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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)

We came in and worked 9 to 5 every day, and we wrote songs. Just all day long. It was insane. That’s when I first started smoking pot. There were these two guys from Jersey, Irwin Levine and Bob Brass. They were a little bit ahead of me, but I could catch on fast. So, they got me high and of course they picked on me. There’d be a bulletin board there and it would say “so-and-so needs a song” and there were other writers. So, everybody would be writing for these people and that’s what we did.

And hardly ever were the songs recorded by the people we wrote them for. “This Diamond Ring” we wrote for The Drifters, and it was a black song, and when I heard the Gary Lewis record I thought, this is the worst shit I ever heard in my life. Sometimes they’d have people come up to the office and we’d have to do our little dance for them, and we had quite a show, the three of us. I played the piano and the three of us sang, and it really was funny. But we were into it. We were called the “Three Wise Men,” for some reason that was our nickname.

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

In the same building as us at another publisher’s office were Feldman, Goldstein, and Gottehrer. They were another songwriting trio. They wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and some Bobby Vee songs, and “I Want Candy.” They were big. They did better than we did, they got more hits than we did. We had a lot of records, but they weren’t hits. So, I have a great collection of those, so then we finally did get a No. 1 record which was “This Diamond Ring.” Then we had a Top 20 after that which was “I Must Be Seeing Things,” by Gene Pitney. The beginning is, “Isn’t that my girl, and is that my best friend, aren’t they walking much too close together? And it don’t look like they’re talking about the weather, I must be seeing things.”

So, how do you get from there to The Blues Project?

Well, so I started knowing a lot of record producers, and one of the ones I knew was a guy named Tom Wilson who worked at Columbia Records. He was a 6’4” Harvard-educated black man. He was able to infuse his Harvard education with his inherent blackness. It was a very good thing, a great combo. I hung around with him a little bit, and he recorded a couple of our songs with different people. So, he invited me to a Dylan session, now by this time, 1965.

The Highway 61 sessions?

Yes. Well, actually the first one, which was the second day of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

I think it was July 16, 1965.

That’s correct. So, he invited me to the session to watch. He said, “You’re a Bob Dylan fan aren’t you? Would you like to come to a session on Thursday?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Now you come in and sit in the control room and be low key and we could both get away with this.” I said, “OK, thank you so much.” Meanwhile all this time I’d been in his office and I’d been stealing Dylan tapes that hadn’t come out yet and take them home and listen to them. So, what I’m fond of saying for this time period is that I was 90 percent ambition, and 10 percent talent, and that’s a New York Jewish thing. And my ambition, it was really strong.

What did you envisage yourself being in order to fulfill your ambition?

I didn’t know that; I just knew how to move along in the music business in New York.

Right, so you’re taking every chance, every opportunity.

I was playing everything, and I knew something was gonna work somewhere. So, by now I’m working a lot as a guitar player in the studio. I’m still no match for the big guys but I had my little niche. Sometimes I’d play piano.

So, Wilson had you in the control room?

Right. First I got there like an hour early and I said I wanna play guitar on this. And I practiced furiously, and so I got there an hour early, and if you were a studio guy you belonged to this thing called the guitar club, which meant that you didn’t have to bring an amp to a session. Guitar club had amps at every studio, and you paid $20 a month and you got a key, and the key worked in all the amps, which was a great idea! So, we just had to bring guitars, so I brought a guitar, and I got there early and I was just gonna tell Tom Wilson that I misunderstood him. I could get away with that because I’d played sessions. So, I got there early and I plugged in and sat down—ambition. I knew all the other musicians because they were all studio musicians, and they had nothing to do with Bob Dylan.

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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.

Great chronology. If you can tell from an interview, Kooper seems like a modest guy. We grew up in same neighborhood. I hung out at Surrey’s Luncheonette. Al Kooper played in a band with one of my older brother’s close childhood friends, Eric Krakow. The friend he mentions who was a bass player is probably Harvey Goldstein, who lived around the corner from me on Manor Road Queens Village. Sometime probably early ’60′s I heard Walk Don’t Run blaring from Harvey’s apartment where he lived with his parents. I called up from the street “hey Harvey, put that on again.” Harvey looked out the window and said: “whatta ya mean, put it on, that was me playing it.” So he played a bit more. I guess he played some electric guitar as well as the bass Will try to catch Al Kooper…I think he plays The Cutting Room in Manhattan from time to time. Thanks for nicely done history.

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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