Industry Profile: Al Kooper
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Al Kooper: musician/songwriter/producer/author.
Al Kooper just spent a year overseeing the magnificent three-CD-with-DVD box set, “From His Head To His Heart To His Hands,” chronicling the career of American guitarist Michael Bloomfield, one of the finest musicians to emerge from the white-blues rock fusion of the 1960s.
“From His Head To His Heart To His Hands,” released Feb. 4th 2014, features historical recordings of Bloomfield--in the studio and in live performances—as well as with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Electric Flag; and tracks recorded with Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and Janis Joplin. Also included is an outstanding documentary, “Sweet Blues: A Film about Michael Bloomfield,” directed by Bob Sarles.
Kooper, who compiled and produced the set along with executive producer Bruce Dickinson, intended that the box set be exactly what his friend--who died in 1981--would have wanted.
So this box set took time to assemble, and it shows.
It’s flat-out brilliant.
“From His Head To His Heart To His Hands” may be the standard all future historical-styled music box sets will be gauged against.
Born into a wealthy family on the North Side of Chicago, Michael Bloomfield was the preeminent white blues guitarist in America in the late sixties. As a teenager, he spent time in Chicago's South Side blues clubs, performing with such notable bluesmen as Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, and Little Brother Montgomery.
Among Bloomfield’s earliest supporters were B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy.
In 1964 Bloomfield was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond Sr. While recording a handful of promising tracks, Bloomfield would leave the label, and join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which helped bring Chicago-styled blues to the rock audience in the 1960s.
It was during the historical New York recording sessions for Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965 that Kooper met Bloomfield. The pair would work extensively together for years. It was Kooper who piloted the groundbreaking "Super Session" album in 1968 which, also featuring Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, remains unequaled in rock history.
Bloomfield left the Butterfield band to form the short-lived Electric Flag which issued the remarkable R&B-infused album, “A Long Time Comin',” on Columbia Records in 1968. However, shortly after its release, a dissatisfied Bloomfield left the band.
In 1973, Bloomfield teamed with and his close friend John Hammond, Jr., and Dr. John for a Columbia album called “Triumvirate. The following year, he hooked up with the so-called supergroup, KGB, which failed to take off
Over the next few years until his death, Bloomfield continued to do solo, session and back-up work while recording for several small labels.
In contrast to Bloomfield, Kooper is no bluesman.
Kooper began his professional music career in the ‘50s as a teenaged guitarist in the Royal Teens ("Short Shorts"), and hanging around 1650 Broadway in Manhattan where he got a job at Adelphi Sound Studios, and working as a songwriter. His songs were covered by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (he co-wrote "This Diamond Ring"), Gene Pitney, Keely Smith, Carmen MacRae, Pat Boone, and Freddie Cannon.
Kooper joined the New York-based Blues Project in 1965, leaving the band two years later. He then formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, leaving after the group's debut album, “Child Is Father to the Man.”
Along with an extensive catalog of solo albums, Kooper is renowned for his production and session work.
As a session player, he has appeared on recordings by Bob Dylan (famously providing organ on "Like A Rolling Stone"), the Rolling Stones (playing French horn on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), George Harrison, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, Joe Cocker, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Alice Cooper, Roger McGuinn, Betty Wright, Trisha Yearwood, Tracy Nelson and others.
As a producer, Kooper has had a sizeable impact on contemporary music by working with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Don Ellis, Shuggie Otis, the Tubes, Nils Lofgren, Marshall Chapman, Eddie & The Hot Rods, David Essex, Ray Charles, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Lorraine Ellison, and Joe Ely.
Among his soundtrack work are for the films "The Landlord," and "Cry Baby," and the TV series "Crime Story.”
Kooper’s savagely personal autobiography, "Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards," is a rock and roll standard. As well, his weekly column “New Music For Old People” is a must-read for music aficionados of all stripes.
Michael Bloomfield was my first guitar hero.
Yeah, for a lot of people.
And before Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page.
Sort of the same time actually for me because when I was in the Blues Project we used to listen to that Clapton/Mayall album (“Blues Breakers” in 1966 credited to John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton). That was the album that Clapton was discovered by guitar players. I mean older guitar players.
I remember the 1966 “What's Shakin'” compilation on Elektra Records that featured you, and the earliest recordings of the Lovin' Spoonful, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as studio group, Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse.
I did one track for it, “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes.” That was the first time I had ever been reviewed. (Music critic) Nat Hentoff reviewed that album. In the liner notes, they called me “New York legend Al Kooper.” Nat Hentoff said, “Al Kooper may be a New York legend, but it certainly can’t be for his singing or piano playing.” That was my first review. I laughed. I thought it was hilarious.
You met Michael Bloomfield at Bob Dylan’s session for “Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965 at Columbia Studio A in New York?
