Only 21 when he became famous for playing the signature organ riffs on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Al Kooper has a list of credits that could fill this magazine.
He started Blood, Sweat & Tears and discovered, signed and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd. He played on hundreds of sessions including working with the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. He has held A&R positions, written an uncommonly candid autobiography, composed TV and film scores, taught at the Berklee College of Music, survived a brain tumor, coped with vision loss and, of course, recorded solo albums.
“Black Coffee,” his seventh solo set and first in 30 years, was issued July 12 on Favored Nations in the United States. Sony Japan will issue it July 27.
Kooper, 61, spoke to Billboard from his home in Boston.
Q: How did you get your singing as expressive and natural as it sounds on “Black Coffee”?
A: I learned to sing better in the last 10 years. I’ve improved key factors like pitch, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to make this record to show the improvement in my singing. It was always my weakest card.
Q: How did you team up with Dan Penn to write “Going, Going, Gone”?
A: We wrote it around 1994-95. We were both living in Nashville… We got together and tried to write, but we were laughing too hard. Now I consider him a wonderful friend. The song is [about] as you get older, one day you wake up and they don’t make anything you like, or play anything you like, and that’s the day you realize you’re a senior citizen.
Q: You lost two-thirds of your vision in 2001. How have you coped with that?
A: I can’t see some dark places and lighter places, and my focus is not what it used to be. I was thankful that it wasn’t my hands or my ears.
Q: When you played on “Like a Rolling Stone,” did you think it would be a lasting moment in music history?
A: I was fighting for my life that day, so I didn’t get a chance remotely to think. The producer [Tom Wilson] invited me to the session because he knew I was a Dylan fan. I was trying with my 21-year-old ambition to play on the session, and I actually succeeded. [Those] were the years I was 90% ambition and 10% talent. Now it has reversed itself, but now I have very little desire to leave the house.
Q: Is “Black Coffee” a culmination of your dips into soul, blues and rock through the decades?
A: I had 140 pieces of material, so I was able to pick my favorites. I had stopped making [solo albums] because they weren’t selling and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Ten years ago I wanted to reverse that decision, but being over 50 I couldn’t get a record deal. Getting a record deal at 60, it’s a miracle in the music business.
Excerpted from the July 16, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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