Al Kooper Interview,
Contemporary Keyboard , 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.
     Another organist 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."
     Although Kooper's 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 in it."

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