Top 10 Al Kooper Keyboard Songs
This eye-opening list of the top Al Kooper keyboard songs show that his contributions to rock and roll are not only significant, they are incredibly varied. Kooper was part of the band that helped Bob Dylan “go electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. He forged the jazz/R&B/rock fusion sound by forming Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1967. He signed the Zombies to Columbia, resulting in their masterpiece “Odessey & Oracle” along with “Time of the Season.” He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced their first three albums. He even wrote ‘This Diamond Ring,’ a monster hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Kooper started out as a guitar player, but his most enduring achievement might be his work as a keyboardist, whether playing alongside rock legends or leading the group himself. Below are 10 of Kooper’s most important keyboard contributions:
Kooper plays the prominently featured organ on the almost six-minute closing track on the Who’s famous concept album. What begins sounding like a church organ switches to a loungey feel as the song progresses through its many sections. Like many of Pete Townshend’s songs, ‘Rael’ was conceived as part of a bigger musical piece. As such, it would be an obvious precursor to The Who’s rock opera ‘Tommy’ (it even contains the early strains of ‘Sparks’ near the end). A few years later, Kooper would reteam with Townshend and pals to play organ on the original version of ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ but an alternate recording of the song was eventually chosen for ‘Who’s Next.’
Although Kooper never recorded with the Beatles, he came as close as possible with his work on this 1981 hit. Originally written by George for Ringo Starr and recorded in 1980, ‘All Those Years Ago’ was reconceptualized following John Lennon’s tragic death a few weeks later. Ringo wasn’t thrilled with the song to begin with, so George wrote new lyrics as a tribute to his late friend and former bandmate. He kept the original instrumental track (himself on guitar, Ringo on drums and Kooper on keyboards), but recorded himself singing the new lyrics in early 1981. George also recruited Paul McCartney – as well as his wife Linda and Wings bandmate Denny Laine – to sing backing vocals. The gently rocking paean to Lennon would be the first song to feature Harrison, Starr and McCartney since ‘Let it Be.’ And Kooper’s keyboards got to lead the way.
‘No Time Like the Right Time’
After Kooper had stumbled into the role of session keyboard player via Bob Dylan (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Al Kooper Keyboard Songs), he thought he could use some extra practice on the instrument. So, he joined up with these Greenwich Village blues-rockers in 1965 and honed his newfound craft in concert. His high-water mark with the band came a couple years later with ‘No Time Like the Right Time’ from ‘Live at Town Hall’ (most of which was neither recorded live nor at Town Hall). This brash bit of psychedelic pop was written by Kooper and features him on vocals, organ and Kooperphone-keyboard (for a quick solo that takes a trip to India). Long after The Blues Project were forgotten, the song lives on courtesy of the indispensible ‘Nuggets’ compilation.
In the midst of this woozy groove, Kooper’s chiming piano is the only square invited the psychedelic party. And yet, every time you can hear Al banging away on the high keys, the surprise makes this track just a bit more interesting. His piano playing hearkens back to those great, early rock and roll records. It’s like seeing a blurry picture of Johnnie Johnson through the lava lamp of ‘Electric Ladyland.’ And it’s a reminder that all the pieces matter.
Following their successful partnership in 1965 — again, see the top of our Top 10 Al Kooper Keyboard Songs list — Kooper rejoined Dylan in Nashville to record what would become ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ But he was more than just a session guy this time around. Kooper would play piano in Dylan’s hotel room so the songwriter could figure out the melodies for his lyrics. The next day, Kooper would explain Bob’s musical intentions to the Nashville sidemen. That’s reportedly what happened with ‘Just Like a Woman,’ a perfect example of Kooper’s involvement. Dylan’s carefully savored lyrics seem to swell and dive with Kooper’s gentle playing – as if his organ is coaxing each line.
In less than three years, Kooper had gone from a wannabe session guitarist to an in-demand keyboardist who had recorded with Dylan, Hendrix and the Who. In the meantime, he had been a driving force in two wildly influential bands (the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears), but had quickly left each group. In the spring of 1968, he organized a recording session for him and his old pal Mike Bloomfield – who was also between projects. Mike didn’t show on day two, so Kooper recruited Stephen Stills to work on the remainder. The album, with its Kooper/Bloomfield side one and Kooper/Stills side two, features a number of beautiful jams and brilliant covers. But for prime Kooper, you’d have to go with this slow-rolling instrumental. Kooper’s organ bobs and weaves until it intertwines itself with Bloomfield’s stinging six-string. And Al’s bluesy solo in the middle has him employing every trick he’d learned in the last three years.
‘I Can’t Quit Her’
At the height of psychedelia, Kooper formed Blood, Sweat & Tears with the notion of combining blues, soul, jazz, rock and even classical music into one sound. Kooper proved to be a visionary – which is to say that his group’s debut didn’t sell too well, but BS&T (without Al, who left after this album) and similarly styled groups became platinum acts a few years later. ‘I Can’t Quit Her’ would have been a blockbuster hit if it landed in the early ’70s. Kooper penned a perfect pop song, driven by his insistent piano playing and soaring on the strength of his soulful vocals.
After catching Lynyrd Skynyrd’s set at an Atlanta club, Kooper signed the Southern rockers to a contract with his Songs of the South label (a division of MCA). Not only did he discover the band, he produced and played on their first three albums – and, as such, a healthy majority of the band’s best-known songs. But as a keyboardist, Kooper’s greatest contribution to Lynyrd Skynyrd is his work on ‘Free Bird.’ From the almost holy organ that opens the epic to the mellotron “strings” that sweeten the deal, it’s tough to imagine the classic without Kooper – who was credited as Roosevelt Gook.
When the Stones brought Kooper on board to record ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ the rock titans got a three-for-one deal. It’s Al who takes the song from ballad to rocker with those perfectly placed descending piano chords. And it’s Al who uses those little organ embellishments to trade jabs with Mick Jagger on the song’s third verse. And it’s even Al playing the solemn French horn at the beginning of the tune. Kooper’s finest moment comes near the end. As the choir goes higher and higher and higher, he’s in full-on party mode on his piano, twirling around like he found Keith Richards’ secret stash. This time, the Stones got both what they wanted and what they needed.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’
The top entry on this list of Al Kooper’s top keyboard songs brings it all back home, so to speak. When Kooper was invited by producer Tom Wilson to witness Dylan’s latest recording session, the 21-year-old musician was determined to get involved somehow. But as a guitarist, he quickly saw he could never rival Mike Bloomfield. Opportunity knocked when Paul Griffin was moved from Hammond organ to piano and a seat was left vacant. Just to get a shot, Kooper lied and said he had a great idea for the organ part. Wilson refused, but when he got called away, Kooper snuck in. Somehow, he improvised the greatest organ part in rock history. Wilson was skeptical of Kooper’s work, but Dylan wasn’t: ‘Turn the organ up!’ Indeed, it’s an inseparable part of the recording. Where would the chorus be if Kooper’s organ wasn’t there to “answer” Dylan’s questions? That was it. After just one session, Kooper was already a professional keyboardist.