That’s correct. I had read an article about him in Sing Out! magazine a few months before, but in the picture he was heavier. So I didn’t get it at first. I heard him play, and I had never heard anybody play like that.
When Michael did the Dylan session, he was with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band?
As far as I knew, yeah.
Michael had earlier met Dylan in Chicago.
Bob has said that. On the album, when Bob introduces Bloomfield, he says that he came and played music, and he mentions some of the guitar players he was influenced by. So that’s a true story. In terms of that session, of course, I was attempting to play guitar on that session.
[Asked how he came to play with Bob Dylan, Michael Bloomfield told Hit Parader editor Jim Delehant in the late ‘60s: “He called me on the phone. I met him once at the Bear in Chicago in his early unamplified days. I wanted to go down there and show him what a lousy guitar player he was. I was incensed by the liner notes on his first album which he said he was a good guitar player. I found out that he was really a nice guy. Then I saw him in New York at a party and we played a little. Through the strength of those two meetings , he called me to make a record with him. There might have been something else, I don’t know.”]
Producer Tom Wilson hadn’t hired you to play guitar on the session?
No. Tom Wilson invited me to watch but, at that time of my career, I was 90% ambition, and 10% talent. So I was going to play on that record. I got there early, and I plugged in. At the time I was playing sessions as a session guitarist. Tom invited me to the session because we were friends. I said to myself, “Well, I’m going to play on that session.” So I practiced, and I got there early.
It wasn’t unusual for the other musicians to see me there (in the studio) because I did sessions with them. So nobody blinked about that.
About 10 minutes after I got there Dylan and Bloomfield came in together. So he arrived with Dylan. He was part of Dylan’s party. He sat down next to me, and said hello. His guitar wasn’t in the case, and it was raining out. He had this white Telecaster, and it was soaking wet. He wiped off his guitar, sat down, plugged into an amp, and he started warming up. I went, “Oh my gawd. I can’t play with this guy. This guy looks to be the same age as me, and he plays better than anybody I’ve ever heard in my life.” So I said (to myself), “I have to get out of here.” I lit up a cigarette, put the guitar in the case, kicked it under the chair, and went into the control room where I belonged. That was my first few moments with Mike Bloomfield.
[Although Columbia Records reluctantly released the 6:13 minute single, and U.S. radio stations initially balked at playing it, “Like A Rolling Stone" reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and reached Top 10 in charts in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the U.K.].
Dylan had invited Mike to play with him permanently, but he rejected the invitation in order to continue playing with the Paul Butterfield band. Then he quit the Butterfield Band because of its heavy touring schedule. But wasn’t that part of the work ethic for bands then?
Well, we did stuff like that too when I was in the Blues Project. But I think that they (Butterfield band members) were getting less money than Butterfield.
Michael’s salary was $6,000 a year.
(Laughing) Not that he needed the money.
Paul Butterfield was a tough taskmaster.
He (Mike) says on the box set in spoken (word) bit that he was terrified of Butterfield.
In 1968, you teamed up with Michael again for the remarkable “Super Session” album which reached #12 on Billboard’s album chart.
(Then CBS Records marketing executive) Bruce Lundvall titled the album “Super Session.” We had no title for it, and he suggested it. Of course, I would have never thought of coming up with that title. I thought, “That’s a great title. That’s good.” I was sorry to see Bruce leave Bluenote (stepping down as president/CEO of the Blue Note Label Group last year).
Bloomfield said in interviews that he didn’t care for the Butterfield recordings. That the best playing he’d done with that band remained unreleased.
One of the things that I definitely confirmed was that he didn’t like a great deal of his playing in the studio. He was intimidated by the studio. I came up with the idea of doing “Super Session” because I was annoyed that he wasn’t playing well on record compared to how he played live. I would see him play live--we did a few gigs where we were on the same bill, Butterfield and the Blues Project—and I’d go, “He’s just amazing as he always is.” Then I would hear the records, and I’d go, ‘Well, that’s not as good as the other night when he played.” So I thought, maybe, he had a problem being produced. As soon as I got the opportunity I said, “Well, let’s go in and jam. You and me.” We really enjoyed playing together when we did. He said, “Well, I don’t have a problem with that.” And I said, “We’ll just play. No big deal.” That’s what we did. I got what I wanted. He played as good as he did live. Up to that point, I don’t personally think there’s anything as good in the studio with him.
[After Kooper took an A&R position at Columbia Records in New York, one of his first productions, “Super Session,” allowed him to work with Michael Bloomfield again with the two of them along with Harvey Brooks, and Eddie Hoh going into Columbia Studios in Los Angeles. One half the album was recorded on the first night, but the next day, Kooper came down to breakfast to find a note from Bloomfield saying that he had left. Kooper then recruited Stephen Stills to complete the project.]
Michael left you a note half way through the session before leaving.
It had nothing to do with his playing.
