Al Kooper Interview,
, June, 1977.
By Steve Rosen
"The piano is like
milk--it's the basic food, the basic instrument," says New-York-born keyboardist
Al Kooper, guiding light of the seminal sixties group The Blues Project
and later founding father of Blood, Sweat, and Tears. "When I was
about six," he recalls, "I sat down and picked out 'Tennessee Waltz' on
the black keys. From that day on, I was hooked."
At first, his family
couldn't afford a piano, so he was able to play only during visits to friends'
houses. When he was ten, however, his parents did acquire an instrument.
He took lessons at various times, but never stayed with one teacher for
long. "My main strength," he explains, "was in playing by ear rather
than in a more technical area." A Long Island teacher named Gerald
Knighter taught him his first theory and compositinal skills, but according
to Kooper, Knight also planted the seeds of insecurity in his student.
"He told me I'd never be a good player. I don't think I've ever got
over that. I convinced myself that he was right, and I just quit
thinking I could play, which hurt me immeasureably."
By the time he was
thirteen, Kooper had phased out the piano in favor of the more prestigious
guitar. "It wasn't real staus to play piano at the time," he remembers.
For six years guitar was his main instrument, though he continued to dabble
with keybaords, mainly for the purpose of writing songs. He refers
to this work now as "lightweight playing," but in the process of doing
it he became more familiar with taping and other studio techniques.
Kooper mentions that
during his involvement with The Blues Project, he used his multi-instrumental
ability to make tapes of entire arrangements--keyboards, guitars, and drums--that
the band could learn the tunes from. "Later on," he adds, "I recorded
an album where I played all the instruemtns. But that was around
the time Paul McCartney's solo album McCartney came out and it was
so much better tha mine that I just sleved the tapes."
Because the other
members of The Blues Project were reluctant to introduce a horn section
into the band, Kooper left the group in 1967. Toward the end of his
tenure he was writing the songs that subsequently found their way onto
Child Is Father To The Man, the debut Blood, Sweat, and Tears album.
With the money they were advanced by Columbia Records, the members of the
new group bought equipment, and Kooper's acquisition was a Hammond organ.
He had the organ beefed up to produce more sound and had the volume pedal
removed to it could be set anywhere on the floor.
"None of us had much
money at that time," he points out, "so I sort of made a pact with everboyd
and said, 'Listen, if anybody ever splits from the band, they ought to
be able to walk with their axe.' And of course when I got kicked out, they
kept the organ. I thought it was terrible." In the meantime,
though, he had written many of the band's early horn charts, and he reports
that isnce he was writing out parts that he would otherwise have played
on the organ, there was little space left for actual keyboard work.
After leaving BS&T,
Kooper teamed up with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Steven Stills, and
together they produced Super Session which Kooper describes as "a
very casual, thrown-together album." Nonetheless, it contains some
of his most exciting playing to date. "The thing that's important
about Super Session," he adds, "Is that none of us was trying anything.
It was totally relaxed, and we didn't have naything to prove. We
just went in there and played music. That was the nice thing about
it. And of course when the album came out, it was bigger than anything
any of us had out at the time."
On Super Session,
Kooper played organ, piano, and Ondioline, an early synthesizer developed
by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Perry. (The instrument can also be heard
on Perry & Kingsley's album In Sound From Way Out. Monophonic,
the Ondioline tracked the highest note depressed, which allowed Koope toplay
the keyboard with the heel of his right hand, rotating downward away from
the body to produce the rapid scale-like sounds. Setting the instrument's
tone controls to a soprano sax tone, allowed him to produce Coltrane-type
effects (as on "Meagan's Gypsy Eyes" from Child Is Father to the Man,
and "His Holy Modal Majesty" from Super Session.) Since most
monophonic synthesizers today track the lowest note, Kooper has lately
found the technique less useful.
His first solo album
was I Stand Alone. He expresses some diffidence about his
singing on it. "I want a throat transplant with Buddy Miles.
I love gospel music, but I just don't have the right type of voice for
that kind of singing."
Kooper's basic setup
for recent solo ventures has centered around the Hammond B-3 organ.
He doesn't own an organ, hoever. "There were some ridiculous organs
at Columbia in the old days. There were some where the Leslie wouldn't
turn on, so I'd have to use the vibrato switch to change the tone."
From the beginning
of his association with the Blues Project, Kooper used a Hohner Pianet.
Even before that he had used it on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited
where he turned in a strong accompaniment part to "Just Like Tom Thumb's
Blues." For most of the life of The Blues Project, he also used a
Farfisa organ, which toward the end, he exchanged for what he recalls was
a Hammond L-111.
