Al Kooper: Fifty/Fifty

This compilation swells with marvelous material, as Kooper’s large oeuvre lets him cherry pick tunes, with nary a clunker here.

Al Kooper


Contributors: I couldn't locate this release at Amazon.
Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2009-02-17
UK Release Date: 2009-02-17

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 (


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

Time has dulled the once vibrant approach of the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.

When drummer Jimmy Chamberlin quit or was fired from the Smashing Pumpkins in 2009, he announced that he was going to focus his attention on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. This was good news. The Complex's 2005 debut Life Begins Again was freewheeling and colorful, filled to the brim with psychedelia, heavy pop, and heaping dose of post-rock. Billy Corgan was there, Rob Dickinson was there, even Bill Medley contributed to a track.

Keep reading... Show less

Jesús Carrasco's debut is a tale of psychological brutality that is as rich as it is slow.

If you were born in the '80s or '90s, you may relate to the experience of picking up a videogame -- one frowned upon by the gaming community for being too difficult or frustrating -- and finding it delightfully to your taste, as it recalls the unwieldy and impractical adventures you grew up with. Such a game, you might feel, belongs to another age.

I could say the same of Jesús Carrasco's debut novel Out in the Open, the original edition of which caused quite the sensation in 2013, when it was first published in Spain. Reading it now, in Margaret Jull Costa's translation, feels very much like reading a book from another age, with a pace and a sense of focus that are quite unlike those of most published fiction today.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.