In a Hit Parader interview, Michael said that the best blues guitar playing that he did on record was with the Electric Flag on the 1967 soundtrack of Peter Fonda’s “The Trip” which came out on Mike Curb's Sidewalk Records.
Oh, that’s rubbish. I couldn’t even use any of that on the box because it was not that good. We have a spoken interview where he says that “Super Session” was the best he had played in the studio.
You took a year to complete this box set. Why so long?
I had a lot of stuff to do. I had to pick the music. I had to then make sure that we could license the music that we were licensing. Stuff like that takes a long time. Then I had to do the same thing with the photographs. Then I mastered it myself. So that stuff takes times; especially the mastering.
Did you have a pretty good idea of what the tracks would be before beginning?
I was very lucky. I had the assistance of (reissue producer) Bruce Dickinson at Columbia who’s really a genius researcher. He collected a bunch of stuff, and then he came over, and stayed here for about a week. We just spent the whole time going through everything, and listening to everything. We picked everything, I think, in that week.
Wasn’t it John Hammond Sr. who discovered Michael?
Yeah, although I suspect that it was John Hammond Jr. that turned his father onto him. The very first thing on the box set is that audition session for John Hammond Sr. where he is just playing with (bassist) Bill Lee.
How did you come to have the Columbia audition tape with unreleased tracks?
Well, when I first started working at Columbia as a staff producer, my office was right next door to John Hammond’s, and we became good friends because he knew that I worked with Dylan, and that I was friendly with Bloomfield. These were people that he discovered. Also our attitudes were similar. I really liked him a lot. After “Super Session,” he said, “I made a tape for you. I signed Bloomfield in ’64. I discovered him. I am giving you a tape of the audition session that I did.” I always treasured that. When we came to do this, I said to Bruce Dickinson, “We need to order that John Hammond audition session.” They couldn’t find it. So I had to go through all of my shit, and I found it. I had a 7 1/2-inch tape copy. If I didn’t have it, it wouldn’t have been on the set.
[The box set’s first three tracks, “I’m A Country Boy," "Judge, Judge,” and “Hammond’s Rag,” are from Bloomfield’s audition session for John Hammond Sr. at Columbia Records in 1964. Hammond had hired bassist Bill Lee, father of filmmaker Spike Lee, to accompany Bloomfield. Also on the box set are two early Columbia tracks by Bloomfield with a band: The Hammond-produced “I’ve Got You In The Palm of My Hand,” and “I’ve Got My Mojo Workin’,” produced by CBS staffer Bob Morgan who had produced Bobby Vinton’s breakthrough #1 hit “Roses Are Red (My Love)” in 1962.]
What was the chemistry between you and Michael? You were a pop musician, and Michael was a blues guy from Chicago.
I will go a step further. Growing up in New York City, there was no blues radio station. So I only read about people like Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I had no way of hearing them because I was a radio kid. I listened to all kinds of stations but the only blues I heard were people that crossed over to R&B.
Growing up, you didn’t hear any blues on the radio either?
My mother was into Top 40 radio. There was a (nationally syndicated) show called “Make Believe Ballroom.” Martin Block was the DJ. She would play that in the house every day. That’s the music I grew up on. The first song that I played on the piano was “"Tennessee Waltz" on the black keys.
You didn’t hear DJs like Gene Nobles and John R. on WLAC in Nashville playing such blues artists as Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson?
Not in New York.
So you weren’t familiar with those blues artists?
Not until I joined the Blues Project in 1965.
As a teenager Michael saw Muddy Waters perform in a Chicago's South Side blues club, and he played guitar with a number of bluesmen.
If I grew up in Chicago I‘m sure I would have done the same thing. I went to the Apollo, and I knew who Jimmy Reed was because he crossed over (from blues to R & B charts). And I knew John Lee Hooker. And then B.B. King. But none of those Chess people, I didn’t hear any of that until I joined the Blues Project, and they sat me down and played me those records. Luckily, I really enjoyed them. I totally got it.
You were into jazz though?
From ‘60 to ‘64, I was a groupie of the Maynard Ferguson band (the Birdland Dream Band that included at various times, such players as Slide Hampton, Ronnie Cuber, Don Sebesky, Rufus Jones, Joe Farrell, Jaki Byard, Bill Chase, and Don Menza). I went to every gig of that band in New York.
The Blues Project covered Muddy Waters’ "Goin' Down Louisiana" on its debut Verve Folkways album “Live at The Café Au Go Go” in 1965. Didn’t you also meet Muddy at that time?
“Live at The Café Au Go Go” was recorded over Thanksgiving week at an event called “The Blues Bag” that featured a plethora of blues acts including the Muddy Waters Blues Band, Big Joe Williams, John Lee Hooker, Fred Neil, Ritchie Havens, and others. Bizarrely, we closed each show as we were the loudest band on the bill.
