Like a Rolling Stone
Rock legend Al Kooper opens up to Princeton’s Sean Wilentz about making music with Bob Dylan, and more
Last fall, the people at Tablet asked if I’d be willing to interview my friend Kooper: just put a recorder between us and talk. A couple of months later, Al and I sat in his living room and switched on the little machine and talked about growing up Jewish in black churches, meeting Elvis, playing on “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan, and hearing Mike Bloomfield play for the first time. With a bit of editing, this is part of what we said. It’s always a treat to see him and his wife Susan in situ: It means a fine supper, some wonderful chat, and listening to all sorts of stuff from his suitably enormous music collection.
If you keep your ears and eyes open, you might catch word of Al performing, and he always appears in February at his annual birthday bash at B.B. King’s near Times Square. He’s lost not a step. Many more of his stories appear in his acclaimed book, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, which is still very much in print. And, since you’re reading this on the Internet, go and check out his exceptional music blog, “New Music for Old People.” For now, though, read him getting right to the point at hand.
Al Kooper: Culturally, one of the things I don’t like about the Jewish religion is that you can’t play instruments in temple as part of the service, like you can in Baptist places. So, I have attended more services in black Baptists churches than in temple. Why can’t they put instruments into temples? It would increase attendance. All you got is some guy blowing the shofar.
Another thing was, at both my parents’ funerals the rabbi didn’t allow me to play the organ, and I wanted to play the organ. However, when my father-in-law died, they let me.
Sean Wilentz: In shul?
No, I think it was in a funeral home. But it bugs me. Because, I mean, I am Jewish. At the core of me I’m Jewish, that’s how I was raised, that’s what I am, that’s what I’ll always will be, through and through. Still, the church got me too, because of the music.
When did you first notice that?
When I was 13, we got bused to a bad neighborhood for junior high school. I started seeing people I had never seen before on an everyday basis. And so we were exchanging musical things that we liked, and I was very into doo-wop music. They said well have you heard so and so, and they started mentioning gospel groups and I said no. They said, “Well, that’s where all this doo-wop music came from.” They played it for me and I lost my mind.
I’ve got to add, though, that this wasn’t all. My father bought me a Perry Como album when I was very young and it had songs of faith on it, but, he sang “Eli Eli” and “Kol Nidre” with a gigantic orchestra and chorus, nothing you could hear in services. This moved me tremendously, and I mean to this day I can listen to it because his singing is fabulous. He sang in Hebrew and he pronounced all the words. To this day it’s phenomenal. Every year at the New Year, I would drag that album out and play it. But it was Elvis who really changed me.
Elvis wasn’t going to do “Kol Nidre.” He was going to do a lot of songs of faith but nothing Jewish.
He could have done what Perry did, it would have been great. I was an Elvis fanatic. I actually met him. The guy who signed me as a song writer got his money from writing Elvis songs.
Who was that?
Aaron Schroeder. He wrote “Stuck on You” and “It’s Now or Never,” and a few others. He got a lot of money for it, and so, when Dick Clark was on trial for payola [and] had to divest himself of his publishing company, Schroeder bought it. He had to do it fast, so he probably got a good deal. It was full of hit songs like “At the Hop” and all that stuff. That was the company I was signed to when I got my first publishing deal. I was 16.
Where does Elvis fit into all that?
Well, Elvis changed my life.
What was the story about you meeting him in ’62?
Oh, that was so great. He came up to see Aaron, and I worked at Aaron’s office. And it was in a building on 56th between 5th and 6th. So, you come in and go up the elevator, and there’s a big waiting room. Here there were cubicles where we all wrote songs, and then a big stairway going up, and that’s where the master dwelled. And so we were hanging out in the waiting room and Elvis walked in with his entourage. I nearly died, and I shook his hand. I had to; I said I have to shake your hand. He said “No problem.” I considered not washing it. The first Elvis I ever heard was “Heartbreak Hotel.” I heard it on the radio and I envisioned a black man with a pork pie hat playing the piano with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
Right, so, you were already into, or getting into, black music when Elvis changed your life.
I was into black music because of my babysitter. She was a couple years older than me, so let’s say when I was 10 or 11, and she was 13, and my parents would leave, and maybe 15 minutes after my parents left, all these kids would come over with phonograph records and fill my living room, listening to music and dancing. And then I started buying and stealing records ’cause I didn’t have a lot of money.
You were in Queens at this point, right?
Yeah, there was a record store in Windsor Park, which is walking distance from my house. In fact I saved up money to buy Elvis’ second album, and it was Election Day and I didn’t have school and I was like, I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to go down and get it. It was coming out that day. And so I said, well I’ll go early and wait till they open. So, I got on my bike and I got hit by a car.
As HBO’s medieval fantasy Game of Thrones returns, imagining a Jewish version of the Seven Kingdoms