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Al Kooper: A Legend Returns with New CD


If you've listened to the radio at all in the last few decades, there's a good chance that you've heard the work of Al Kooper.

(Soundbite of "Like a Rolling Stone")

Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime, in your prime, didn't you...

INSKEEP: That's Al Kooper playing with Bob Dylan.

(Soundbite of "Sweet Home Alabama")

LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Big wheels keep on turning...

INSKEEP: And there he is with Lynyrd Skynyrd...

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. B. B. KING: (Singing) I've been out here so very long...

INSKEEP: ...and with B.B. King. In a long career, Al Kooper has turned up on record after record as a solo artist or a side man or a composer or an arranger. He's also filled the role he'll talk about today. Every one of these recordings had a producer, and often enough, that producer was Al Kooper.

Mr. AL KOOPER (Producer/Songwriter): A producer's job is to fill in the gaps where the artist is deficient in getting his or her thing across to the public.

INSKEEP: In that simple statement, you begin to hear some of the creative tension that's part of a producer's job. What music star wants to hear that he has deficiencies? Kooper says a good producer has to teach musicians delicately, which is exactly what did not happen on a giant hit by the Rolling Stones.

(Soundbite from "You Can't Always Get What You Want")

Mr. MICK JAGGER (Rolling Stones): (Singing) You can't always get what you want.

INSKEEP: When the Stones recorded "You Can't Always Get What You Want," Al Kooper was not producing. He was playing French horn and keyboards and observing a tense encounter with the Stones' great drummers, Charlie Watts.

Mr. KOOPER: Well, the producer, who was Jimmy Miller, was trying to show Charlie Watts how to play something. And first, he explained it to Charlie, but Charlie couldn't play it. So Jimmy said, `Can I sit at the drums and I'll play it for you and then you'll be able to do it?' So he sat down and he played it, and Charlie said, `Why don't you just play it?' and walked away. And I said, `Oh, that's not good.' So Charlie Watts didn't play on that track.

INSKEEP: The producer ended up playing?

Mr. KOOPER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Did he get--did he al--did he get what he wanted...

Mr. KOOPER: I--well, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...or what he needed on that record?

Mr. KOOPER: Well, I mean, I think he got to play drums on it, which is what he wanted to do.

(Soundbite from "You Can't Always Get What You Want")

Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need. Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: When he became a music producer himself, Al Kooper says it took time to learn when to push musicians and when to let them keep control. When he stopped producing other people's recordings, it was when Kooper himself lost control.

Mr. KOOPER: I left producing because it was taken out of my hands. For instance, I would produce a record and then they would have somebody else mix it, which would be the equivalent of having Martin Scorsese direct a film and then have somebody else supervise the editing.

INSKEEP: Cutting all that footage down to the real film.

Mr. KOOPER: Right, without his participation. There's no way that he would do that, and there was no way that I would do it. It was done to me once, and that was the end. I left right after that.

INSKEEP: Whose album was this?

Mr. KOOPER: B.B. King, "King of the Blues."

(Soundbite of "The Thrill Is Gone")

INSKEEP: What changed about it after it left your hands?

Mr. KOOPER: They remixed it and made some embarrassing, crucial mistakes in the mix. I had put some guitar parts on to show B.B. the section that I wanted him to play in and they put my guitar parts on the record.

INSKEEP: Your own guitar?

Mr. KOOPER: Yeah, which was never my intention.

INSKEEP: You sneaked in unintentionally on one of the most famous guitar players out there.

Mr. KOOPER: Yeah. You know, and I was embarrassed beyond belief. So I called him up and I said, `B.B., I've been trying to reach you.' And he said, `I know and I know why you're calling, Al, and just, you know--I know it's not your fault.' He said, `And you know what? It doesn't bother me at all.' Says, `So just tell me, how have you been?' But you know, he's like one in a million. Some other artist, you know, would have burned my house down.

(Soundbite of music from B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone")

Mr. B.B. KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away.

INSKEEP: What's it like producing yourself?

Mr. KOOPER: I like it. You don't have to deal with anybody else because I don't think anybody knows me better than me.

INSKEEP: You mentioned getting that chemistry that can make a song better. How do you get that chemistry when you're producing yourself?

Mr. KOOPER: I'm very focused and disciplined. When I write a song, I already hear the finished record in my head, and so then I go about trying to get that vision that I have in my head recorded.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a song from this album called, "My Hands Are Tied." The album is "Black Coffee," produced and arranged by Al Kooper, who's the artist.

(Soundbite from "My Hands Are Tied")

Mr. KOOPER: Now this song was written because I had started playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" live with my band. I really loved singing it. It was a great key to sing in. So I said, you know, I should just write myself a song in this key, and then I'll have my own song to sing. And it turned out to be a very Rolling Stones song, and then when I sang it I was, like, doing my best Mick Jagger imitation.

(Soundbite from "My Hands Are Tied")

Mr. KOOPER: (Singing) I thought we had the greatest love in the world, baby. I never thought you'd ever want to look around.

And, you know, if such a thing were possible, I think they could have a huge hit now if they recorded that song. I think it's a goo--you know, it's the kind of thing that they should be doing right now.

INSKEEP: Even though he no longer produces other artists, you can still hear the mind of a record producer at work when you talk to Al Kooper.

Tomorrow, we'll hear the music of David Gray, who embraced the advice of a producer.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Well, Al Kooper, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. KOOPER: OK. This is probably the first time that I have ever worked with a Russian interviewer, and it was great to work with you. Well, I mean, `Steveinskeep.'

INSKEEP: It's Steve Inskeep with a `P' on the end. Yeah.

Mr. KOOPER: Yeah, `Steveinskeep.'

INSKEEP: That's it exactly. It does sound...

Mr. KOOPER: Isn't that Russian?

INSKEEP: It does, yes. Like you should be saluting or something, yeah.

Mr. KOOPER: Yeah, `Steveinskeep.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Bye-bye, or however they say it in Russian.

Mr. KOOPER: Nice to see you, `Steveinskeep.'

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And once again, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

MusicMorning Edition
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.