In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Dylan: “Turn the organ up.”
Wilson: “Hey, man, that cat’s not an organ player.”
Dylan: “Hey, now don’t tell me who’s an organ player and who’s not. Just turn the organ up.”
When Bob Dylan ordered producer Tom Wilson to bring up the organ in “Like a Rolling Stone,” it cemented the talents of a 21-year-old named Al Kooper into legend. (Kooper tells the whole story in his fantastic autobiography Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards.) Once serendipity has allowed you to put a trademark stamp on arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time, there’s nowhere to go but down, right?
Wrong – in fact, Kooper was just getting started.
Dylan and Kooper went on to work together on Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, along with several subsequent Dylan albums. The Highway 61 sessions also cultivated a legendary musical bond between Kooper and Chicago blues guitar genius, Mike Bloomfield. The two went on to record some of the most earth-shaking blues-rock jam sessions in music history. These are best displayed on the power duo’s mesmerizing 1968 release, Super Session. Side one was Bloomfield’s side, side two featured Stephen Stills, and the two guitarists never played simultaneously on any of the album’s tracks. Super Session became a huge commercial success and led to the raw yet stellar The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, recorded live at the Filmore West in 1968.
Kooper then formed Blood Sweat & Tears; even though he was initially the band’s leader, Kooper and the band amicably parted ways over creative differences right after releasing their debut, 1968’s glorious Child Is Father to the Man.
Since then, the prolific Kooper has released almost a dozen solo albums, written music for film scores, and played on countless records, most notably by the Rolling Stones, B. B. King, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Al is also responsible for the discovery of Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing and playing on their first three albums. Most amazingly of all, he still performs today! As an organist! Take that, Tom Wilson!
Kooper turns 72 today, and we are going to celebrate him and his birthday by sharing five of his cover songs that he loved and had a ball covering with his buddies.
Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield – Stop (Howard Tate cover)
Kooper and Bloomfield come out of the gate white-hot for this Howard Tate instrumental cover. Kooper sets the stage perfectly with his brief, gradual intro that eventually gives way to a rip-your-heart-out-of-your-chest, Bloomfield rocking-blues guitar intro, one that justifies his 2012 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. As Bloomfield fades out, he passes the baton to Al, who answers with an organ solo that creates a seismic shift. From there the two trade off masterful licks until they eventually meet at the end, leaving you in a state of euphoric bliss.
Al Kooper & Stephen Stills – Season of the Witch (Donovan cover)
Stills and Kooper start off with a tactful and jangly introduction that eventually evolves into a mosh pit of screaming vocals, relentless organ, electric guitar and piano, and big and brassy horns, right after the first proclamation of “MUST BE THE SEASON OF THE WITCH!” But as quickly as the mayhem is fully escalated, it instantly cools down with another, contrasting “must be the season of the witch…” just to get built back up with a tsunami of powerful driving organ, compliments of Kooper. This eleven-minute cover version of the haunting Donovan classic would have had Salem, Massachusetts dancing rather than conducting witch trials in the late 1600s.
Al Kooper & Stephen Stills – It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (Bob Dylan cover)
Al covers one of his heroes, the aforementioned Bob Dylan, in this fast-paced rocking, country-kissed version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” The stars of this Dylan cover are the dynamic bass playing, compliments of Harvey Brooks, and joyous, rip-roaring two-part guitar solo by Stephen Stills. Bob Dylan surely had to be beaming from his apprentice’s homage.
Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield – Green Onions (Booker T. & the M. G.’s cover)
The iconic “Green Onions” provided the perfect opportunity for Kooper and Bloomfield to show off their Grade A chops. In this live cover, Bloomfield comes out guns blazing with a ferocious blues guitar attack; eventually he looks to Kooper, who elevates this classic to new heights with his heavy screeching organ. Bloomfield then returns to remind all of those at the Fillmore that Chicago is the true home of the Blues, and closes out “Green Onions” like a Fergie Jenkins’ complete game gem.
Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield – The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
After the “Opening Speech” on The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Al and Mike go right into a soul-saturating cover of the Simon & Garfunkel 1967 classic, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Al and Mike slowly build a groundswell while you’re “kicking down the cobblestones, looking for fun” and just as you’re “FEELING GROOVY,” Kooper’s massive organ throws you twenty feet from the spot you were standing. It’s okay, though, because shortly after, you’re treated to a Bloomfield solo so smooth and sweet that you forget all about your sudden relocation. Kooper then comes back to deliver one more entrancing solo before the two musical soul mates meet once again to close it out.
Al Kooper’s memoir “Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Survivor” is available at Amazon.