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Like a Rolling Stone

Rock legend Al Kooper opens up to Princeton’s Sean Wilentz about making music with Bob Dylan, and more

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Al Kooper, center, at his bar mitzvah. (Courtesy Al Kooper)

Because I knew who all these bands were and now I was level with them. I was very knowledgeable about the music. And now I’m meeting the actual people. It was great. But with the Monticello gig, so the manager’s driving home, we’re conked out because it’s like 1 in the morning and I woke up and the car was like stopped in the middle of a field and the manager was asleep, and everybody else was asleep. And I woke up and I happened to be riding shotgun and I go to the manager, “Leo wake up and start driving again.” So, we didn’t get into the city till about 5:30 a.m. I don’t know what he told my parents, and then he just dropped me off. And I’m going well, fuck! I don’t feel good about going on the subway at this hour. So, I call my parents at about 6, and they said get in a cab and we’ll pay for the cab when it gets to Queens. That’s a big ride, that’s about 40 bucks. So, the cab pulls up and we lived in a house at the time. And I get out of the cab and I’m walking up the driveway to the house and I got on a blue and black iridescent show jacket and one of those cross ties. And I got my amp in one hand and my guitar in the other, and my father is coming out to go to work, with his hat on and his briefcase. He was a lawyer. And that is a phenomenal picture.

You want that painted, right?

I would like that painted; I’ll never forget it, it was phenomenal. I was thinking to myself, your son has been abducted by people from Mars, because that was the expression on his face.

But you got their permission to do this at some point?

Not really, they didn’t like it. And then there was the college fight. In my neighborhood if you didn’t go to college you were a bum. But because of all this music and stuff my schoolwork went to pieces. So, I had to go to private school, I don’t know where they got the money. I ended up going to a different high school every year, mostly because I wouldn’t go to school and I would go to 1650 Broadway, which was the school I was attending.

Who was at 1650 Broadway at this point?

Everyone. One of the untruths of journalism is the Brill Building. The Brill Building was old hat, the Brill Building was passé. Everybody was at 1650 Broadway. But it wasn’t called the anything building; it was just 1650 Broadway. The Brill Building was 1619 Broadway. There was another building that was called 1674 Broadway, which had more of the black community there. In 1650 you had Aldon Music, which was all the people that made what the journalists later called the “Brill Building sound”—Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka, etc.

How did you find out about all of that?

It was on the radio.

I don’t mean about the music, but where they were located, where to go, and all that?

Well, here’s how I got in The Royal Teens: I went to camp with a guy and I was playing the ukulele because my counselor had a ukulele, so I taught myself how to play and he said to me “Why don’t you play the guitar, it’s the same fingering, there’s just two other strings, you already know the rest.” I said okay, so then I started learning the guitar and he was sort of my influence. Along with Elvis, of course. His name was Danny Shactman, and he lived in Brooklyn. And we stayed in touch long after camp. A while later, he was actually in a band that had a record deal, and he said, “Do you want to come to the office and see what’s going on?” And I said, “Yeah!” By then, I had a kid band in Queens, my best friend played bass and I played guitar. So, we went to his manager’s office, and he said, “What do you do, kid?” And I said, “I play guitar.” And he said, “Play for us.” So, I played for him and I was staying at Danny’s house in Brooklyn, and he said what are you doing tonight? And I said nothing, and he said, “Can you play a gig?” I said to Danny, “Can I play a gig?” I said yeah, but Danny has to come with me so I can get to where I’m staying. So, I went and played a gig with some band and because I was already in a band, I knew all the top-40 rock ’n’ roll stuff that you had to play, so I mean I knew all the tunes and I could easily play with this band. They just called the tune and the key and that was it, I knew what to do. So, I passed the audition!

Then they asked me to play with this other band in the rehearsal place, and that was The Royal Teens. And I went, “Wow, I love this song” and then I had to learn the flipside, which had a very fast guitar solo. But I learned it. And then I just played cover tunes too when I played a gig. So, I got that gig, but then we were playing Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars,” Alan Freed’s, “Rock and Roll,” and I was on the bill with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy; it was like heaven! And 1650 Broadway was where The Royal Teens manager was, so that’s how I started there. Just being in the place, I caught the 1650 bug. I saw how the music was really being put together, so, with no experience in songwriting but with my musical talent and my knowledge of Top 40 music, I landed that first songwriter’s job with Aaron Schroeder’s publishing company. And the main thing is that Schroeder is paying me a $100 a week, then I’m getting session fees and the Royal Teen money, so I’m getting by.

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jzsnake says:

I never tire of listening to Al Kooper stories.

Sooke says:

I read another Al Kooper, interview where he mentions the slight pause before each organ chord kicks in – he hesitated because he didn’t know if it was the right chord!

And it’s the organ that makes that record so great.

Guest says:

great to hear music and stories from Al Kooper, a PS188Q Kingsbury Grad

great to hear stories and music from AL Kooper, a PS188Q KIngsbury school grad

Great, great article …. Please fer heaven’s sake post up as many of these as you can …. love hearing Al talk

Dan Forte says:

I was lucky enough to meet Al Kooper about 25 years ago, and he’s one of the funniest people I know. I’ve interviewed him a few times for different music magazines, but this interview is coming from a completely different perspective, and as a result I learned things I didn’t know, had never seen in any other articles I’ve read about him. Great job.

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Like a Rolling Stone

Rock legend Al Kooper opens up to Princeton’s Sean Wilentz about making music with Bob Dylan, and more