapes and live cuts form his lengthy career. With such a dizzying number of styles represented (pop to soul to gospel to blues to jazz), his music has become choice pickings for hip-hop samplers from the Beastie Boys to Jay-Z.
Today, the 57-year-old teaches at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and tours sporadically, due to partial vision loss he first suffered in 1999. In conversation and in his two scathing memoirs about the music industry, he remains rock’s conscience.
What follows is an edited transcript of our talk last month.
Q. You’ve been involved in so many seminal moments in rock history. Was putting together this box one of the ways of tracking everything you’ve done for the first time?
A. Actually, it was a great way to get these lost sheep out to market. That was the best thing about it for me. These things just didn’t fit in on records and then my window of opportunity had closed as a recording artist and these things were still sitting around the house. These songs that I write, they hate me, they know they can’t get out of the house. So it relieved some of the pressure of that. And then the old stuff, it was great to get it out because I knew fans would really like it.
Q. The box shows off the many roles you’ve played – which one was the most satisfying for you?
A. I love playing live. I still really love it. I can’t see myself stopping that where I sort of have stopped producing records. I can’t see stopping performing. I’d like to be like my performing heroes, just play until you die.
Q. Why aren’t you interested in producing anymore?
A. I can’t deal with the record company mentality nowadays. Also, my whole career I’ve really just watched carefully for that moment when it was time to get out before it got embarrassing. And that was about 1989, so that’s when I got out. If I produce anything now it’s either for myself or people in my close musical family. Or if somebody comes to me and can work it out so I don’t have to go through the record company (expletive). And then I’d be happy to do it. Definitely, as of 1989, I stopped soliciting work.
Q. Why 1989?
A. Well it was that thing. Some record company sent an artist to me to work with for a week to see what the chemistry was. And it was good. And then they came back to me and offered me the smallest amount of money I was offered in my life. And I said that to them and they say, “Well, what have you done lately?” And I said, “Well, hung up on you.” That’s when I knew I waited too long. And I felt really bad because I didn’t see it. And that illustrated it to me. I put my tail between my legs and went and had some fun.
Q. Even now it seems that it’s worse with all these labels owned by huge conglomerates.
A. Well, there is a way back. But you have to be lucky. Bonnie Raitt did it with no compromise. And Carlos Santana did it with some compromise. To me, that’s a fantasy in my head. And the real crummy part of it is, that I could probably make the best record I ever made right now. Because I’m not burned out. My skills, to me, are still growing. And I think I’m probably better at everything that I do than I’ve ever been. And there’s a bunch of songs sitting here that are easily the best songs I’ve ever written. And so I’m holding on to them. That’s my little fantasy. I love by, if you don’t expect anything, you’re never disappointed. That’s a small price to pay to get out of the music business clean. Because it really is a disgusting business.
Q. What about the independent route? It seems that in the last 10 years there’s been a renaissance of smaller labels.
A. It doesn’t work. I did that too. They let me make the record that I was going to make. And then they couldn’t afford to promote it and didn’t know how to promote it. If I did that record I talked to you about a minute ago, it would really have to be with a major label, or it wouldn’t make any sense.
Q. What was the one job in your career that was the most satisfying?
A. I think scoring the TV series “Crime Story.” It was one of the most challenging, certainly the most time consuming and the most fun, all at once. And the highest paying. All those things. We used to say, “I’m overworked and I’m overpaid.” It was a weekly show and there was no days off. It was a seven-day cycle. And you had to keep going. Because I enjoyed the show, it was really inspirational, it was a great muse to put music behind. However, they’re re-showing it now on A&E. But they’ve removed all the source music and replaced it with cheap music. So they don’t have to pay royalties. And it really has taken the soul out of the show. I can’t even watch it. And I’m sort of sad to watch it. It was really great before.
Q. Did you come to Chicago for it? I know they shot that show in Chicago.
A. No, but I used all the Chicago blues records. And not the obvious ones. And it was great. It was on prime time, 9 p.m. on Wednesday night on NBC, and there’s Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Well, they’re gone now.
Q. It seems that anything intelligent in television ultimately meets a short end.
A. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Of course it happens to me because Murphy’s Law follows me like a dog.
