How Al Kooper Spearheaded the Aptly Named ‘Super Session’
Al Kooper and Michael Bloomfield found themselves in strange positions in the summer of 1968.
Kooper had played the distinctive organ hook on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” before joining the Blues Project and then forming Blood, Sweat & Tears. By this point, however, he'd split to become an A&R man for Columbia Records. Bloomfield had played with Kooper on several Dylan sessions, coming to prominence as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But he'd just left his band the Electric Flag.
It was a good time to reconnect. “We both went from Dylan to a blues band to a horn band,” Kooper later recalled, “and we were both thrown out of horn bands."
Kooper had an idea for a project the two of them could work on together, and got Bloomfield’s agreement with two words. “All I said,” he remembered, “was 'Wanna jam?'"
And with that, the seeds for what became the Super Session album were sown. The record, which captured two Kooper-helmed jam sessions (one with Bloomfield, the other with Stephen Stills), hit No. 12 on the Billboard albums chart, went gold and sparked a “supergroup” movement that inspired acts like Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The idea for a “super session” with Bloomfield stemmed from Kooper’s frustration at the inability of Bloomfield’s previous producers to properly record the guitarist’s playing.
“Being very conversant with his playing for many years,” Kooper told Jan Mark Wolkin, “I was trying to capture him the way that I knew him to be, because I was very dissatisfied with his other recordings. I felt like my mission — the best thing I could do as a producer — would be to get all this great playing out of him that I knew he had, but no one had been able to document on tape.”
Kooper booked two days of studio time and brought in Electric Flag keyboardist Barry Goldberg and bassist Harvey Brooks, along with drummer "Fast" Eddie Hoh, to back himself and Bloomfield on the sessions.
The results are among the finest tracks Bloomfield ever committed to tape. “Albert’s Shuffle” shows off his prowess as a soloist, wringing every drop of blues from his Gibson Les Paul in a spontaneous burst of fleet-fingered runs and long bent notes. “Really” and “Stop” are cut from a similar cloth, both showcasing almost telepathic interplay between an inspired Bloomfield and Kooper, who makes his Hammond organ chug and sing with equal mastery.
“His Holy Modal Majesty” is something entirely different. Here, free jazz meets blues in a lengthy tribute to the recently deceased John Coltrane. Talk about spontaneity: Bloomfield is all over the map, incorporating snatches of blues playing into the largely extemporaneous format Kooper has constructed and reinforced with his organ playing. It’s an exploratory jam of the best kind — and a wonderfully evocative thing at that.
Listen to Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper Play ‘His Holy Modal Majesty’
Those cuts just represented Day One of the two days of sessions, and Kooper looked forward to what the second day would bring. The musicians repaired to the house Kooper had rented for them (on Columbia Records’ dime), but Bloomfield would leave the house — and the sessions — while the others slept. Kooper came down for breakfast the next day and found a note.
"Actually, the note said he couldn't sleep," Kooper later remembered, though he told Bloomfield biographer David Dann that the suspected that drugs were the reason Bloomfield left. Desperate to complete the work he’d started, Kooper started looking for a new guitarist.
“I called every guitar player that I knew in California,” Kooper told JamBands. “I called Jerry Garcia and I called Randy California and Stephen Stills. I think Steve was the only one that responded.”
Stills was himself in a state of flux; Buffalo Springfield had disbanded, but Crosby, Stills & Nash had not yet come together. He went to the second night’s session, which focused on vocal songs (with the exception of the Brooks-penned “Harvey’s Tune,” an instrumental).
A harmony-laden take on Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is amped up and sped up, and sounds like what the Byrds might have sounded like doing the song -- except for Stills’ short, somewhat muted guitar solo. Everything stretches out for an 11-minute run through Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” which is pretty much built on a wah-wah guitar bed and Kooper’s slightly distorted organ work.
Listen to Stephen Stills and Al Kooper Play ‘Season of the Witch’
Kooper finished the recording with a three-hour overdub session with a horn section, to punctuate certain points of the jams, as well as to cover up some issues.
“I noticed sections that were dynamically impaired and needed editing or some kind of help,” he wrote in his "Producer’s Notes" for the album, which was released on July 22, 1968. “Instead of cutting these parts out entirely, I got arranger Joe Scott to fill them in with horn parts that were sympathetic to what was going on in the tracks.”
Two tracks — “Albert’s Shuffle” from the Bloomfield studio time and “Season of the Witch” from Stills' — were included without the horn overdubs as bonus cuts on the 2003 reissue of Super Session.
In all, that the album was embraced and sold so well was a pleasant surprise to all involved, particularly Kooper.
“That was the last thing on our minds, that that was going to be a successful record,” he told Jan Mark Wolkin. “I was trying to emulate the Blue Note jazz records of the '50s in concept — put a bunch of guys that can really play in a room and let 'em jam. Make rock 'n' roll more of an art form, comparing it to those jazz records. And it turned out to be the most successful record of our careers.”