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Al Kooper: a lot like a Rolling Stone

January 14, 2009 |  1:33 pm

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Al Kooper’s memoir, "Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards," was reissued in an updated edition in 2008; the Zelig of the music world was on hand last night at Book Soup to take questions about his undeniable musical talent and his propensity for being in the right places at the right (and sometimes the very wrong) times.

But first: the story about the organ.

In 1965, the 21 year-old Kooper found himself at the recording session for Bob Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone." A number of session men had already been called in, but Kooper, a young Tin Pan Alley songwriter and no session stranger himself, was on the wrong side of the soundproof wall. Producer Tom Wilson invited Kooper to come watch the recordings, but that was it.

When, after running the song a couple of times, Dylan decided that the organ part would be more suited for piano, Kooper saw his chance and jumped in -- even though he didn’t know how to turn the organ on.

The rest is history, or perhaps an eighth note behind history, because Kooper’s tentative organ melody came to be known -- hilariously, to both him and Dylan -- as the defining signature of Dylan’s new rock 'n' roll sound.

Kooper, attired in sunglasses and a swank black jacket, informed the audience that he’d lost 2/3 of his sight, so he would take questions in lieu of reading.

When someone in the audience asked where he got the guts to just hop on to an instrument he didn’t know how to play, Kooper offered, “I didn’t think of it as guts. I thought of it as ambition.”

Kooper’s book tells the ins and outs of his 51-year career in music. Always winking and never self-important, he talks about forming the supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, only to be summarily kicked out. One night, he saw a promising young band from Atlanta and signed them to MCA, with the only catch being that they’d have to change the spelling of their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd. In 1980, Kooper faced the mordant task of having to produce a George Harrison session the morning after John Lennon had been shot in New York city. Harrison, who Kooper describes as “visibly shaken,” nonetheless made a full day’s work out of it.

What it was like to play on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and more, after the jump.

Kooper spoke about playing on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." He was supposed to have been on vacation when he got cornered on London's High Street by a very enthusiastic Brian Jones. Kooper caved.

"After we were done recording it," Kooper said, "they pulled up these two trucks full of food. It was like someone was getting married. I was very impressed. I had dinner and dessert."

Asked about his feelings on the record industry's current state, Kooper replied, "It's dying, and I'm enjoying watching it die. I hope that I live long enough to attend each and every record company’s funeral."

His "staff employee" status at Sony Records kept Kooper from making millions of dollars in producer's royalties. This same loophole also bilked George Martin -- the man who produced the Beatles but never saw a dime from it. "You'd think the Beatles would have thrown him something. Maybe they did. It must have been very quiet."

The most interesting story of the night was how, at 12 years old, Kooper met an older boy at summer camp who told him that he should put down the ukulele he'd been strumming and pick up a guitar. "A guitar is much hipper than a ukulele," the boy informed him. Kooper learned the guitar fast ("It’s only got two more strings.") and the two became friends.

The older kid, whose name was Danny Schactman, eventually took an eighth-grade Kooper to a meeting with his musical manager. Yes, his manager. And that was how Kooper soon found himself a new member of the band The Royal Teens. You might have heard their big hit. It was called "Short Shorts."

Of course, as Kooper pointed out, this story, like all the others, "is in the book."

For more on Kooper, check out his 2004 interview on "Fresh Air", and his website, which includes diary postings "South By Southwest Jr. A Slight Return" and "Jagged Little Brill." It's good stuff.

-- George Ducker

Photo: Al Kooper at Book Soup. Credit: George Ducker.

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