Since those days
he has branched out consierably, working on his recent tour with an ARP
Omni, A Rhodes electric piano, and a Hammond B-3. His amplification
varied during the tour, consisting most often of a Fender speaker cabinet
with an Acoustic amp. The Hammond ran through two 145 Leslies milked
at the top and the bottom--the same arrangement he uses in the studio.
His preference in mikes for this purpose is Neumann 47s or 67s.
He owns none of his
equpment, hoever, and had to rent it in each city on the tour. He
found that the quality of equipment available for rent, particularly the
quality of organs, has declined in recent years. 'The volume of the
Hammonds wasn't what it should have been," he explains, "so I'd have to
take the backs off and turn the treble all the way up." He expresses
a wish that a Leslie should be marketed with a powerful enough amplifier
to compete with available guitar amps, so that the keyboardist need not
rely on the PA system and monitor speakers to hear himself.
Although Kooper uses
no effects devices, he is adempt in coaxing unconvential sounds from the
organ itself. Manipulation of the start and run switches can be used
to vary the spee dof the motor, thus altering the pitch--a technique he
first heard Felix Cavaliere of The Young Rascals use. "I've heard
it's not too good for the organ, though.' he adds. He also uses the
presets to acheive a wah-wah effect, holding down the cancel bar with the
5th finger of his left hand while striking alternately presets Db and Eb.
And it was from listening to Jimmy Smith that Kooper picked up what he
calls the "rocket ship" technique, in which all the drawbars are pushed
in to begin with, then pulled out sloly one at a time while a thick cluster
is held on the manual. Moving the cluster up the keyboard at the
same time can add to the effect.
Kooper cites as an influence is Jimmy McGriff. "But the main influence
I had when I was growing up was Booker T. Jones. He was the only
one at the time who was playing the type of music I wanted to hear.
My style is definitely not imitative of anybody else, though. When
I was starting out, I wasn't that facile, so I couldn't copy anybody.
But in spite of not being technically very adept, I was able to develop
my own style." When it comes to piano, Kooper expresses admiration
for Ray Charles ("my super main man"), Bobby Timmons, and Horace Silver,
and among multi-keyboardist, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, and Chick Corea
hold his interest.
As regards the difference
between organ and piano (he plays acoustic piano at home), he comments,
"The organ is easier to play than the piano, but it's harder in terms of
undrstanding what its capabilities are. With the piano, everything
is right in front of you. But when it comes to the organ, the drawbars
and the vibrato and the way you handle volume can take years tounderstand.
It's an incredible instrument. I've studied it really hard, but I'm
sure there are still things I don't know." He also remars tha taccompaniment
is "easier to get away with" on the organ because the chords can be sustained.
Alhtough he uses
many different drawbar settings, his basic settings include 888888866 (which
he calls his "grand slam") and a percussion setting of 888800000 wiht percussion
on, colume on soft, decay on slow, and harmonic on second; or on occaision
with volume on normal, decay on fast, and harmonic on third. For
a warm background effect, he uses a setting of 008800000.
Although Rhodes is
now a vital part of the Kooper sound, this has not always been the case.
"It took me years to get past the Rhodes," he remarks. "I hated it
when I first played it. I didn't understand the touch at all.
I only started to dig it when I heard the Jackson 5 doing 'I am Love.'
That has the most amazing Rhodes sound on it. And nobody ever put
Clavinet on the map for me until Stevie Wonder did 'Superstition.'"
Kooper feels that
the numerous new keyboard instruments such as synthesizers are opening
up valid creative avenues which are, on the negative side, paved with obsolescence.
This is one reason he prefers renting instruemtns to buying them.
Likewise, he has never acquired an acoustic piano pickup, because he feels
that the presently available models will inevitably be improved.
He doesn't always use acoustic piano in live performance, but when he does
it is miked wiht several mikes above and one underneath, the latter in
a peak-resonance spot that varies from instrument to instrument.
In the studio, Kooper's
piano is always recorded in Stereo. For a trebly sound he puts the
mikes close to the strings and uses a limiter on the signal, while the
traditional sound calls for miking at a greater distance. "One thing
I've found out about a limiter,' he comments, 'is that it will produce
notes that aren't even there. You can play fifths and hear an added
ninth--which makes you sound hipper than you really are."
playing has matured considerably during the last ten years, he reamins
diffident about his abilities. 'Because of the curse tha tmy early
teacher put on me, my playing hasn't changed tha tmuch over the years.
I sat next to Keith Emerson and watched him play, and I said, 'Well...'
Just as I'm sure Chuck Barry sat next to Eric Clapton and said, 'Well....'
But even though I could never rise to that level of technical proficiency,
I don't need to, because I don't play that type of muci. When yo
ucome down to it, most musicians are just straight-ahead people, and they're
fairly tolerant. It's a nice fraternity to be in; I'm proud to be
to My Collection page.