Muddy Waters went on before us. We were very embarrassed by that.
I went over to Otis Spann (Muddy’s pianist whom many consider to be the leading postwar Chicago blues pianist), and I naively asked him if he could show me stuff in the afternoon, and then I would take him to dinner before the show at the place across the street from the Café Au Go Go. He actually did that. We did that for two days. I took him across the street, and bought him dinner two nights in a row, and he showed me amazing things (on the piano).
You went on to do the Dylan sessions for “Blonde On Blonde” in New York and Nashville in 1966.
Yeah. By that time I was music director.
Also accompanying Bob while he was writing songs.
The reason that he taught me the parts was so I could play the song over and over and he could sit there and write lyrics. Then I said to him, “I know these songs now. Why don’t you let me go to the studio an hour before you, and I can teach the band at least two songs before you get there? Then you don’t have to sit there while that happens,” which I knew was something that he was not particularly fond of.
Let me ask you about the booing of Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival….
Bollocks. Bullshit. It didn’t happen. Here’s what happened. The night before the show, they put the band together to back him up. It was a last minute decision. We stayed up all night at one of those millionaire mansions in Newport, and rehearsed. We could only come up with three songs (“Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry”) because the Butterfield band (Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar, as well as bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay along with Barry Goldberg on piano) was not the band that should have backed him. It wasn’t the same thing (as the personnel for the "Like a Rolling Stone" recording), especially the drums and bass. So we only learned three songs. That’s all we could get. So we only played three songs. Now most people came to see Dylan at the festival. They spent the whole weekend listening to a lot of music that they didn’t particularly want to listen to. College kids. Most acts played between 45 minutes, and an hour. We played for 15 minutes, and we were the headliners of the whole weekend.
The rumor that Pete Seeger had an axe and tried to cut the power cable to the stage with an axe?
That’s bullshit too. Total bullshit.
How do these things get to be history?
Are you serious?
Okay, we are talking about Dylan who’s career is cloaked in mythology.
No, no, it’s not Dylan. My whole life, every major moment that I was fortunate to be involved in is reported incorrectly in history.
I’ve been told by someone who was at Newport that the band was unrehearsed, and just too loud.
(Producer) Paul Rothschild mixed the sound, and he didn’t know what he was doing. He had never mixed a live show. The being too loud probably wasn’t the deterrent (for the audience). It was the 15 minutes (of performing). People were really upset. The press was aware of the fact that there was dissention in the governing Newport board over electric performances. The Chamber Brothers got shit about it. They played that year before they were famous. They played with electric guitars, and drums and stuff. They were a gospel group. It was like the Grand Ole Opry. They (festival organizers) didn’t like the electric stuff.
What happened after playing the three songs?
Peter Yarrow comes over to Bob, I’m standing right there, and he says, “You gotta play another song.” Bob says, “That’s all we have. That’s all we were able to rehearse.” Peter says, “Why don’t you take your acoustic guitar, and play a few songs?” Bob says, “I didn’t bring it with me.” So Peter Yarrow says, “I have mine. Why don’t you take my guitar, and go out and play a couple of songs?” He said okay, and he went out and played ("Mr. Tambourine Man" and then) “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Unbelievable drama in my eyes. He couldn’t have picked a better song to play to those people at that time. I thought that was amazing.
[After "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the crowd reportedly exploded with applause at the end. Dylan did not return to the Newport Festival for 37 years.]
A few weeks after Newport (on Aug. 28th), we played the Forrest Hills Tennis Stadium (in Queens, New York), but this was another band with Robbie (Robertson), Levon (Helm), Harvey Brooks and myself, and we had plenty of rehearsal time. That (band) was much better.
Before the show, Bob said to us, “I don’t know what’s going to go on out there, just keep playing.” People had read in the newspaper that they had booed him at Newport so the lemmings came to the show, and they booed us. First he played an acoustic half of the show, and that was fine. Then they put the electric stuff up and people were getting restless. Also the temperature dropped 15 degrees between the two sets.
Still there was a division in those days within the folk community between accepting and not accepting electric instruments onstage.
This (the reaction) is more what the newspaper said if you ask me. So we came out, and they were booing. We started playing “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and they are loud, and they are booing. Bob screams at the band, “Just keep playing the intro until they shut up.” So we played the intro for about five minutes, and then they were quiet. Then Bob sang “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is” to them. That was another great moment I remember. At the time we played Forrest Hill “Like A Rolling Stone” was #2 (on Billboard’s Top 100 chart), and everybody sang along, and then booed at the end.
Then we played the Hollywood Bowl (on Sept. 3rd, 1965) and there wasn’t one boo. That was unbelievable. I said, “I’m living on the wrong coast.” I think there are boots (bootlegs) of us playing the Hollywood Bowl.
