Al Kooper visited Blues After Hours on February 6 to talk about his gig the next night at Harper's Ferry's Blues Festival. We emailed each other several times and then arranged to do this interview. We spoke on February 24, 1998.
Al: Blues hell. Devil speaking.
Mai: (I laugh.) Hi. How're you? Can you hear me okay?
Al: I reckon.
Mai: Let's start at the beginning, and --
Al: I was a happy baby. (I laugh.)
Mai: I'm glad to hear that. Did you grow up in New York?
Al: Un hunh.
Mai: Brooklyn, you said?
Al: Well, I was born in Brooklyn, but I was pretty much raised in Queens and Manhattan.
Mai: Un hunh. I read in your bio that you were in a rock 'n' roll band [Royal Teens] in your teens. You were playin' out in a band. How'd that happen?
Al: Blind luck. I was in a band -- a little kid band -- and we made a record ["Short Shorts"], and it became number one.
Mai: How did you get it on the radio? How did it get to be number one?
Al: It was on a little label and a big label bought it -- blind luck.
Mai: Was that your song?
Al: No, I didn't write it. I was just in the band.
Mai: What were you playing?
Mai: Really. How'd you get into keyboards?
Al: Well, I actually started on keyboards. And then when Elvis came, I forsook the keyboards for the guitar.
Mai: Because you wanted to be Elvis?
Al: Much to the chagrin of my parents who had just bought a piano.
Mai: So did you comb your hair like Elvis?
Al: As much as I could.
Mai: Did you wear Elvis kind of clothes?
Al: Un hunh -- my collar up, engineer boots --
Mai: I don't remember Elvis with engineer boots -- cowboy boots.
Al: -- black and pink --
Mai: (I laugh) Right. Have you been to Graceland?
Mai: Did you like it?
Al: Un hunh. You should come to my house. We call it "disgraceland."
Mai: Describe it to me.
Al: No, no, no. You'll have to see it.
Mai: All right. So now you're teaching at Berklee [music school in Boston]. How'd that happen?
Al: Well, I kinda dropped out of the music business and decided to do stuff I always wanted to do, that I never had time to do -- so teaching was one of 'em, especially at Berklee.
Mai: It has a good reputation.
Mai: I've seen a lot of good jazz people come out of Berklee.
Al: -- a few popular music people too.
Mai: I haven't seen that many blues people come out of Berklee.
Al: No --
Mai: -- actually, you don't see that many blues people be trained --
Al: -- exactly --
Mai: -- formally.
Mai: What are the students like?
Al: Well, they're all different. I really enjoy the classes I teach in the engineering and production section of the school.
Mai: Is there some kind of approach -- How do you tell people to go about doing it?
Al: I think that history's very important.
Mai: History of recording?
Al: History of whatever you're studying -- if you're studying song writing, history of song writing is important.
Mai: Un hunh.
Al: If you're studying record production, I think history of record production is important. Hence, those are the two classes I'm teaching this semester. So I think that that's a good weapon to have.
Mai: When I wanted to learn how to make films, the first teacher I had said, "get a camera, buy some film, go out, and shoot film." -- and that gets you thinking with film as a frame of reference. Is there some comparable approach to song writing and production?
Al: Well it really helps if you have a natural bent for it -- and you're really ambitious and really want to do it.
Mai: How do you know if you have a bent for it?
Al: If you can write songs that are different than other people's songs. And if you can have a natural sense of working in the studio that would help you as a producer -- if things seem logical to you instead of "book taught." It's difficult because the classes are pretty much 50-50. There are people who are like that -- 50 percent, and the others are just being book taught.
Mai: -- But at some point -- you never know -- that spark might happen.
Al: That's true.
Mai: And what they're learned intellectually --
Al: Well that's why I don't throw the book taught people out.
Mai: (I laugh) You keep hoping that the spark will ignite.
