Al Kooper is still going strong at the age of 74. If you love the music that came out of the ’60s, you may know him from his seminal work with the Blues Project, with Bob Dylan, with Electric Flag, with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, with Blood, Sweat & Tears, with Jimi Hendrix, with George Harrison, with the Rolling Stones and on and on. And that’s just as a multi-instrumental musician. He also pops up everywhere as a songwriter (“This Diamond Ring”) and producer ( Lynyrd Skynyrd). His 1998 memoir Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards is some kind of a classic. It is certainly my favorite memoir by a pop musician. If Forrest Gump had been a humorous genius, Kooper would be his musical equivalent.
Early in his memoir Kooper recalls hopping a subway on a Saturday morning in 1960 to wait around Musicor Records at 1650 Broadway in New York. Musicor was the new label founded by songwriter Aaron Schroeder; Kooper was hoping for some session work. Schroeder invited Kooper to sit in on the audition of a singer/songwriter he was thinking about signing to his new label:
While I thumbed through the latest Billboard magazine in the waiting room, this guy walks in wearing a salt and pepper jacket, heavily greased-down DA (“Duck’s Ass”) hairdo, and white bucks. Three dressing schools tied together; very strange. The creature was quickly ushered in, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to mesmerize us for two uninterrupted hours with his incredible songs and bizarre voice. He was an original, and the impact on me was like hearing soul music for the first time. But one of the mightiest music business ordinances encourages the “poker-face,” so Schroeder and I did our utmost to refrain from hailing him as the unique talent we knew he was. After the kid left, Schroeder nonchalantly asked me what I thought.
“What could anyone think?” I said, knowing that we both knew the answer perfectly well. “Sign that guy!”
“Should we change his name?” Schroeder asked.
“Don’t make no difference what you call him,” I answered, “Gene Pitney is gonna be a big star!”
Here is Kooper on the 1966 Elektra sampler What’s Shakin’, where I first found him.
Here he is with Mike Bloomfield on “Blues for Nothing,” an outtake from the epochal 1968 Super Session album with Bloomfield (side 1) and Stephen Stills (side 2).
Here he is on “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” from that first BS&T album. After that first album, he was thrown out of the band that he himself had founded.
On May 31, 2010, Lowell Pickett produced a three-and-a-half-hour tribute to Kooper on a Sunday afternoon at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in Minneapolis. It featured Kooper himself along with principals in some of the Twin Cities’ best indie bands. His influence must be wide.
I was there, but my memory of the show was a little off. Thankfully, Lowell has posted Jon Bream’s contemporaneous Star Tribune account here.
Among other things, Kooper loves bringing good music to the attention of his fans. For years he published a weekly online column he called New Music For Old People, annotating new recordings that he loved along with the audio clips of the recordings themselves. I may be mistaken, but I vaguely recall that it was killed for reasons having to do with intellectual property.
I remain on Al’s email list. Last week he announced that he “finally got my radio show on the air – it’s called New Music for Old People and is an hour long every week. To access the podcast, go here. It airs on WVVY every Sunday at 11AM (ET) and is repeated on Wednesdays at 11PM. However, if things are working OK, you can access it online at anytime after the first broadcast.”
On the show itself he explains: “What we are attempting to do here is to turn you on to music you may have missed…music that is worth listening to.” He’s now up to episode 2 and it is terrific.
Al’s (richly rewarding) site is here. He writes about his new show here. My purpose in taking this brief and partial look back at Kooper’s career is to draw attention to his New Music for Old People podcast. As Miss Jean Brodie puts it “in her best Edinburgh voice” in Muriel Spark’s novel, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”