Wasn’t it Tom Wilson who brought you into the Blues Project?
He was doing a demo session with them, and he hired me to play keyboard after the Dylan situation. They didn’t have a keyboard player, and he wanted a keyboard player on the demo. So I played on the session, and then they asked me to have lunch with them the next day. They asked to me to join the band which I thought was a great idea because I was getting all these calls to play keyboard because of the Dylan album, and I wasn’t that good of a keyboard player. So I needed to be in a situation like that so I could be playing more and improve my keyboard playing.
How could you not be a good keyboard player when you started playing piano when you were six?
I recently read an interview with (famous jazz organist) Joey DeFrancesco. He started playing when he was 4, and his first paying gig was when he was 6. So that’s really obtuse. I just touched a piano for the first time. when I was 6.
As a teenager, when you were playing with the Royal Teens, and the Aristocrats, you weren’t playing keyboards?
No. I was playing guitar.
Not many people were out on the road as a teenager with a band like Royal Teens following their hit “Short Shorts” which reached #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
That was unbelievable because I was on shows with people that I idolized. It was incredible.
Did your parents have any idea what you were doing at 14 or 15?
No because I had to keep it secret.
You were out doing gigs without telling your parents half the time.
More than half the time. To see Jackie Wilson, and Larry Williams in that time period was the most unbelievable things I have ever seen. Larry Williams was pretty underrated. He was unbelievable. I have an X-rated track of Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Laverne Baker on a song called “Think Twice” (in 1966). There was a take from the session where they are just cursing at each other. Humorously. It is one of the treasures that I have.
Weren’t you nearby when Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had their altercation in 1958 about who was going to end a show?
I was there. It was an Allan Freed show for a Holiday Christmas or Easter, probably at The Brooklyn Paramount. There were rehearsals, and everything. They were having a tough time figuring out who was going to headline. It was very important to Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis that they headlined. In the end, Chuck Berry got it because I think that he had three hits, and Jerry Lee Lewis only had one or two hits. Jerry Lewis was very unhappy. So he set the piano on fire with lighter fluid. I think that’s probably where Jimi Hendrix got it (the idea) from (while appearing at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967). I was standing in the wings watching the Jerry Lee Lewis’ set, and Chuck was standing in the wings with his guitar watching because he had to go right on after it was over. He was a foot from me. A lot of people were watching. So Jerry Lee set the piano on fire and then, ever so nonchalantly, he walked offstage, and Chuck was standing there. Jerry Lee looked at him, and he said, “Follow that nigger.” That’s exactly what he said.
You worked at Adelphi Music at 1650 Broadway in the so-called Brill Building era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
I get very angry that they (people) call that music “The Brill Building Sound” because 15% or 20% of it was at The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, and 85% took place at 1650 Broadway a couple of blocks away. The Brill Building, at that time, was looked upon as yesterday’s newspaper. The people that remained in the Brill Building were Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Everybody else was at 1650. (Don) Kirshner was at 1650 though he started at The Brill Building. When he opened the company (Aldon Music in 1958) with Al Nevins it was at 1650. So Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield--all those people--were at 1650.
While still a teenager, you were signed as a songwriter to Aaron Schroeder’s Sea-Lark publishing company, and later Hal Webman’s We Three Music, usually co-writing with Irwin Levine and Bob Brass. How good of a pop songwriter were you?
I don’t know how to judge it. I wrote with these two guys, and we wrote a lot of songs. We wrote every day. We wrote a few songs a day. We wrote a lot of songs.
You, Irwin and Bob co-wrote "This Diamond Ring" which went to #1 on Billboard with Gary Lewis & the Playboys
Then we had 5 or 6 tracks cut by Gene Pitney because of Schroeder. I was in the room the day that he auditioned for Schroeder. Unbelievable voice.
Aaron Schroeder had Randy Newman as a staff writer in those days.
And Jimi Hendrix and Barry White.
Did you know Jimi Hendrix during the time he worked in Greenwich Village?
I did see him play with John Hammond Jr. but everybody was there that night. It was at the Cafe Wha?, and (Animals’ bassist and future Hendrix manager) Chas Chandler was there. I grew up in 1650 Broadway. So I was there from the time I was 14. I didn’t get to the Village until the Dylan period. It (the scene) was pretty amazing.
A decade later you were onstage with Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop when he ignited his guitar with a lighter.
Yeah, I was in the wings because I was the stage manager.
The Blues Project records were pretty uneven.
The first one “Live At The Café Au Go Go,” was very accurate. They just recorded us live, and that’s what we sounded like. The second album (“Projections”) we recorded whenever the Animals cancelled their studio time. We probably had only three sessions to do the whole album. We were never told what was going to be on the cover. We never saw it until it was in the store. There was always stuff like that. This used to infuriate me.
That happened to a lot of bands in the ‘60s.
