Blood, Sweat & Tears is the best thing to happen in rock and roll so far in 1968. It is Al Kooper’s new band, an eight-piece group split in two halves: four men, Al Kooper, Steve Katz, Bobby Colomby and Jim Fielder, in a rhythm section (organ, guitar, drums and bass, respectively) and four men in the horn section, Fred Lipsius, Randy Brecker, Dick Halligan and Jerry Weiss.
For sometime now, musicians have been talking about incorporating horns into their sound —— Butterfield and Bloomfield have already done it — but this is the first time a horn section has been used so strongly, so uniquely and tightly put together.
“I set out to use the horns in an integral way,” says Kooper, the band’s leader. “In addition to just riffing, we had to build a horn section which would be a strong, respected section above and beyond the band. We rehearsed the two parts of the group separately and then tied them together. A lot of the stuff isn’t written; we make it up on the gig. Now we listen to each other so well we can do nearly anything. The instrumentation in the band is very strange even in terms of number of people. Most rock bands don’t use a trombone or an alto sax. I wanted the alto because the alto can cry more than a tenor sax. It screams and cries and the band revolves around that alto sax. The sound and style of the band is the horn section.”
The horns are one of the three primary reasons that Blood, Sweat & Tears is a such a fine, exemplary group. The other two reasons are Kooper himself. He has the gift of an editor in that he can listen for, pick up and use to his own purposes and in his own way any musical bit, any line or melody from any musical form and use it in such a way that it becomes original again and his own.
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“My head,” explains Kooper, “is a cache of forty thousand riffs and figures. As opposed to being a virtuoso guitarist or organist, my talent — my virtuosity — is being able to put all those things in place.
“I only play one instrument really the ondioline, a French musical instrument. In order to get anything really valid out of it I had to study Coltrane, literally study like a college course. I had to wash my brain with Coltrane. I’ve played the ondioline on a few records. The best it’s ever sounded is on the last chorus in ‘Meagen’s Gypsy Eyes.’ The in-instrument itself is a little teensy keyboard, with 39 keys, all electric. It only plays one note at a time. The keyboard is suspended like a record changer. If you move it, you get vibrato. Just by pushing switches you get a range of eight octaves. You can’t buy one, though. There are only four in the country. McCartney had one. It’s on ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man.’ and on ‘Inner Light.’ It sort of sounds like a bagpipe or a soprano sax. The ondioline is my axe. I challenge anybody on it. I’d like to battle McCartney on it. He has used it very well, but his is more Indian based and mine’s thoroughly based on Coltrane.”
An excellent example of where Kooper and Blood, Sweat & Tears is at, is their yet-to-be-recorded single release, “Camille.” Kooper says the origin of the song is in “Le Domino Noir” by Hubert. “The overture to that opera is the music to ‘Camile,’ in other words it’s a steal. I am not very classically oriented, so when I do use something, it’s really far out. I only listen to stuff I can use. This particular classical piece had me strung out for two and a half years and finally I got to use it somewhere.
“I am influenced by many, many things. In this band, the influences are James Brown, Otis Redding, Tim Buckley, the Beatles, the Maynard Ferguson band of five years ago. We owe a lot to that band. There is a lot emulation as opposed to stone copying. The Four Tops and Percy Sledge are also my influences that are tied to the band. So are Ray Charles and Elizabeth Cotton.”
Kooper’s other talents are for composition and arranging. Some of the songs the band has recorded are just plain knockouts. They’re based in the blues, yet they are not the same blues that we keep hearing, and for that reason have an additional power to them. “Our blues,” says Kooper ‘is a crazy blues. In the arts people are lucky, they can channel their insanity into their form. A lot of us are nuts and music is our outlet. Their blues is a suffering blues. Our blues are a crazy blues.”
The horn section is a thing of beauty. The horns are poised against the rhythm section for a tension that is best compared to Paul McCartney’s “Got to Get You Into My Life” on Revolver. Kooper plays his Hammond for the horns and together they weave in and out in nearly perfect sympathy.
“It’s hard to do an integrated keyboard. When I arrange, I write for the horns what I would ordinarily play. Consequently I’m stuck for things to play and I find myself playing less and less.”
The most significant backgrounds, are those of the horn men; one was with Maynard Ferguson; one went to Berklee School of Music (the jazz school located in Boston) and the other two are from respectable, but unremunerative, jazz backgrounds. They are all professionals, handle themselves and their lines with accuracy and style, and contribute the tightest and most interesting horn section to be found in rock and roll, outside of Memphis and the studios where the Beatles recorded Revolver.
On the organ alone, Al Kooper is capable of taking a song down to its basic riff and rebuilding it piece by piece from their. When the band takes solos, they do so within the context of the song, not as most groups currently take theirs, strictly without thought for the context, or indeed with any context for soloing.
Of his own musicianship, Kooper says he never used to pay much attention to his organ playing but has begun to since he hatched his new group. “I am by no means a great organ player, but I think I could be. I never used to think so before. You can really fool yourself if you think you are. There are cats in places like topless clubs and Revere Beach who can cut me to shreds. I’m happy people like the way I play, cause for the first time I’me concentrating on trying to play better. For instance, the cats in the band can all cut me on keyboard. Steve and I are probably the weakest musicians in the group. We’d be your average rock and roll musicians.”
Blood, Sweat & Tears reflects the many subtle ways in which rock and roll has changed as the Beatles have gotten older. One of those changes is that more and more frequently, musicians in rock and roll bands are no longer amateurs “doing their thing” but professional musicians. This is the case with Blood, Sweat & Tears: Kooper is a well-known figure in the Eastern studio scene, was formerly with the Blues Project, and is, among other things, composer of “This Diamond Ring,” a top-40 hit by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Bassist Jim Fielder was once with the Mothers and once with Buffalo Springfield.
The band is not perfect, but it is so good that one can’t help but reflect on how, with a few additions, this group could be made into one that could go through Georgia like Sherman’s tanks: add Mike Bloomfield to lead guitar, Levi Stubbs (of the Tops) for vocals and Tim Davis (of Steve Miller Band) on drums.
But the point is that Blood, Sweat and Tears is excellent, and certainly much better than anyone would expect. Kooper quit the Blues Project (“I flipped out on Monday, left town on Thursday”) about a year ago. He traveled around the country, first to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco looking for people for a new band. All he found was Jim Fielder in Los Angeles. He heard others he wanted, but he couldn’t get them. Finally he decided to go to England and start from there.
Returning to New York, Kooper got himself together to go to London, except that he need some money. For the money, he agreed to gig a few weeks at the Cafe a Go Go, where he was accompanied by Fielder, Katz and Colomby, or what is now the rhythm section of the band. According to Kooper, they sounded so good, they decided to get the band together there and skip London altogether.
“We spent a month and a half period looking for the right horn thing. We rehearsed about two months, got fourteen tunes together and opened with Moby Grape at the A Go Go. Three different labels came around. Columbia seemed the most understanding, above and beyond the business aspect, so we signed.”
About the future of the band, Kooper says if they don’t “achieve some level of something we’ll have to fold for financial reasons. We’ve all got rents and bills to pay. Everybody’s been starving from the beginning and things haven’t gotten much better, but it’s sort of all gone.
“The people in the band are all going to stay together. We must believe in it. Just for them it should happen. The band turned out much better than we could have expected. And I’m very proud of the album, but we’ve eclipsed it. It just shows me we’re getting better all the time.”