Al Kooper terms himself “quite surprised and amused” to learn he’s been selected for a “musical excellence award” at the 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 3 in his birthplace of Brooklyn.
Kooper joins frequent Rock Hall nominee Chaka Khan and Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin in the category, which was introduced during 2000 as the sideman award and renamed during 2010. Previous recipients have included Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, LL Cool J, Nile Rodgers and Judas Priest.
“I wasn’t aware of that at all, actually,” Koper told Billboard from his current home in Boston. “So it’s flattering. I don’t have a plethora of awards.” In 2008, however, the multi-instrumentalist was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, and seven years prior he received an Honorary Doctor of Music from the Berklee College of Music, where he taught songwriting and record production.
Kooper, 79, has long been considered one of the Rock Hall’s great slights given his voluminous contributions — starting as a member of the Royal Teens and then co-writing the hits “This Diamond Ring” for Gary Lewis and the Playboys and “I Must Be Seeing Things” for Gene Pitney. “I’ve lived a long live and I’ve done a lot of stuff — and I was also lucky in how things fell for me,” Kooper noted.
That luck played out during June 1965 sessions in New York where Kooper found himself creating the organ riff for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “I would just call it ballsy,” Kooper recalled with a laugh. “I was invited to the session and I went out and sat down at the organ. I wasn’t invited to play. (Producer) Tom Wilson said, ‘OK, this is Take 2…Hey, what are you doing out there?!’ Once I sat down, I just started playing.” The session led to an association that included playing live with Dylan — including at that summer’s notorious Newport Folk Festival appearance — and recording on several of his albums.
Kooper went on to join the Blues Project in 1965 and then formed Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1967, which he left after just one album (Child Is Father to the Man) over creative differences. “It was a band I put together and then they kicked me out of it, that’s how I look at it,” Kooper said with a laugh. “I was sort of surprised by how big they got, sort of instantly — but not when I was in it.” As a record executive with Columbia, Kooper helmed projects such as Super Session with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. He had a record label called Sounds of the South, through MCA, through which he signed Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced its first three albums.
Kooper also produced Don Ellis, the Tubes and Frankie & Johnny and released 11 solo albums. He’s played on sessions for the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Roy Orbison, the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Neil Diamond, Rita Coolidge and more, and he scored the 1980s TV series Crime Story and the 1970 film The Landlord. He also served as the musical director of the Rock Bottom Remainders, the all-authors band.
Kooper documented many of his experiences in his colorful 1977 memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivor, as well as in the continuing podcast Koopercast.
Kooper, who considers himself “housebound” (“As I got older I just wasn’t as interested in going out”), maintains a recording studio in his basement and continues to work on new music. His latest project is a career-spanning four-CD set of “everything that didn’t come out”; he’s currently working on getting the rights to all the material and has not determined a release date.
Kooper claims to be unaware of the online and social media campaigns pushing for his inclusion in the Rock Hall. He isn’t thinking about the induction ceremony yet, either, and said his attendance in November “depends on my health.”