Like a Rolling Stone
Rock legend Al Kooper opens up to Princeton’s Sean Wilentz about making music with Bob Dylan, and more
Oh crap, really?
My bike got wrecked. Fortunately there was a doctor that lived on the corner of the street so the guy who hit me took me into the doctor and then he sent me home. I walked home; it was like two houses away. And my bike was wrecked and I couldn’t go out or anything. Then my father came home with a new bike and the Elvis album. That’s a great parent.
And we weren’t rich. So, that Elvis album meant a lot to me. So, when I played the doo-wop for the black people that I met in school, they played me the gospel music, and that got me because the signing was so much better. And that took me away from the Jewish religion, because it was so powerful.
Would you go to services as a kid?
Yeah, till I was bar mitzvah!
No, I’m not talking about Jewish services, I’m talking about Baptist services.
Oh yeah, there’s a great story. They said well you should come to church, and this was in the time of segregation. It wasn’t a matter of law, like in the South, but it was black and white in Queens, and you didn’t walk into a black Baptist church. So, I said, “I’m a little scared to go in there,” and they said, “Scared of what?” and I said, “Well, somebody misunderstanding why I would be there.” They said, “You know what? If you really wanna hear the service then you should because it is unbelievable.” And I did really want to hear it. So, I met them there at 7 am, I think the service was at 7:30. So, I met them at 7 and they took me up into the projection booth where the janitor would sleep. And they cooled it with the janitor. And I watched from the projection booth so they came and got me after the church emptied. It was unbelievable. So, then when I would travel, I would try to get to churches in different cities. So, it’s really true, I’ve been to many more churches then temples. And I don’t go because they’re black Baptists—I go because the music is good, you know?
I don’t even really care if Jesus was this or Jesus was that, I’m just glad that people sing so emotionally about him. I’m glad about that. And I’ve been so caught up in all of that for so many years that I’ve lost the whole Jewish thing.
I once heard an interview with Mike Bloomfield, in Murray Lerner’s film about the Newport Festival, and he’s saying, “Hey you know I can’t play like they can play. I mean I’m this Jewish kid from Chicago. When I hear Muddy Waters, I can do the best I can, but I can’t do that.” That’s what he said, something like that. “They lived it I haven’t lived it.”
But then he lived it.
But then he lived it, right—that’s my point. I mean it’s sort of a cliché, but there was an affinity between the Jewish kids and black music that was—
I wouldn’t say the Jewish kids. I think it was more widespread than that. I don’t think J. Geils is Jewish, but Peter Wolf is. I don’t think The Black Keys are Jewish. The thing that was extremely Jewish was the music business in New York. That was very Jewish.
Tell me about that.
I started when I was very young, when I was about 14. I was in a band that had a No. 1 record. The Royal Teens, Short Shorts. I came too late to actually play on that record, but I was there when it was No. 1. And that was amazing.
And you’re playing what?
Guitar at that time. And I started playing when I was about 11 and I taught myself to play. I always had a good ear. We didn’t have a piano for many years, so one day when I was about 6 we went to visit somebody, a family, and they had a piano, and I never got a chance to fool around with one so it must have been very annoying for the people in that house but by the time we left I could play the No. 1 song at that time, which was the “Tennessee Waltz”—on the black keys though, all of the black keys. That gift I was born with, I think. And so then I wouldn’t go with my parents unless there was a piano where they were going.
So, finally they bought a spinet. And six months later, Elvis came, and I was like no, I’m going to play the guitar, it’s much cheaper. So, I taught myself to play the guitar. There was a trio of guitar players when I was 13, 14, 15—James Burton who played with Rick Nelson, Scotty Moore who played with Elvis, and Cliff Gallup, who played with Gene Vincent. Everyone who’s roughly my age, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and all those people, and I’m sure Bloomfield, were influenced by those people. They were the best guitar players at the time who were white and in the genre of Rockabilly. I was very influenced by those people—not Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Now, in New York and Queens, there was no blues radio station. I know that sounds absurd, but it was true. I heard of Muddy Waters and I heard of Howlin’ Wolf, but I never heard their music, because it never crossed over into R&B, whereas Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King did.
So, how do you get from The Royal Teens at 14 up to The Blues Project? What’s in between?
Well, a tremendous amount. I was with the Royal Teens for about two years. It was very strange because I couldn’t tell my parents, so I had to sneak. And then I tried to do it with my parents’ permission, but it didn’t work. It’s a good story. My parents talked to the manager of The Royal Teens, and he said, “Well, I’m gonna drive them up to Monticello and they’re gonna play in a club and then I’m gonna drive them back to the city.” The leader of the band was Bob Gaudio who became famous for being in the Four Seasons and writing all their songs. But he was in The Royal Teens first, and he wrote “Short Shorts.” And he’s the one who said, “You’re accepted.” I would say to my mother, I’m going to my friend Danny’s house for the weekend in Brooklyn and I would be in Washington, D.C., playing at a rock ’n’ roll show, and stuff like that. And so with the Monticello gig, on the way home the manager drove us. Usually we were on package tours and we’d go on the bus with everybody in the show, which was, you know, the greatest experience for me.
As HBO’s medieval fantasy Game of Thrones returns, imagining a Jewish version of the Seven Kingdoms