Not everybody. I remember going to John Sebastian’s, who I was friends with, and asking him long it took to record (the Lovin’ Spoonful’s) “Summer In The City.” This was when it was a hit. He said, “Probably a week all together.” I went, “Oh my gawd. That’s why it sounds like it does. They get a week on one song. We don’t even get a week on the whole album.” That’s how I figured out what was going on.
Was the idea behind the formation of Blood, Sweat & Tears to have more personal control over your music?
Well, yeah. I had written a bunch of new songs, and the songs were crying for horns. So I went to (Blues Project singer/guitarist) Danny Kalb and said, “I have all these new songs, and they really want to have horns on them.” I was hoping that we could hire some horn players and make the band a little bigger. He said, “Absolutely not. We haven’t even begun to push the borders of what we are as a five-piece.” I said, “Okay.” I knew that was it because I thought that these were really good songs that I had written, and I wanted to record them. So I had to leave the band to do that.
I recall seeing a few Blood, Sweat & Tears members playing together at Steve Paul’s club, The Scene in late ’67.
There was actually a trio gig at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1967. I was in L.A. looking for musicians for BS&T. I played with (bassist) Jim Fielder and drummer Sandy Konikoff. We played many of the tunes on the future first BS&T album. This was before Steve Katz, and Bobby Colomby were involved. (After they joined) we ran ads in the newspaper, and got the horn players from auditions.
We (BS&T) played at The Scene. As matter of fact, maybe the first time we ever played was there at our Columbia Records’ press party. Our first real gig was at the Café Au go Go opening for Moby Grape.
To produce BS&T, you chose Columbia staff producer John Simon who had been working with Simon & Garfunkel. You have acknowledged that he taught you so much about production.
Everything. I watched him make that album, and I had no idea (previously about that caliber of production). Nobody I worked with before that time was as skilled as he was. When we first started working together, he recorded all of the songs that we knew. In mono. We set up, and he recorded every song that we knew. Then he picked from that what would be on the album.
[While “Child Is Father To The Man” disappointingly peaked at #47 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart. the tracks "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," and "I Can't Quit Her" found significant airplay on the evolving new American FM rock format.]
You quit BS&T after a single album.
I didn’t really quit. They sort of threw me out of the band. I had to quit.
Democracies in bands don’t work?
Blood, Sweat & Tears was not a democracy. It was like I came in and said, “I want to do this. Let me do it. Let me play my arrangement, and afterwards tell me if you any suggestions. But play it my way first.”
Why that approach?
I knew these songs. I had lived with them for a year. The arrangements were initially overwritten. It’s very funny because when we were auditioning horn players I said, “Anybody who can play this, and still wants to be in the band, we should take because there’s a lot of blowing in there.” John Simon took most of it out (for the album).
Were you kicked out of the group due to your brash personality or because bands truly do not work with democratic ideals?
Well, in the Blues Project we used to do everything together. We’d go to movies together. We would have dinner together. We would have lunch together. We just did everything together, and that didn’t really help us stay together as a band. When I put Blood, Sweat & Tears together, I said, “Swell, I’m going to go the other way.” When I had to work with the band, I worked with the band. The other times I would go home. and be with the wife. But what I didn’t know was that when I was home with the wife, the rest of the band was plotting against me.
I saw some of the politics with Bobby Colomby and others there later on when I was publicist for David-Clayton Thomas when he was in BS&T.
Bobby is unbelievable. Unbelievable. The thing that really bugs me is that later on Bobby gave interviews-- I have one that kept on my computer from 1998--where he says that he and Steve (Katz) started the band, and that they asked me to be in it which is so untrue. But that staying home stuff is what happened. While I was home, Bobby took over the band. He says that I stole this song from here or there. What’s humorous to me is that “Spinning Wheel” is pretty much a knock-off of the jazz standard “Lulu’s Back In Town” (by Al Dubin and Harry Warren). The bump-da-da-da-bumpa is “Lulu’s Back In Town.” It was his (Bobby’s) band when they did “Spinning Wheel.”
One of the signature tunes of “Child Is Father to the Man” is your song, "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know.” While there are versions by Carmen McRae, Cold Blood, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, the YouTube clip of Amy Winehouse performing it is electrifying.
Aside from being a pretty big Amy fan, I love that she didn't change the gender when she sang it. That takes balls for a thin woman. (Her passing was) a big loss for music and humanity.
[Amy Winehouse’s version of "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know” can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=362JArvhAqg .
You didn’t stay with Blood, Sweat & Tears long enough to share its popularity.
That was okay with me because I didn’t like what they were doing. There’s a tremendous difference between “Child Is Father To The Man” and their first album although some of my arrangements are on their first album with David. So they took my arrangements, and popped David in.
When you were still with the group, it was already playing some tracks that would appear on the “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” the group's self-titled second album including, “Smiling Phases, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” and “More & More.”
