Al Kooper talks Dylan, Conan, Hendrix, and lifetime in the music business

Categories: Interview
All photos courtesy

Keyboardist, guitarist, songwriter and producer Al Kooper's uncanny presence and participation in landmark musical events over the past half-century have made him the rock equivalent of Forrest Gump or Zelig. His long association with Bob Dylan includes playing the prominent organ part on "Like A Rolling Stone" and being in the band when Dylan "went electric" at Newport in 1965. He also played on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," The Who's Sell Out, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, George Harrison's Beatles reminiscence "All Those Years Ago." He was a member of the Blues Project, collaborated with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills on 1968's Super Session, founded Blood, Sweat and Tears and came up with the groundbreaking concept for its first album, discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Tubes, wrote songs covered by everyone from Gary Lewis and Gene Pitney to Carmen McRae and Freddie Cannon. And that barely scratches the surface.

A one-of-a-kind tribute to Kooper, featuring the man himself, will take place Sunday at the Dakota. It was put together by Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, a longtime Kooper friend. With Levy leading the band (including fellow 'dogs Peter Sands, Trent Norton and Steve Kung), the first set will be a who's who of local singers (John Munson, Allison Scott, Ashleigh Still, Dave Campbell, Kevin Bowe, Martin Devaney, Kate Murray, Paul Metsa, Eric Koskinen, Jack Ventimiglia, Alicia Wiley) airing out the Kooper canon. The second set will be Kooper himself, playing solo and with the band.

In a wide-ranging interview last week from his Boston home (where he moved more than a decade ago to teach at Berklee School of Music), Kooper talked about the upcoming gig, his experiences and philosophies, and even the late-night TV wars.

City Pages: What's the deal on this gig? How did it come about?

Al Kooper: I've been friends with Adam Levy from the Honeydogs for about 10 years. It was his idea. He's been tryin' to get me down there-up there. So he waved this flag in front of me and I thought, well, that is a good idea. And I've never done that before. So I done bit the bait.

CP: How does it taste?

Kooper: So far so good! Looks like it's gonna be really nice. I'm really lookin' forward to it. Like I said, I've never done anything like this before. So it's very flattering, and I'm very curious about it. The concept is that he got what he thinks are some of the best musicians in town. I think there's ten singers that're gonna each sing one of my songs. I sent 50 songs for them to pick from. There'll be a house band backing them up. The first half of the show is gonna be people singin' those ten songs. The second half of the show I'm gonna play mostly my solo show, but I'm probably gonna do three or four songs with the band as well, since it's there. Plus, I think the only time I played Minneapolis was-Is that where they have the Tyrone Guthrie theatre?-then I played there with Dylan. That was in the early '80s, say maybe '81. That's the only time I've ever played Minneapolis. I like gettin' them cities in my backpack. So I'm really happy to do that.

CP: Is this going to seem like attending your own funeral in a way?

Kooper: No, not at all. Ya know, I'm 66 now, and in the last few years I've been gettin' inducted into this and awards for that. I think it comes with the old-age territory. So it's all in a day's work.

CP: Or a lifetime's work.

Kooper: Yeah, there ya go. This is actually my 52nd year of playin' professionally.


CP: So you started when you were 14. What were you doing when you were 14?

Kooper: I was very luckily in this band that had the number one record in the country-the Royal Teens. [The song was] "Who Wears Short Shorts."

CP: So you joined them after they had the hit?

Kooper: I didn't play on it. So I joined them while they were havin' it.

CP: So you got to go out and play it?

Kooper: Oh yeah. Many, many, many times.

CP: An odd song to begin a career.

Kooper: I'll take it. I'll take it.

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