Mai: Sometimes you do something and do it and do it and do it, and all of a sudden, you become aware of what it is you're doing.
Al: Un hunh.
Mai: I don't know that that necessarily happens overnight, but -- And then there's people who are naturals and have no clue what it is they're doing, couldn't analyze it, but just are natural.
Al: Well I think of, there's many nights that I have been on my knees on the studio in front of a two-track tape machine doing edits with outtakes around my neck, taped outtakes around my neck, and scrubbing the machine going "rurrh, rurrh, rurrh" like this and looked up at the clock and saw it was past four in the morning, and thought to myself, "I wonder if my parents really understand what it is I do for a living."
Mai: (I laugh.) Yeah. Those days are gone when you edit with a razor blade.
Al: No they're not.
Mai: You still edit that way?
Al: It's not so much that -- because I just taught that today -- it's just that most studios today are not equipped with a $10,000 digital editing set up.
Mai: But you can edit on a Macintosh.
Al: I understand that -- but not especially on a project you're working on in a studio --
Al: -- that doesn't have that software there.
Al: Also, you set up your Macintosh editing, and I'll have the tape cut before you're ready to start editing on the Macintosh.
Mai: It's that much faster you think?
Al: Yeah. Plus it's a skill it can't hurt you to have.
Mai: I've been editing tape for a really a long time and digital editing's only been around for a few years, but you sure hear people talk about how much easier it is on the machine.
Al: Don't get me wrong. I love digital editing. However, it's a skill that can't hurt you to have. It's better to know how to do it than to be flummoxed if it comes up.
Mai: When you write a song yourself, how do you start?
Al: I usually start with a feeling -- akin to being hungry or being sleepy or something that's in that genre, except that it's being creative. I say, "I could write a song now." Or I'll have something set me off -- I'll have a title set me off. Usually, I just feel like I could write a song. So I sit down at the piano and I start playing and singing. And most opening songs in the songs that I write are entirely stream of consciousness.
Mai: And then do you rework them a bunch of times?
Al: Sometimes. But usually, they're good. Because they're the line that makes me stop and write it down.
Mai: It's the spontaneity that you lose when you rework it too much maybe.
Al: Don't get me wrong. I spend a lot of time rewriting lyrics -- a lot of time -- until I'm happy with it. I mean, I know when I write the song what a weak line is.
Mai: Um humn.
Al: And I say, "Well, I got to come back to this. I know I can write a better line."
Mai: Um humn.
Al: But the first line of every one of my songs where I didn't have the title first -- or even if I had the title first -- is always stream of consciousness. I don't know where it comes from.
Mai: I think you told me -- when you were at the radio station -- that you bought a car from one of your songs -- one of your songs paid for a car --
Al: Oh, no. That's a line that's on one of our albums.
Mai: (I laugh.) Okay.
Al: On "The Blues Project Reunion in Central Park" I'm introducing "I Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes" and I say that Ten Years After recorded the song and I said, "paid for my car last year." And then one of the guys in the band said, "Al drives a Volkswagen." (I laugh.)
Mai: When someone does one of your songs -- and maybe they do it differently, how does that make you feel?
Al: Well, if they do it "good" differently, it makes me feel -- inadequate. If they do it "bad" differently, it pisses me off. (I laugh.)
Mai: It's like, "How dare they?"
Al: Not even "how dare they" but -- I had a very bad thing happen -- my biggest song -- one of my biggest songs -- "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" was recorded by Donny Hathaway and he changed a lyric. And he changed to me a very important lyric -- actually it wasn't him, it was the producer that changed it -- And up to the point that he recorded it, my version was the definitive version of it.
Mai: Um humn.
Al: After his version came out, and was out for about a year or two, his version became the definitive recording of that song. And then everyone that recorded it after that, repeated his error of the lyrics.
Mai: Which lyric was it?