These were tracks we were doing when I was still in the band so Freddie (sax player/keyboardist Fred Lipsius) and I wrote those arrangements.
After leaving BS&T, you took an A&R job at Columbia Records.
Right. It was a four years deal from ’68 to ’72. I always thought of the Blood, Sweat & Tears thing as a “Frankenstein” allegory. I built this monster and then it killed me. I had had enough with bands between the Blues Project, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Producing the album “The Sweetheart Sampler” with the duo Frankie & Johnny took you down to Atlanta.
You are the only person I’ve spoken to who knows about Frankie & Johnny. People don’t know about Frankie & Johnny. That’s really obscure. They were from “Noo Yawk.” That was my backup band at the time, and I got them a record deal at Warner Bros.
You discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first three albums for your Sounds of the South label that was distributed by MCA Records.
I was in Atlanta doing the Frankie & Johnny album. We used to work from noon to 8 (PM) every day. Then we would party at night. This guy I knew had a club there, and we would go to his club (Funocchio's) every night. We got treated really well there. There were great looking women there, and he had a great band there every week. In those days you didn’t play one nighters. If you had a gig, it was Tuesday to Sunday. So the first week that we were in Atlanta, there was another band playing there and then Skynyrd came in the next week. We were there about three weeks. In fact, I never went home. I had my roadies go back (to New York) and pack up my apartment, and I moved to Atlanta.
The local kingpins of Atlanta in those days were music publisher Billy Lowery, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section session players.
They were my friends. That’s why I went there in the first place. To use that studio (Studio One in the northern Atlanta suburb of Doraville).
You had an amazing run with Lynyrd Skynyrd that included the big hits "Sweet Home Alabama,” Free Bird,” and “Saturday Night Special.”
It amazes me that “Sweet Home Alabama” outlasted “Free Bird.” I never thought that would happen. I thought that “Free Bird” was going to be, for all times. “Stairway To Heaven” and “Freebird.” But that didn’t happen.
Do you miss large-scale recording studios where musicians would gather and jam?
Yeah, and it was a ‘hang.’ The Record Plant in L.A. (at 8456 West Third Street near La Cienega Boulevard) was an extraordinary place. They had bedrooms. They had a Jacuzzi. It was an extraordinary place.
It was where John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Ronnie Wood, Billy Preston, Mick Jagger and George Harrison and others came and jammed.
Yeah. I remember all that vividly. It was unbelievable. Do I miss it? I miss the bad parts of it. The naughty parts of it. But I have much control over my work now, such as with the Bloomfield box set, because I can do all of that work on a computer in my office (in Somerville, Massachusetts).
The last album you released was “White Chocolate” in 2008.
Yeah. For me, “Black Coffee” (2005), and “White Chocolate” were the two best albums that I ever made. Unfortunately, they weren’t with a big label. So people aren’t even aware of them. The reissue label Omnivore is interested in putting out a double album of “Black Coffee and “White Chocolate” and giving it a little more (promotion) than it had so people can hear them. I am probably going to do that. They are also interested in my projected box set of unreleased stuff.
I have decided that I am not going to make any more albums. But I am going to put out a box set of everything unreleased from my career because there are some really great things in there. And I have so much of it. I’m going to have four discs, but it won’t contain everything. It will start with songwriters demos that I did when I was much younger.
I think that Omnivore’s owner/partner Cheryl Pawelski is incredible.
Me too. She spent a three-day weekend here so I could play her all of the unreleased stuff. She took notes. It was an amazing experience for me.
Do you feel that so much money has been taken from you unfairly over the years?
Here’s the best way to say it. When I lived in Nashville, I heard a girl singer, probably in ’91, that I really liked singing in club. So I got my lawyer to draw up a two-page production agreement for her. We got together, and I showed her the contract. She said, “Wait a second, if I get 15% and you get 5%, who gets the other 80%?” I said, “Are you serious?” She said, “Yeah, I’m serious.” I said, “The record company.” She said, “That’s outrageous.” I said, “If you can get a better deal then go ahead.” It really hasn’t changed. She obviously never had a record deal. So she didn’t know this. People would ask me in interviews, “What would you tell an up-and-coming person that was going to make their living in the music business?” I would always say, “Go to plumbing school.”
Get the money upfront from labels and music publishers in advances because there no money further down the road.
Well, I had no idea. For many years I didn’t get the songwriting money because of advances. Then all of a sudden there was $100,000 check because they couldn’t find me for many years. That started me getting money. But up to that point there never was any money involved.
The way the music industry traditionally worked was a band would have a major success, and then re-negotiate its contract.
You can count on two hands the people who did that. The rest of us…I have had a terrible experience my whole life that way. It’s so bad now that I really have no interest in continuing recording.
