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Al Kooper: Rock’n’Roll’s Unlikely Session Star

With younger fans discovering rock, Verve Records felt the need to branch out. Enter the Blues Project a band that included by Brooklyn native Al Kooper.

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Al Kooper

In 1965 Verve Records was moving into uncharted territory. From its heyday with Norman Granz, when it was releasing classic recordings through to the early 1960s when Creed Taylor took over and found immediate success with all things Brazilian, most notably Getz/Gilberto, the label had been exclusively jazz. But with younger fans discovering rock, Verve felt the need to branch out. Enter The Blues Project a band that included by 21 year old Brooklyn native Al Kooper who was already something of a legend.

Born on 5 February 1944, Kooper’s first musical success was as a fourteen-year-old playing guitar with The Royal Teens, who in 1958 had a No.3 hit on the Hot 100 with the bluesy novelty song, ‘Short Shorts’. By 1960, Kooper had co-written ‘This Diamond Ring’, which became a hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Becoming part of the Greenwich Village scene in the mid-60s Kooper played the organ on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which is when he met and became friends with the brilliant guitar player, Mike Bloomfield.

According to Kooper, Dylan exploded through the studio door with a “bizarre looking guy who was carrying a Fender Stratocaster without a case”. A fact made more bizarre because a storm was raging outside and the guitar was soaking wet. This was Mike Bloomfield, a twenty-one year old native of Chicago, who had been signed to Columbia by the legendary John Hammond, but who ended up joining the Paul Butterfield Blues band in 1963. Kooper, who was six months younger than Bloomfield, had pretty much invited himself to the session. He was also a guitar player but as soon as he heard Bloomfield warming up he realized that he was no match for one of the greatest ever blues guitarists.

After spending some time running through the first two songs, but not achieving the kind of results Dylan wanted, they switched their attention to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. At first Paul Griffin was seated at the Hammond organ but Dylan decided he wanted him to play what he’d been playing on the piano instead. For Al Kooper this was his opportunity – one that would change his life. “I’ve got a great organ part for the song.” Is how he put it to the producer. “Al”, who Tom Wilson knew well, “you don’t even play the organ.” Before Kooper could argue his case Wilson was distracted and so the twenty-one year old, ‘former guitar player’, simply walked into the studio and sat down at the B3.

Kooper can be heard coming in an eighth-note just behind the other members of the band, the reason being he was desperately trying to follow what they were playing and wanted to be sure of playing the proper chords. During a playback of tracks in the control room, when asked about the organ track, Dylan was emphatic: “Turn the organ up!”

The Blues Project had originally got together in Greenwich Village in 1964 and when Kooper joined the band, shortly after his Dylan session, they secured a recording contract with Verve in the autumn of 1965 and by November they began recording their album, Live at the Cafe Au Go Go. According to Al Kooper, “It was a new era for Verve and we were actually on a spinoff label – Verve Forecast. So it’s not the historical label – more the hysterical one.” At this time the band was Danny Kalb on Lead Guitar, Vocals, Steve Katz; Rhythm Guitar, drummer Roy Blumenfeld, Andy Kulberg on Bass, singer, Tommy Flanders and Kooper on organ. They covered Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Howlin Wolf and even a Donovan song.

They recorded their second album, Projections in 1966 that came out in November, that again had covers of traditional blues tunes, several originals by Al Kooper, along with a fabulous arrangement by Kooper of ‘I Can’t Keep From Crying’. As the album was coming out the band began falling apart with Kooper leaving in the spring of 1967 and their last fanfare as a group was at the Monterey International Pop Festival held in California, in June 1967.

Kooper and Katz formed Blood, Sweat & Tears and began recording their debut in November 1967, the essential, Child Is Father to The Man. Kooper was still only 23 years old and only lasted that one album before quitting. Thereafter he recorded numerous solo albums, produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, made some momentous albums with Mike Bloomfield, played with Hendrix, the Stones and numerous others as well as writing what is one of the greatest ever books by a musician – Backstage Passes: Rock ‘n’ Roll Life In The Sixties.

Listen to The Blues Project here

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Cheryl Bianchi

    February 8, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    cliched as it may sound, met Al at the Rainbow Room in the late 80’s…we have stayed friends all these years…he is freaking encyclopedic about music …great raconteur, he can keep you entertained for hours with his tales of life on the rock n roll train…he is such a dear soul…you can get a weekly column from him on his current musical explorations thru The Morton Report…so worthwhile…he is still deeply invested in discovering new music and digging deeper into old. The column is called New Music for Old People or something like that.

  2. Lisa Sez

    February 12, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Agreed and ditto on all counts Cheryl…

    Lovely..

  3. Andy

    February 5, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    When is Al going to get what he truly deserves. Induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

    • uDiscover

      February 6, 2017 at 7:14 am

      Andy, we agree. A much overlooked pioneer

  4. Tim

    February 5, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    Big fan of Kooper and The Blues Project. Saw them at the Village Theater, later Fillmore East, at least twice and at Murray the K’s 1967 Easter Review. I was a 16-year old Jersey kid in the city looking for music and adventure. Found both. Blood Sweat and Tears were great with Kooper, but went shitty when the brought in the uncharasmitic and boring David Clayton Thomas.

  5. Howard Groopman

    February 7, 2019 at 1:07 am

    “Projections” is easily in the top 10 in my collection. Superb. I saw Kooper-Bloomfield aka Super Session at the Fillmore East, probably in 1967 or 1968. Saw Al do an excellent solo show in 2007. He hung around afterwards and signed some autographs. I got one on the poster for that night’s show and another one on the Fillmore program. He was kind of gruff and not too disposed to converse. He’s also legally blind or very close to that.

    “Child is Father to the Man” is also an excellent recording, another real favorite.
    I also have a couple of the Super Session albums.

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