Before today, Al Kooper hadn’t put out a solo record in twenty-nine years. And it wasn’t for a lack of material: The musician/producer had accumulated about 140 songs since his previous album. He cherry-picked his favorites, along with a few choice blues and soul covers, for Black Coffee, released on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations.
“Like me in 1972, he is a recording artist who started his own label,” Kooper says of Vai. “But I signed Lynyrd Skynyrd. I guess he’s not going to be that lucky with me.”
In addition to his solo recordings, Kooper has contributed to some of rock’s most famed recordings: He played the signature organ riff on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and provided the French horn for the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He produced Skynyrd’s first three albums, as well as records by artists ranging from blues legend B.B. King to New Wavers the Tubes.
A member of the Blues Project in the mid-Sixties, Kooper founded Blood, Sweat and Tears, but he left after 1968’s critically acclaimed Child Is Father to the Man. He went on to play sessions with Jimi Hendrix, the Who and George Harrison, and he teamed with guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Stephen Stills to record Super Session (Kooper is currently assembling a Bloomfield box set).
Despite his many successes, the sixty-one-year-old Kooper has had a love/hate relationship with the music business. After releasing 1976’s revealingly titled Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, he pulled the plug on his solo career, before retiring from the music business altogether in 1989.
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Now, the reenergized Kooper is back, and doesn’t plan to ever stop playing.
Why did it take nearly three decades to release a new album?
When Act Like Nothing’s Wrong came out, at the time it was the best that I could do. United Artists took out a big ad campaign and gave me tour support for a big three-month album tour with a large band, and everything was done right. So I said to myself, “If this doesn’t do well, I am going to quit doing this and concentrate on producing records and other things, because I’m just wasting my time.” It didn’t do well, so I kept my word. In 1989, I left the music business altogether, and, of course, my life was much happier. Then about ten years ago, I had some really good material and my skills had improved, and I wanted to make this album. But I realized that I had painted myself into a corner: from about fifty years old, it’s not easy to get a record deal. Through a weird chain of events, I was offered a deal at age sixty, and I went, “Yeah, now I can make that album.” And here it is.
Describe the musical evolution between your last album and this one.
I’m the same person, except that I am playing better, I am writing better, and, finally, I got to be a better singer. I have been lambasted over the years for not being a good singer. I feel like I’m learning something every day, and that’s a good way to feel when you are this age. When I was in my twenties, I took a lot of chances and wrote very complicated music. As I got older, I stopped doing that, and the music got a little simpler and the lyrics got better.
Why didn’t you like the music business?
I didn’t belong there. I just was surrounded by a lot of things that always made me uncomfortable — mostly dishonesty and greed, two things that I am not particularly good at. I kept my eyes open because I saw other artists around me whose windows had shut and they didn’t really know it. When I saw that in other people, I thought it was not good and undignified, and I wanted to preserve whatever small amount of dignity I had left after all my years in the music business. I just watched for the time I felt my window had shut, and in 1989 I left L.A. and moved to Nashville. I had to get out of there.
Is there a balancing act of keeping your music fresh and unique but not chasing pop music sounds?
I am the antithesis of that. A long time ago, I decided the music I liked and wanted to play — old-time soul music, or what they call deep soul music — so I spent all this time trying to learn how to play it as best I could. That is what I continue to do. I just like so many different kinds of music that they pervade my consciousness.
Tell me about the new song “My Hands Are Tied.”
That is a song that I wrote to emulate “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which I was doing live — mostly because I played on the original record and it was a great key for me to sing in. I wrote it like Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones, in that it had horns in it and it was something that I could really picture Mick Jagger singing.
Tell me about “Going, Going, Gone,” which you co-wrote with Dan Penn [“The Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet”].
It’s a very personal song about growing old, about how they stop making the things that you like to buy as you get older, until you wake up one day and you are a senior citizen, and they don’t make anything that you like.
What is your life like these days?
I had a very tough year in 2001. I lost two-thirds of my sight and also had unrelated brain surgery. Universally in this country, that was a really bad year for everybody. There were a lot of other things that happened to me that were bad — but I am just glad that I survived everything. I am totally used to my sight situation now, and I can deal with it. I thank God that it wasn’t my hands or my ears.
I play as much as I can. I have three ways of performing: One is solo, which is a lot of fun because it gets the frustrated comedian out of me. Then I have two bands, the Funky Faculty, who are all teachers at the Berklee School of Music, where I used to teach. That is the band that plays on this album, and it’s been together six years. The other band is the Rekooperators, which is made up of the TV people — Jimmy Vivino and Mike Merritt [from Late Night With Conan O’Brien] and Anton Fig [from Late Show With David Letterman]. Obviously, we can’t play out too much because they are on TV every night. We’ve been together twelve years and play weekends every once in a while.
Is this the happiest time in your life?
No. Physically, it is very tough. When I turned sixty, I started to feel sixty. The wildest I ever was was in the Seventies, and I was really happy in the Sixties because I felt like I was part of this renaissance of music that was so strong and permeated everybody. Now, I’m just grateful I can live out my years doing what I love. B.B. King is going to play until he goes, and John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters played until they went. And that is what I would like to do.