Al: The line in my song is "I could be president of General Motors." The producer changed it to "I could be king of everything." And so, when somebody covers the song -- I can tell usually when they sing the first line because he changed the melody in the first line too -- Donny Hathaway -- which I didn't mind. What he did with the music in it was brilliant.
Mai: Un hunh.
Al: He changed the chords in the bridge and he fooled around with the melody a little bit -- and it was brilliant. And I was a very big Donny Hathaway fan, and I was flattered that he recorded the song -- very excited. But -- I didn't talk to the producer for 20 years. I called him up and told him he was an a******. And I didn't talk to him for 20 years. It really bothered me. And plus -- it's the curse that keeps on giving -- because everyone that records it sings the wrong lyric now.
Mai: But you get royalties.
Al: Yes I do.
Mai: So it keeps on giving --
Al: It still annoys me.
Mai: Oh yeah. You think if somebody's going to change something of yours, would they ask your permission.
Al: They don't have to. As a matter of fact, I went to see a movie about three or four years ago, a Robert Redford movie "Sneakers."
Mai: Um humn.
Al: And I bought some popcorn, and I sat down in the theater, and the movie started, and the first piece of music in the movie is playing, and I'm going, "I know that. That's me. I wrote that. Gee, I wish someone would have told me." Then I thought, "They must have got a nice piece of money for this." Then I called up the next day to investigate, and in fact, they did. And it was a nice paycheck.
Mai: Um humn.
Al: But I was annoyed that no one called to tell me.
Mai: Yeah. Because you feel like your songs are your babies.
Al: I do.
Mai: Of course. I think anyone who does anything creative --
Al: Some publisher got drunk one night and put his arm around me and said, "Al, your songs are your children. They come to take care of you when you're old and gray." (I laugh.) And I thought to myself, "G*d, what an a******." But of course, he was perfectly correct. (I laugh.) 'Cause I'm beginning to be old, and I'm beginning to be gray, and I just got a wonderful check today.
Mai: There you go. Let's finish up with just a little bit about piano and keyboards. The other day, I was thinking about how guitarists and harmonica players can adjust the instrument -- you can change the frets on a guitar, and you can change the electronics on a guitar, and you can do a lot of things to a guitar. Can you do things to an acoustic piano?
Al: I don't really play acoustic piano.
Al: Well, hardly ever. I have a digital piano in my house. And I can't play a regular piano for more than two or three songs because I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I've lost the ability to do that. Plus it's an instrument I never could master. I definitely didn't get better as I got older. I could play much better piano when I was younger. And fortunately, a lot of it was recorded.
Mai: Did you study at all -- on piano?
Al: Not much. I had a lot of grief with my private studies.
Mai: I always hated it because they made me cut my nails.
Al: They just didn't teach me the right stuff -- and -- boring. I had one teacher that was cool. She brought the latest songs that were out. She brought sheet music to that. And that was a lot more interesting.
Mai: You mentioned before that you wondered if your parents ever had a clue what it was you did. How did they feel about your being a musician when you were so young?
Al: They hated it. They fought it tooth and nail.
Mai: Did they want you to be a doctor?
Al: It's not what they wanted me to be. It's what they didn't want me to be.
Mai: Did they ever make their peace with it?
Al: Oh yeah. They're very proud of me. I talked to my mother this morning and sent her a package of all the press stuff that I got for the Harper's thing. [Al and the Rekooperators played at Harper's Ferry's Blues Festival on February 7.] So she said, "I see you have a bunch of new songs." I said, "Yes, I do." She said, "I would like to hear them." I said, "Well, I've recorded them. I could play them for you next time when we have a chance." That was kind of an interesting conversation. Because my mother was probably the role model for Debbie Renolds in the film "Mother." (I laugh.)
Mai: Sounds like you have a nice relationship with her though.
Al: I do.
Mai: You're lucky.
Al: As B.B. King said, "Nobody loves you but your mother. And she could be jivin' too."
Mai: I want to thank you for doing this.
Mai: Well, bye, bye.
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