Last fall, the people at Tablet asked if I’d be willing to interview my friend Kooper: just put a recorder between us and talk. A couple of months later, Al and I sat in his living room and switched on the little machine and talked about growing up Jewish in black churches, meeting Elvis, playing on “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan, and hearing Mike Bloomfield play for the first time. With a bit of editing, this is part of what we said. It’s always a treat to see him and his wife Susan in situ: It means a fine supper, some wonderful chat, and listening to all sorts of stuff from his suitably enormous music collection.
If you keep your ears and eyes open, you might catch word of Al performing, and he always appears in February at his annual birthday bash at B.B. King’s near Times Square. He’s lost not a step. Many more of his stories appear in his acclaimed book, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, which is still very much in print. And, since you’re reading this on the Internet, go and check out his exceptional music blog, “New Music for Old People.” For now, though, read him getting right to the point at hand.
Al Kooper: Culturally, one of the things I don’t like about the Jewish religion is that you can’t play instruments in temple as part of the service, like you can in Baptist places. So, I have attended more services in black Baptists churches than in temple. Why can’t they put instruments into temples? It would increase attendance. All you got is some guy blowing the shofar.
Another thing was, at both my parents’ funerals the rabbi didn’t allow me to play the organ, and I wanted to play the organ. However, when my father-in-law died, they let me.
Sean Wilentz: In shul?
No, I think it was in a funeral home. But it bugs me. Because, I mean, I am Jewish. At the core of me I’m Jewish, that’s how I was raised, that’s what I am, that’s what I’ll always will be, through and through. Still, the church got me too, because of the music.
When did you first notice that?
When I was 13, we got bused to a bad neighborhood for junior high school. I started seeing people I had never seen before on an everyday basis. And so we were exchanging musical things that we liked, and I was very into doo-wop music. They said well have you heard so and so, and they started mentioning gospel groups and I said no. They said, “Well, that’s where all this doo-wop music came from.” They played it for me and I lost my mind.
I’ve got to add, though, that this wasn’t all. My father bought me a Perry Como album when I was very young and it had songs of faith on it, but, he sang “Eli Eli” and “Kol Nidre” with a gigantic orchestra and chorus, nothing you could hear in services. This moved me tremendously, and I mean to this day I can listen to it because his singing is fabulous. He sang in Hebrew and he pronounced all the words. To this day it’s phenomenal. Every year at the New Year, I would drag that album out and play it. But it was Elvis who really changed me.
Elvis wasn’t going to do “Kol Nidre.” He was going to do a lot of songs of faith but nothing Jewish.
He could have done what Perry did, it would have been great. I was an Elvis fanatic. I actually met him. The guy who signed me as a song writer got his money from writing Elvis songs.
Who was that?
Aaron Schroeder. He wrote “Stuck on You” and “It’s Now or Never,” and a few others. He got a lot of money for it, and so, when Dick Clark was on trial for payola [and] had to divest himself of his publishing company, Schroeder bought it. He had to do it fast, so he probably got a good deal. It was full of hit songs like “At the Hop” and all that stuff. That was the company I was signed to when I got my first publishing deal. I was 16.
Where does Elvis fit into all that?
Well, Elvis changed my life.
What was the story about you meeting him in ’62?
Oh, that was so great. He came up to see Aaron, and I worked at Aaron’s office. And it was in a building on 56th between 5th and 6th. So, you come in and go up the elevator, and there’s a big waiting room. Here there were cubicles where we all wrote songs, and then a big stairway going up, and that’s where the master dwelled. And so we were hanging out in the waiting room and Elvis walked in with his entourage. I nearly died, and I shook his hand. I had to; I said I have to shake your hand. He said “No problem.” I considered not washing it. The first Elvis I ever heard was “Heartbreak Hotel.” I heard it on the radio and I envisioned a black man with a pork pie hat playing the piano with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
Right, so, you were already into, or getting into, black music when Elvis changed your life.
I was into black music because of my babysitter. She was a couple years older than me, so let’s say when I was 10 or 11, and she was 13, and my parents would leave, and maybe 15 minutes after my parents left, all these kids would come over with phonograph records and fill my living room, listening to music and dancing. And then I started buying and stealing records ’cause I didn’t have a lot of money.
You were in Queens at this point, right?
Yeah, there was a record store in Windsor Park, which is walking distance from my house. In fact I saved up money to buy Elvis’ second album, and it was Election Day and I didn’t have school and I was like, I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to go down and get it. It was coming out that day. And so I said, well I’ll go early and wait till they open. So, I got on my bike and I got hit by a car.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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Sean Wilentz teaches at Princeton and writes widely on American history, arts, and letters.
Sean Wilentz teaches at Princeton and writes widely on American history, arts, and letters.