Before talking with Al Kooper, it’s best to pick a few favorite stories. He has more than 50 years’ worth, dating back to the late 1950s, when New York City was the apex of the music world. It’s wise to narrow the focus.
But Kooper’s best one, the rock ’n’ roll tale to end all tales — he’s done with that: “It’s in that Martin Scorsese movie, so I don’t tell it anymore,” he growls into the telephone. “I’ve already told it sixty million times.”
For anyone who may have missed it: In 1965, the rising guitarist and songwriter got an invite to a Bob Dylan recording session. Though there to observe, he brought a guitar, but left it in the case when he heard Michael Bloomfield play. Kooper stayed in the studio, however, and when producer Tom Wilson had the organ player switch to piano, he pounced into the empty seat.
At first rebuffed — “you don’t even play the organ,” said Wilson — Kooper stayed anyway. When “Like a Rolling Stone” began, he joined in, staying an eighth note behind the band. “The best I could manage was to play hesitantly by sight, feeling my way through the changes like a little kid fumbling for alight switch in the dark,” he wrote in his autobiography, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards.
Only when Dylan heard Kooper’s almost buried riff and ordered the protesting Wilson to turn it up did Kooper make rock history.
“Don’t tell me who’s an organ player and who’s not,” Dylan said.
He ended up in Dylan’s band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the unveiling of his electric music. The call bemused Kooper, who’d given up keyboards for guitar while still a teenager.
“My incompetent organ playing [had] suddenly become a publicly recognized trademark of the new ‘Dylan Sound’ … oh, the irony,” he wrote in Backstage Passes.
Many in the press reported that boos and catcalls greeted Dylan’s heretical rejection of acoustic folk music — a lie, Kooper says. People were angry, but not about the music. Dylan’s set lasted only 15 minutes because the band hadn’t rehearsed any more material.
“That’s ludicrous and bad journalism to say that people were booing Dylan because he played at Newport electric,” Kooper says.
He’s fond of a Tom Waits quote about history: “People who were there are not talking, people who weren’t there, you can’t shut them up.” It’s a truth that makes him worry.
“There were many events that were key in music history,” he says. “I happened to be there when they happened, and they were all reported erroneously.”
The Newport myth led to physical danger. Some hotheads felt duty-bound to shower contempt at every show, along with bottles and whatever else they could throw.
After a flurry of session work for performers eager to appropriate the Dylan mojo, Kooper joined the Blues Project. When that broke up in 1967, he created the first horn rock group, Blood, Sweat & Tears. That ended in acrimony a year later, and Kooper swore off bands, focusing instead on a solo career. His first album was 1968’s I Stand Alone.
During the same period, he performed and recorded with Michael Bloomfield. The two became friends after the Dylan session. Kooper’s upcoming Manchester show with musical partner Jimmy Vivino is a tribute to the late blues guitarist.
“I feel Jimmy is probably the foremost Bloomfield player,” he says, adding that during his 30 years playing with Vivino, “we would revisit a lot of Michael’s music and play it … we always wanted to do a tour where that’ s all we played, and this is it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Kooper earned a sterling reputation as a producer, with an amazing knack for spotting talent. As a teenager, he promised a producer friend that Gene Pitney would be a star, and he hasn’t missed much since. Lynyrd Skynyrd was unknown when Kooper first saw them play a six-night stand in an Atlanta bar.
“They reminded me of an English band that I liked called Free,” he recalls. “By the third or fourth night, I had favorite songs and I also sat in with them and then on the last night, we ended up at a party together and I offered them a production deal.”
As Kooper sat behind the console at the session that produced perhaps the most popular song in rock history, he felt something big happening. “I knew right away that ‘Free Bird’ was going to be special,” he says. “’Sweet Home Alabama’ didn’t exist yet but ‘Free Bird’ did, and I knew that was going to be amazing.”
He also produced Tom Petty’s first solo sessions (scrapped when he formed the Heartbreakers), worked with Nils Lofgren early on, and helmed the first Tubes album — he considers the latter his finest work behind the boards. He also helped Richard Thompson get his first American deal. A few lucky Berklee students heard about these and other tales when he taught at the Boston music school from 1997 to 2001.
After he departed Blood, Sweat & Tears, Laura Nyro had the chance to replace him, Kooper recalls, “But she politely declined.” With David Clayton-Thomas, the band had a run of hits; none impressed Kooper. In particular, he considers the BS&T cover of Nyro’s “And When I Die” a bad Las Vegas exercise, and he’s not the only one.
“I have a story,” Kooper says with a chuckle. “One of my courses was History of Record Production. I would play all these different records for the class. These were freshmen, and whenever I would play that record, I wouldn’t say very much … and the class would crack up laughing. And I thought, well, that’s what I would do.”