Hidden history

Guitarist-keyboardist-singer-songwriter and living legend Al Kooper is coming to town, and it may occur to some that the name is familiar but the accomplishments are vague. Isn’t he some kind of blues guy — and isn’t there some kind of Bob Dylan connection? Well, yeah. In fact, Kooper has one of the great “secret histories” in popular music. Pull up a chair and we’ll peruse the bio.

Let’s see: Born in Brooklyn in 1944, something of a musical prodigy, joined a doo-wop group, yada yada … Oh, wait, now here’s something interesting: played guitar with the Royal Teens, whose monster 1958 hit “Short Shorts” is an instantly retrievable core memory for anyone old enough to have listened to a lot of (one hesitates to say “rock”) radio way back then. “Who wears short shorts?/We wear short shorts” — see K-Tel’s Goofy Greats.

After this first brush with immortality, Kooper began to settle into a career as a songwriter and session man, writing a hit for Gene Pitney (“I Must Be Seeing Things”) and seeing a song he co-wrote and originally intended for the Drifters — “This Diamond Ring” — become the one and only chart-topper for Gary Lewis and The Playboys. They can still be seen, in a vintage tape, performing it almost every Saturday night on one of AMC’s “American Pop” segments. Their version really sucks, though one can imagine what the Drifters could have done with it.

Now things get a little more serious with Kooper landing an organ gig on Bob Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited sessions. (He just happened to be there, via friend and producer Tom Wilson.) He contributed mightily to the album’s odd circusy sound and devised a famous melodic accompaniment to “Like a Rolling Stone,” one which so nailed its special mix of pathos and exhilaration that he should have gotten a writer co-credit. Kooper also played organ on Dylan’s 1966 follow-up, Blonde On Blonde, the last of the gnomic troubadour’s mad poetry outbursts before he went into perpetual regrouping.

But before that, in 1965, Kooper joined the Blues Project, a group which tempered its blues with rock and jazz sensibilities, an eclectic mix that foreshadowed the multicultural music binge of the late ’60s, when you could hear Motown, John Coltrane, Otis Redding and the Jefferson Airplane in the space of an hour on the same radio station and it didn’t seem odd. With the Blues Project Kooper was finally on the map, a star player rather than a session man. But the group was a little too hip for the room, too original to pan out commercially, while destined to be considered seminal and essential and all that.

With his next group, Blood, Sweat & Tears, he was once again ahead of the curve, writing most of the material for its 1967 debut album, Child is the Father to the Man. This album which suggested one of the several possible roads fusion could have taken — one where a traditional horn section was given a lot of breathing space — before Miles finally gave up the blueprint with the electric densities of Bitches Brew. Child was the group’s best album, but it sold squat and Kooper left, David Clayton-Thomas became the lead singer, the band’s approach was tamed and made more poppish and they sold millions. Ironic, ain’t it?

In the ’70s Kooper released a series of albums featuring his old friend guitarist Michael Bloomfield that got a mixed critical reaction, being either incisive examples of modern blues playing or self-indulgent jams depending on … well, depending on, as all these things do, how you hear it. Less visible in the ’80s, he reappeared in 1994 with Rekooperation and the live career overview Soul of a Man.

And now he’s coming to town for a concert that promises to be deep blues and high energy. No longer ahead of the curve, he fits snugly into it, where primo musicianship abides until a smartly appreciative audience comes along. Which would be you.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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