Al Kooper: An Appreciation in Three Songs

by Christian Fulghum:

Al Kooper. If you are of a certain age, and have a thing for reading liner notes, this name conjures up memories of really great vinyl records from the mid-sixties until at least the mid-seventies. But perhaps you were not a liner-note nerd, or perhaps you are a bit young to remember the body of work that Al Kooper touched, and the creative ripples which emanated therefrom. Whether you know it or not, you have probably heard the influence of Al Kooper’s work as a sideman, arranger, producer, and musical catalyst. His discography is lengthy (see below), so I am going to select three songs from my own musical background that Al Kooper had a hand in and try to put those into a meaningful context.

The first song I can consciously associate with Al Kooper is Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” (1965), which he graced with an improvised soulful-yet-playful organ work. Al Kooper walked onto the session as a guest of producer Tom Wilson, and yet crafted the signature riff that identifies this rock classic. Dylan had been struggling with the song, initially having worked it up in 3/4 time. Kooper’s contribution helped to set the definitive version in stone (no pun intended? -Ed). This song marked Dylan’s transition to playing electric music, which upset the folk music purists, but won him a wider audience, and deepened his already-considerable influence on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, to name but a few. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, and initially held back by Columbia, it nonetheless topped the charts (Billboard at #2 and Cashbox at #1) and helped to sway the direction of popular music.

Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone (mono version)

The very young Mr. Kooper had made his mark, and he was just getting started.

The second song which I associate with Al Kooper is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” from The Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let it Bleed, produced by Jimmy Miller. The arrangement is just stunningly good. As a songwriter and recording artist, I have come to appreciate arrangements as the hidden secret of most great songs, second only to the songwriting itself in importance. Let’s break it down, and note how Al Kooper contributes something important throughout.

After the nearly one minute a cappella introduction by the London Bach Choir, Keith Richards’ acoustic starts up the song, accompanied at first by a French Horn melody (Al Kooper), and Mick Jagger starts singing the first verse. As they sing a light first chorus, Latin percussion creeps in, upping the tempo just slightly. Then, as they hit the line, “…but if you try sometimes…” Kooper uses a descending piano figure over an organ swell to take the song into full stride, with a dramatic drum fill (Jimmy Miller, not Charlie Watts), electric guitar, bass, and congas. Kooper adds a bouncy Latin flavored piano (reminiscent of Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright”) as they go into the second verse. In the third verse, Kooper adds a gospel call-and-response organ, and brilliant organ swells and swooshing Jimmy Smith licks to keep everything pumping and grinding.

The Rolling Stones are in top form here, working with great material, and using the sonic palette of the studio with increasing confidence and fire.  Here is another great artist/band in transition. This was to be Brian Jones’ last album with the Stones, and it marked the beginning of Mick Taylor’s stellar stint with the band. It was also the first of three brilliant albums produced by Jimmy Miller, the others being “Exile on Main Street” and “Sticky Fingers.” (Around the same time, Ry Cooder taught Keith how to play open tuning, but that is another article.)

The Rolling Stones: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Beatles might have grabbed Al too, but he was pretty busy, and in the end George Harrison’s friend Billy Preston filled the bill nicely. As it was, Kooper produced three tracks from George Harrison’s Somewhere in England album, and also played with the three surviving Beatles on their John Lennon tribute, “All Those Years Ago.”

lynyrd skynyrd with al kooperThe third song I associate with Al Kooper came in 1974, when he produced an unknown band from Jacksonville, Florida, called Lynyrd Skynyrd. Once FM radio began to replace the tightly formatted AM standard, longer songs and song cycles (concept albums) became increasingly common. In case you missed the golden era of rock (1967–1974), it was the era of the half-ballad, half-rock song. Stellar exemplars would be Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” The Allman Brothers “Dreams,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” Produced in Doraville, Georgia, Al Kooper’s deft production gave it the authentic gritty sound it needed and allowed the band to be their unpolished selves. He even played the organ on the track under an assumed name (Roosevelt Gook).

Again, arrangement is everything. The song kicks off with Kooper’s churchy organ, acoustic guitar, and Billy Powell’s arpeggiated piano. It’s as if the listener has walked into a small Baptist church in a small town in the deep south on a quiet Sunday morning. A series of reverb-laden drum fills (evoking Mitch Mitchell’s floor tom on “Little Wing” or a calmer “Who’s Next” era Keith Moon) add drama and hint at the fire to come before Gary Rossington states the soaring primary counter melody on the slide guitar, and more acoustic guitars are layered in. Johnny Van Zandt’s soulful vocals enter, and verse by verse, the intensity steadily gradually builds until the rock finally breaks through in a hailstorm of notes at 5:08. Mellotron strings grace the later verses as well, though they are not credited. Played in the days before metronomic drumming, the song sways and swaggers, and manages to be both humble and majestic.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Free Bird 

I could have selected from countless other tracks graced by Al Kooper, whether as a session player, songwriter, producer, or recording artist. I chose three classic tracks, perhaps a little obvious, but perhaps not if you are younger than a baby boomer and just discovering the wonderful songwriters, arrangers, session players, engineers, producers, A&R executives, and others who were behind the music.

However you value his contribution, Al Kooper was there when it happened.

Al Kooper official website

Al Kooper selected discography