Q. Does it make it easier to live having your career more in the background, where the general public may know your work but may not know you?
A. It makes it mighty fine. I mean, I was never a superstar. So I didn’t have people chasing me. But in New York, it was tough to go out because people, well meaning, would step into what I was doing. And that is definitely over. and I’m glad about that. I don’t need that sort of reinforcement. I kind of like being able to walk around and not having to be on duty.
Q. What was your training like as a kid?
A. I took piano lessons, which I was never good at the lessons because I played by ear. And I studied theory and harmony privately my junior and senior year in high school. And that was it. College was a big mistake because I couldn’t get the curriculum I needed. Really, the private theory and harmony I studied got me through everything.
Q. How were you first exposed to blues music?
A. Through the Blues Project. Because in New York City, where I grew up, the only blues music you could get on the radio was the stuff that was crossed over on the R&B charts. There were no blues shows or blues artists of any stature out of the New York area. So I had heard B.B. King, I heard Jimmy Reed, all because their records crossed over. But there were names that I had read, but I had never heard the music such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Big Bill Broonzy and stuff like that. When I joined the Blues Project, the guys that knew that stuff in the band taught it to me. And I was fortunate enough to get lessons from Otis Spann when he was alive. I was a pretty quick study. I ate that stuff up.
Q. Was that a pretty exciting time for you?
A. Oh, yeah. I’d say ’65 to ’68, it was a very exciting time. You’d wake up in the morning and you’d feel like you were really doing something, you were contributing to the culture. And that was a great feeling to have at that time in one’s life.
Q. Why at that time did you think that’s what you were doing?
A. Because that’s how it felt. With the Blues Project, people were coming to see us and they were just rabid. We were doing things people weren’t doing. We weren’t chasing the single brass rings on the merry-go-round. We were doing things like “Flute Thing,” which was kind of jazzy. And when I was putting together Blood, Sweat and Tears, this was just an idea that I had based on the music that had come across my path up to then. And I knew this had never been done before. And it was exciting.
Q. It’s also you’re reaching people who were living places who never heard blues, gospel and jazz before.
A. It wasn’t until e-mail that I got feedback. Because I wasn’t involved as an artist in any hit singles per se. All my stuff was album-oriented. So you really didn’t get, if you have a No. 1 single, you know everyone’s getting your stuff. If you have these albums, you don’t really know who’s getting them. So it wasn’t until e-mail came in and I had a Web sit that people started to easily communicate with me and it was just wonderful to see how far-flung it had gone over the period of my life. And people were so nice and supportive.
Q. Do you answer your e-mail?
A. Absolutely, every one.
Q. You played in Dylan’s band when he played in Newport in 1965. And that short set became so mythologized ever since, did it ever seem overblown?
A. Yeah, well I’ve learned having been at some of these seminal moments that as time goes by, they become larger and larger. But there’s so much revisionism, it’s really sad. I know when I die, all these myths that are being perpetrated, people 100 years from now won’t know what really happened, just like we don’t know what really happened 100 years ago.
Q. Is there one myth about you you’d like to put to rest?
A. Not particularly. I’m talking about the facts surrounding things. For instance, the Brill Building. Very little happened in the Brill Building. It all happened at this other building called 1650 Broadway. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t the “anything building.” It was 1650 Broadway. All these things attributed to the Brill Building never happened there. The Brill Building was 1619 Broadway. So that bothers me. They say 2120 Michigan Ave. (home of Chess Records), why can’t they say 1650 Broadway?
Q. What’s the difference between the record executives then and now?
A. A lot of them were really passionate about the music. That doesn’t really exist anymore. People just go, “She has a great body, we should sign her. We’ll worry about the other stuff later.” That sort of mentality. Or “These guys are great looking. Let’s teach them to sing.” It doesn’t produce great music.
Q. Also it has an affect on the listening public. They’re standards aren’t brought up at all.
A. This is something that has gone on traditionally since the beginning of pop music. Certainly, my parents were horrified by Elvis and Bob Dylan, both. Because they didn’t live up to the standards of Perry Como and Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. It’s very important the music of young people alienate old people. Because otherwise it’s not worth anything.