Al Kooper’s is a name which has floated throughout rock history since the ‘60s,
but it’s also one that, when it comes to its importance, is a little hazy at
times. Lord knows it’s not because he hasn’t contributed to the work of a
seemingly never-ending list of artists – at the very, very least, he’s destined
for immortality via his organ playing on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” –
but, rather, because much of his work comes from his roles on the other side of
the microphone as musician, songwriter, and producer.
The booklet for Black Coffee, Kooper’s first proper solo album in 30
years, includes a helpful timeline to see exactly what he's accomplished in his
time…and, if you’re anything at all like this writer, you will find that,
although your reaction may lie anywhere between stunned silence and a very loud
“holy crap,” the general consensus will still be that this guy is awesome.
Some highlights from his résumé:
• Wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis & The Playboys.
• Played not only on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, but also on Blonde
on Blonde, New Morning, and Under the Red Sky.
• Founded Blood, Sweat & Tears.
• Played on "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
• Played on Electric Ladyland.
• Discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, created his own record label - Sounds of the South
- to sign them, and produced Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, Second
Helping, and Nuthin' Fancy.
• Produced the first Tubes album, Nils Lofgren's Cry Tough, and Green on
• Played on George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" and What Up, Dog?, by
Was (Not Was).
• Scored the first two...erm, make that the only two...seasons of NBC’s
• And, just to confuse as many people as possible, Al Kooper recorded with
Al(ice) Cooper on the latter’s Lace and Whiskey.
These are just specific highlights. Once you throw in the fact that he’s also
shown up on material by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul & Mary,
Cream, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Taj Mahal, Moby
Grape, Paul Butterfield, Rita Coolidge, Brewer & Shipley, Roger McGuinn, Bill
Wyman, Patti LaBelle, Rick Nelson, Eddie & The Hot Rods, David Essex, Joe Ely,
Joe Walsh, Trisha Yearwood, Roy Orbison, Webb Wilder, Ringo Starr, Dave Alvin,
Leo Sayer, and, uh…I’m sorry, I’ve totally forgotten where I was going with
Oh, right: Al Kooper is awesome.
Black Coffee is a collection of 14 songs – twelve studio, two live –
recorded predominantly with Kooper’s backing band of choice, the Funky Faculty,
a.k.a. drummer Larry Finn, guitarist Bob Doezma, and bassist Tim Stein. There
are exceptions to this, however, the first of which is a well-selected, way
bluesy cover of Keb’ Mo’s “Am I Wrong,” where Kooper plays all of the
instruments himself. A few other covers are scattered about, including a
storming, piano-pounding version of Smokey Robinson’s “Get Ready,” “Got My Ion
Hue,” by Hal Lindes (best known for his work with Dire Straits,” and the jazzy
“Just For A Thrill,” written by Lil Armstrong, The live interpretation of “Green
Onions” that falls between originals “Imaginary Lover” and “Another Man’s
Prize,” however, serves only to interrupt the existing flow of the disc. It’s
easy to imagine “How My Ever Gonna Get Over You” as the closing number in some
smoky club, just as it’s no stretch to picture Leonard Cohen performing “Keep It
To Yourself.” (Tell someone it was written but not recorded for I’m Your Man;
the odds are 60/40 that they’ll believe you. The guitar work on the latter
track is particularly phenomenal.
As a vocalist, Kooper is the voice of soulful experience, which is perhaps the
most polite way of indicating that he’s not necessarily the best singer in the
world. Since when, though, has a solid set of pipes been a requirement to sing
It’s a shame that Kooper hasn’t done a great deal of recording in recent years,
but, with the critical plaudits Black Coffee is receiving, perhaps he’ll
be spurred to get back in the studio more often.