100 Essential Albums: #99 — “Soul of a Man” by Al Kooper (1995)
“Turn the organ up!”
Al Kooper is far better known for the music and musicians he’s fostered rather than for any self-defining hit single or album of his own. In fact, many of the classic rock songs he’s played on and produced overshadowed his own extraordinary talents and musicianship.
Our first introduction to Kooper is the stuff legends are made of. His arrival onto the music scene was entirely accidental. At age 20, while living in New York’s Greenwich Village, Kooper, then an aspiring guitarist with a few minor songwriting credits, was invited into the studio strictly as a guest during the recording of Bob Dylan’s iconic 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited.
During a break while “Like a Rolling Stone” was being recorded, Kooper insisted that he should take over the Hammond organ part of the song when Dylan’s session organist was transferred to the piano. Kooper even boldly proclaimed he had a “great organ part,” even though he didn’t. Moreover, Kooper, known primarily as a budding guitarist, then had only an elementary knowledge of playing organ and keyboards. He later admitted his entire charade was just a ploy to get into the recording session and play on a Dylan record. “It was all bullshit,” he said.
Before the recording engineer could stonewall the crazy idea and toss Kooper out of the studio on his ass, the phone rang, which interrupted the session for a few minutes. During the distraction, Kooper darted into the recording room and began jamming with the band on the Hammond organ. The engineer returned and was shocked to see Kooper jamming along with Dylan and his backup musicians. Before anyone could intervene, that’s when Dylan jumped into the control room and famously barked out, “turn up the organ!”
As they say, the rest is history. Here’s a clip of the story as told by Al Kooper, who in one audacious act helped transform “Like a Rolling Stone” into an instant rock n’ roll classic:
Encouraged by Dylan’s vote of confidence in the studio, Kooper stepped up his game on keyboards. Instantly, he became one of rock’s most in-demand session players. He played on Dylan’s next four albums. Kooper was also invited to go on the road and toured with Dylan, playing piano the infamous night when Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. He played keyboards on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed albums. Kooper’s organ backed up other musicians, too — including Cream, B.B. King, Alice Cooper, George Harrison, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and The Who. He even played a solo set at the Monterey Pop Festival.
In 1967, Kooper became one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He was the bandleader when they entered the studio to record their first album but had a falling out with the group just as they were about to make their second self-titled album, which became a smash hit. After releasing half a dozen solo albums mostly ignored by record-buyers, Kooper transformed his primary focus from musician-frontman to record producer. He produced The Tubes’ debut album, now considered a cult classic. Give “White Punks on Dope” a listen HERE.
In the early 1970’s Kooper moved to Atlanta where he uncovered another new band with a unique sound that would eventually come to be known as “Southern Rock.” Kooper discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd. He produced and performed several tracks on their first three albums, which spawned two monster classics, “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
For Kooper, a New York-born Jew, collaborating with an unapologetic Southern band which took the stage in front of a giant Confederate flag seemed like a bizarre partnership. He was ultimately responsible for producing a hit single which would become a racially-tinged anthem for millions of Southerners, “Sweet Home Alabama,” including a lyrical homage to the state’s segregationist governor George Wallace. Alas, not everyone in Birmingham “loved the governor.” Kooper’s interpretation of events and his role in the song’s production is told as follows:
Over the years between 1969 and 2001, Kooper recorded and released 11 solo and 5 collaborative studio albums, none of them particularly successful with the general public, but each highly-revered among serious musicians and industry insiders. The best-selling of an eclectic collection of musical influences and sounds was the 1968 Super Session album, conceived by Kooper along with guitarists Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield. Recorded in just two days during extra session time which had been booked and paid for in advance, now fifty years after its release Super Session stands as a blues-driven masterpiece and is probably worthy of the “essential” tag on any music aficionado’s list of “must-listen” recordings. Listen HERE to this album in its entirety (by the way — the guitar work by Stills and Bloomfield is amazing).
Despite a long career as a studio musician and producer, Kooper recorded and released just one live album. It came out in 1995 on the occasion of Kooper’s 50th birthday. Like vintage wine, Kooper is uncorked and aged to perfection.
Kooper by this time rarely toured or performed live anymore, opting instead to teach music at a university. So, it was something of a surprise to undertake such an ambitious recording project, especially to be recorded live. He was booked to play three straight nights at the Bottom Line, a cozy 400-seat venue in Greenwich Village, that’s since closed down. Those lucky enough to witness any of the three all-star jam sessions were treated to an explosion of sounds, instrumentation, and energy. After some overdubbing, a two-hour set of the very best live recordings from the Bottom Line performances was compiled and later packaged into what would become Soul of a Man, by Al Kooper.
Like much of Kooper’s other solo work, the album didn’t sell and is almost forgotten today. The album doesn’t even have a Wiki page.
So, what makes this album so special?
It’s a testament to Kooper’s superb musicality that he was able to interweave such a disparate twist of sounds and styles in so many of his studio recordings. But to do this live, on stage, in front of an audience, with relatively little previous touring or rehearsal time with members of the band is a rare feat, indeed. This is one of the very notable exceptions of a live recording surpassing the quality of a conventional studio album. Those who have heard Soul of a Man often cite it as one of the best live recordings ever.
Kooper is joined onstage by members of his three former bands — including the Blues Project, the ReKooperators, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Kooper’s piano, keyboard, and Hammond organ star throughout and are melded with a brass horn section, wind instruments, and the customary guitars, bass, and drums. John Sebastian even makes a surprise appearance on blues harp. Johnny Johnson sits in on piano. It’s one of those albums where you have no idea what instrument or sound or song you might hear next.
Soul of a Man includes a two-disc compilation totaling 19 songs. There’s a mix of original compositions, jazz and blues covers, and hit medleys to which Kooper was connected as a studio musician. The live performance begins with Kooper’s trademark Hammond organ, then launches into nearly two hours of a rock-jazz-soul-blues symphony. As is the case with expansive projects with multiple layers of complexity, identifying any single song or five-minute segment on the album is next to impossible. Rather, this an album that must be absorbed and savored in its entirety.
What’s brilliant aside from the assembly of great musicians, song selection, utter originality, crisp sound quality, and an expansive catalog of different musical genres is the complete package accompanying the album(s), augmented by an inner booklet which provides lots of background information about the tracks. It’s like having 20 extra pages of liner notes. Best of all, there’s clearly more energy given the spontaneity of the live show than most recordings of its kind, which is probably driven by some competition and even conflict between Kooper and some of his former bandmates. [lawsuits were filed afterward regarding the release of some material]
Unfortunately, an original release of Soul of a Man is almost impossible to find as an album these days. However, a revamped audio CD version can be found on Amazon which contains nearly 45 minutes of additional previously unleased material, making this into a whopping three-album set. For those who want to give Kooper’s best live performance a test drive, the performance can be heard in its complete 1 hour and 54 minutes of glory here (see link below).
Fair warning: While listening, you may be tempted to yell out, “turn up the organ!”
Addendum: Kooper published a memoir about his life titled “Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock n’ Roll Survivor.” In 1992, his exalted status as a published author allowed him to join a band made up exclusively of writers known as the Rock Bottom Remainders. Kooper’s fellow bandmates included Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and others.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” expected to be posted here regularly on my website over the next year or so.