[26 March 2009]
Al Kooper has accomplished much during his 50 years in the music business. His career dates back to the late ‘50s when he was a member of the Royal Teens, a band most famous for the hit single “Short Shorts”. Kooper later co-wrote Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ first big song, “This Diamond Ring”, though Kooper intended it to be an R&B number for the Drifters. He co-founded two legendary groups, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. In addition, Kooper conned his way into recording in the studio with Bob Dylan. His distinctive organ sound makes Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” so instantly recognizable. Kooper has also recorded with Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Steven Stills, B.B. King, the Who, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Cream and a host of other luminaries. As a record-company honcho, he signed the Zombies to Elektra where the band released its seminal Odyssey and Oracle disc and later produced Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first three albums.
But you won’t hear any of that stuff here on his 50/50 retrospective box set. This 50-track collection mostly culls material from his six solo LPs recorded under his own name: I Stand Alone (1968), You Never Know Who Your Friends Are (1969), Easy Does It (1970), New York City (You’re A Woman) (1971), A Possible Projection of the Future/Childhood’s End (1972) and Naked Songs (1973). He also includes a couple of tracks he recorded with 15-year-old blues sensation Shuggie Otis, a half-dozen previously unreleased songs and a few other assorted goodies.
Kooper, a great artist who should be more famous in light of his many accomplishments, belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame much more than many others who have already been admitted. (Consider him the musical equivalent of Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo). True rock fans and historians know his worth. Others should look it up, as this collection offers a fine place to start.
The Brooklyn native has a predilection for gospel and frequently adds jazz and R&B flourishes to his rock numbers. Although he has a somewhat reedy voice and a Jewish upbringing, he has the chutzpah to cover songs like the spiritual, “Touch the Hem of His Garment”, made famous by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. Damn, if he doesn’t pull it off! Kooper plays piano and organ and provides all vocals on an arrangement that sounds like it was recorded right out of a storefront church on Sunday morning. It oozes sincerity and grace, without a touch of irony.
The same can be said of his original composition, “John the Baptist”, which comes complete with a vocal choir, horn arrangement and instrumentation provided by studio stars Carol Kaye on bass and Bobbi Hall on percussion. Kooper may or may not really mean what he’s singing, and who knows what goes on in the human soul? But he sings it like he means it with an emotional warmth and urgency.
Speaking of faith, Kooper takes on the subject explicitly in the weirdly wonderful, “Living in My Own Religion”. Here he rejects the notion of organized beliefs and espouses his own spiritual search. This leads him to appreciate and love God in his own way through music (“I will serve you Lord until I sing my last song”). The egocentricity would be unpalatable without the clear honesty in which Kooper conveys his creed. He doesn’t care if you mock him or find him insincere. He’s comfortable with his faith and sings proudly.
While gospel music infects much of his music, Kooper plays rock, and his concerns are mostly worldly. This can lead to funk, as in the sexy “Test Drive”, which takes automobile double entendres to a new level of sultriness. He offers many odes to special ladies, from “Earth Mother” to “Lucille” to “Camille” to “Jolie” to a “Peacock Lady”, but the female he loves most takes the form of the Big Apple.
The title “New York City” (You’re a Woman)” suggests some Frank Sinatra/Billy Joel-type tribute to Manhattan. In these post 9/11 days, it seems heretical to curse the Empire City, but Kooper’s singular quality is to always be honest. (“Be Yourself Be Real” is the title of another fine cut on this anthology.) When Kooper wrote this song in 1971, New York City was not doing so well. (Check out the television show “Life on Mars” for a depiction of the burg in the early seventies.) When Kooper starts out crooning of a sophisticated piano line, “New York City / You’re a woman”, he immediately follows the line with “Cold-hearted bitch / Ought to be your name”. Kooper remains unafraid to tell it as it is.
This compilation swells with marvelous material, as Kooper’s large oeuvre lets him cherry pick tunes, with nary a clunker here. But don’t go looking for this box set at a bricks-and-mortar store. It’s only available as a digital download, with all the tracks newly remastered. You can read and download the interactive liner notes online at Kooper’s webpage (http://www.alkooper.com).