Like a Rolling Stone
Rock legend Al Kooper opens up to Princeton’s Sean Wilentz about making music with Bob Dylan, and more
I left out something. In this time period when I was a songwriter, there was a club on 47th between 8th and 9th, it was owned by the Mafia, and it was a gospel night club. It was called the Sweet Chariot, and you’d walk in, and all they served was soul food, and they had a bar of course, and the waitresses were dressed as angels. When they’d seat you at a table, everyone at the table would get a tambourine. So, for me, this was the greatest bar in New York. And they had unbelievable gospel singers there and I didn’t have to worry about going into a black church. This was like white people watching black people, so I swear I went there every night. That was my hang. I certainly didn’t pay to get in, I was a regular. So, they had a house band, a drummer and an organ player, and the organ player played bass on the organ with his feet on a pedal board. I’d listen to this organ player every night, he was phenomenal. So, after I got famous for playing on “Like a Rolling Stone,” Tom Wilson asked me to play on a session for a band he was auditioning, and that was The Blues Project.
Who was in the band at that point?
Everyone including Tommy Flanders. There was no keyboard player, so he wanted me to play keyboards on their audition session. So, I played and then at the end of the session they asked me to dinner or lunch the next day, so I figured they were going to make a deal with me to play on their whole album for so much money. This was pretty soon after “Like a Rolling Stone,” like maybe, three months. And they asked me to join the band, and I thought, this is a great idea, because I can’t play the fucking organ, and I’m being called to play on organ sessions coming out of my fucking ears. I said, I could rehearse with them, and improve my keyboard skills, so this is a good idea.
I just want to take you back to Highway 61 for a second, and have you tell the story about the police whistle. What were you doing with that?
I mean it was a thing you bought at a novelty store, so I bought it. People were smoking pot, you can do that and it would scare somebody. It was a joke! So, I actually had it around my neck, and it wasn’t really appropriate for the Dylan session but I used to wear it around. So, when we were doing the song “Highway 61 Revisited,” I thought, boy it would be great on this. So, I said to Bob—I’m now comfortable with him, so I said, “Here, why don’t you play this instead of the harmonica? It’d be great.” So, he laughed, and he wrapped it around his neck, and then he used it. It cracked everybody up, especially me, and I never got it back!
So, you get the house band gig at the Café Au Go Go, and The Blues Project is really taking off.
I’m making this transition from songwriter and studio musician to rock band guy, and I’m still doing the other stuff, especially the studio work, because that’s how I’m living. I’m playing on a lot of sessions with a lot of people. Then they asked me to do the Blonde on Blonde sessions, first in New York and then in Nashville. It was the very first time I’d ever recorded outside of New York City—and my career was off in another direction, which is a whole other story.
And, alas, a story for another occasion. But quickly, looking back, if I asked you what you make of it all, what springs to mind?
Well, I think I’ve been a really lucky Jewish guy from Queens. But we’ve only talked about the good stuff.
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