You’ve said that you’ve been cheated out of extremely large sums of money by some of the best, and you have learned from them what not to do next time.
My wife tells me to not go into the deep stuff of how fucked I really am by all of this stuff. I will tell you the truth. The money that has kept me alive has been the songwriting money from BMI, and the publishing company, Warner/ Chappell. If I didn’t get those checks, I would be living under a bridge somewhere. My music publishing that was owned by Aaron Schroeder was eventually sold to Warner Brothers Music (now Warner/Chappell Music). Their contract ran out about 1977, and I have owned my own songs since under Rekooped Music.
The traditional model of licensing songs for records and collecting mechanical royalties has been broken down as physical music sales have decreased. Meanwhile, the U.S.—unlike most countries--still hasn’t got a performance royalty where artists get paid for radio airplay.
Oh yeah. Not only do we not have it here but there’s not even a time limit on it. It’s like your art, everything that you do belongs to them (labels) for time in memoriam. Let’s not even talk about staff producers.
You don’t get any of your producer royalties?
(Loud and continuous laughter). Me and George Martin.
But you had your own label with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
My manager sold it to MCA. I think he sold it for $1 million, and we never got royalties after that. I never got royalties for any of the Skynyrd stuff as a producer. Or for anybody, really.
George Martin never earned royalties while on staff at Parlophone.
I know. Now you are stealing my line. Anytime that I used to feel bad for myself, I would think of that.
Many artists are now complaining of the low royalty rates from iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, Sirius and other services offering music.
I’m not interested in Spotify or anything of that—although I do a lot of ITunes. My life changed with iTunes. That I could put something in my shirt pocket that had my entire music collection it. I liked that.
Just getting paid for music is the trick.
Of course. But why should anybody pay me? Nobody ever has. What’s new?
Your music has been sampled by a generation of rappers including the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Pharcyde, De La Soul, and Alchemist to name a few.
Somebody called me up to interview me, a guy who wrote about rap music for a rap magazine, he called me and said, “Your stuff has been sampled by a lot of people.” I said, “Really?” He said, “You are the only one that is on every producer’s list.” I was going, “This is unbelievable.”
The Beastie Boys sampled your Blues Project song “Flute Thing” for “Flute Loop” on their album “Ill Communication” which reached #1 on Billboard’s album chart in 1994. How did that come about?
The Beastie Boys’ manager was friendly with my lawyer. He went to my lawyer and said, “We’re going to pay people now, and we want to use Al’s song “Flute Thing” but the publisher won’t let us use it.” So I had to go to the publisher and beg them. I think the rule was that if they sold a million records, I got $5,000.
Before that you didn’t get anything.
The Beastie Boys were trying to be nice. So I talked to Aaron Schroeder’s wife, and she said, “Yeah, I did turn that down. That’s terrible money.” I said, “Do you know all of the other stuff that was done, you weren’t paid a penny? They are offering to pay. They aren’t going to sell a million records. They are going to sell 5 million records so I am going to get $25,000 of what we refer to as mailbox money. I didn’t do anything.” I wrote that song centuries ago. I said, “I am begging you to make that deal so I can get the $25,000. So she made the deal, and they sold 5 million records.
Have you kept up your French horn playing?
Not at all. As soon as I saw you could do it with a synthesizer that was the end of that.
There are two notable French horn performances in your career. Firstly on Bob Dylan’s “New Morning” but your most celebrated performance is on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Well, originally that was the organ part that I played. At the session, I said to (Mick) Jagger “If you ever want to put horns on this thing, I know exactly what to do.” So a year later, he called and said, “I’m sending you the tapes. Go ahead.” So I did the session. I wrote for a Stax/Volt section, but I put a French horn part in for harmonies so I could play French horn on a Stones’ record. The session was terrible. I couldn’t get them (the musicians) to understand the Stax/Volt mentality. I didn’t get what I wanted. The guys left, and I said, “I can’t send this back to them. I have to do something that they can use. Let me play the organ part on French horn on the intro.” So I did that. I’m not that good of French horn player. So it took about two or three hours just to get those four bars. Punch in, and when it was perfect we’d keep it, and then go on until we got it all perfectly. So then I erased the organ. I wanted them to see what the difference was. You didn’t hear any of the other horns, of course, because it was terrible, but they kept the French horn.
This month you turned 70. Do you feel your age?
From 1964 to 1980, I was six foot one; I weighed 145 pounds; and I had a 28-inch waist during all that time. Those days are long gone. Unlike Peter Wolf and Paul McCartney, I now have white hair and weigh a wee bit more. I do read CelebrityAccess. I do admit that the first thing that I do read are the obituaries.
While it’s been a bumpy, crazy ride, you must concede that you have lived through a wonderful musical era.
I’ve had an unbelievable life which is why I wrote my autobiography (“Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards”). I had to write it because I couldn’t believe what had happened to me.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.