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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)

Who was there then?

Paul Griffin, Bobby Gregg, Russ Savakus, and I think Al Gargoni, another guitar player. And all those guys knew me, so I sat down and it wasn’t a big deal, and I knew that would happen, so I said I’m cool. Then Bob comes in with Bloomfield, and it’s raining out, and [Bloomfield’s] got a white Telecaster guitar with no case, and it’s soaking wet. He walks in he grabs a towel wipes it off, sits down, has an amp, plugs in, and starts warming up. And I’m going, “Holy shit, this guy looks to be like my age!” And I’m hearing him playing better than anybody I’d ever heard, just warming up. I went, “I’m so fucked.”

So, I lit up a cigarette and put my guitar in the case and I put in under the chair, and I went in the booth. I knew I didn’t have a fucking chance. That was smart, that was pretty smart, because I would have blown my thing with Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson of course didn’t come in till all this had transpired. So, I was cool, I was in the booth, and I didn’t do anything.

So, about an hour into the session they moved the organ player, Paul Griffin, onto the piano. So I walked over to Tom Wilson and said, “Why don’t you let me play the organ I got a good part for it.” Total bullshit, I had nothing. He looked at me and he said, “What you talking about? You a guitar player.” Then his assistant said, “Tom, you got a call on line one.” He hadn’t said no, he just called me a guitar player. So, I go out to the organ, and thank god [Griffin] had left it turned on. It’s a 3-step process to turn a Hammond organ on, it’s complicated, and I really didn’t know how to do it, but it was on, so this is good. So then [Wilson] comes back from the phone call and you can hear him, you can hear him on the tape “What are you doing out there?” And the guys laugh cause they’re thinking the same thing, what is he doing at the organ, he’s a guitar player. Tom has a little laugh and he goes, “Come on let’s go,” because he knew I was a studio musician and I wasn’t gonna fuck it up.

So, I’m out there and I can’t hear the organ because the speaker is way far away from me with blankets over it. So, what the fuck am I gonna do now? But I know when I’m playing, I know what it sounds like, and thank god the song was in the key of C, the people’s key, so that was good. There were a couple of false starts and takes, meanwhile I’m learning it, and I didn’t have any music to read so I just scratched out a little part for myself, the chords. So, I’m playing and where I hadn’t learned it, I laid out—unlike Bloomfield who made a lot of mistakes. So, about four takes later, for the first time they played this song all the way through, and that’s the take, so because it was the first complete take of the day, take 4, Tom Wilson said, “We’re gonna play that back if ya’ll wanna come inside.”

So, they go in the booth, and I’m very low key, and I’m actually hearing the organ for the first time, because I can’t hear it. It plays for about a minute, and Dylan goes over to Tom Wilson and he goes, “Turn the organ up,” and that was the moment for me.

Dylan heard something that he just loved?

I won’t go that far, but he was buying it. I was going to myself, “I barely know this, but I didn’t commit any errors.” And so then we went out and we did 10 more takes, but Bobby Gregg lost the tempo.

I always wondered when listening to those tapes, why after the first full one, you kept going?

Well, because that was what they did back then. They tried to do it better, but this was going awry. It was going so far from better, and I had to shut up, I couldn’t say anything, but it was way too fucking fast. If you listened to the whole session, which I have, and I’ve played it for other people, there’s no contest that no other take on that tape is usable. It’s just that miracle moment or six moments, where it worked well enough for some reason. You also got to realize that Bob is singing live, so he’s a very big participant in it being good.

You had not met him before that first session?

No.

So, you meet Bob Dylan and then, boom, you cut “Like a Rolling Stone”?

And you know, I don’t know “Like a Rolling Stone” from anything, it’s another fucking song. But you know there was a gospel thing in it for me, and that was my approach. I played the gospel kind of organ, that’s all gospel shit, it’s not rock ’n’ roll, and that’s my background.

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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