Al Kooper Talks Super Session

An interview with veteran musician, producer and songwriter Al Kooper was featured on the Dec. 21 edition of Greasy Tracks where the legendary Super Session album will be featured.

Click here to listen to an archive of the show, while a playlist is here.

Super Session: Al Kooper (left) and Michael Bloomfield taking a break during recording for what would ultimately be “Super Session” in 1968. (Jim Marshall photo)

Kooper, best known as one of the founding members of The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, was involved in landmark recording sessions with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. In addition to releasing a number of solo albums, his behind-the-scenes work as a producer and player with such artists as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Don Ellis, The Tubes, Nils Lofgren, Joe Ely, Shuggie Otis and Lenny White helped pave the way for critically acclaimed releases from each.

Recorded in 1968, Super Session was the first production for Kooper who had recently been signed to Columbia. It was initially supposed to be a collaboration between Kooper and Michael Bloomfield, a guitarist he’d met in 1965 during studio work for what would become Dylan’s famed Highway 61 Revisited.

Electric impact at Newport: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, guitarist Michael Bloomfield (left), drummer Sam Lay, Butterfield and guitarist Elvin Bishop (right). Bloomfield would back Bob Dylan later that day. (Dr. John Rudoff photo)

Although invited to observe, not play on the recording session, Kooper, then 21, took his guitar with him, determined to be a participant. Recognizing Bloomfield’s ability and possibly intimidated, Kooper realized there was no way he could measure up to such talent, but eager to be part of the recording, he got behind the Hammond organ in the studio. Even though he had little or no experience as a keyboardist, Kooper’s improvised organ lines impressed Dylan so much that he directed the recording engineers to bring it up in the mix that would become “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Dylan goes electric: Michael Bloomfield (left), bassist Jerome Arnold and keyboardist Al Kooper backed Bob Dylan (center) at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan shocked the folk world by playing an electric set. Bloomfield and Kooper sessioned on Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” a month earlier. (Photo courtesy of newportfolk.com)

A month later, Dylan sent ripples through the folk world when he played an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival with Bloomfield, Kooper and several members of the Butterfield Blues Band backing him up.

Kooper and Bloomfield formed a friendship during the Highway 61 proceedings, but each would be involved with other groups – Kooper with The Blues Project and Bloomfield with the Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag – before linking up for what would become Super Session which was essentially planned by Kooper to be a jam session over a two-day period.SS_Cover

Kooper and Bloomfield — joined by bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh — would play a handful of pre-determined tracks along with potentially on-the-spot creations in the studio. Barry Goldberg, who along with Brooks, played with Bloomfield in the Electric Flag, played piano on two tracks.

During the first day of recording at Columbia’s studio in Hollywood, the group played came up with a handful of original tracks in what was largely a blues/jazz format, including the Kooper-Bloomfield penned instrumentals “Albert’s Shuffle,” “His Holy Modal Majesty” and “Really” along with an instrumental version of the Jerry Ragovoy/Mort Shuman nugget “Stop” and a soulful take of Curtis Mayfield’s “Man’s Temptation” with Kooper handling vocals.

Improvisational jamming: Guitarist Michael Bloomfield and bassist Harvey Brooks during recording for "Super Session." The pair sessioned on Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and would later play together in The Electric Flag. (Jim Marshall photo)

Improvisational jamming: Guitarist Michael Bloomfield and bassist Harvey Brooks during recording for “Super Session.” The pair sessioned on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and would later play together in The Electric Flag. (Jim Marshall photo)

The longest selection on the side, “His Holy Modal Majesty,” topped nine minutes and while a tribute to John Coltrane, drew comparisons to the title track of Butterfield’s East-West which came out two years earlier.

As it turned out, Bloomfield, who suffered from insomnia, returned to San Francisco home and did not return for the second day in the studio forcing Kooper to dig into his phone book and make calls to Randy California (Spirit), Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), Steve Miller and Stephen Stills who was then with the soon-to-be-broken-up Buffalo Springfield.

Stills was the only one to return the call and his contributions would end up making the second side of the album which included a version of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”; an extended version of Donovan’s Season of the Witch”;  a cover of Willie Cobbs’ “You Don’t Love Me” and “Harvey’s Tune” — an instrumental by Brooks.

Following the two-day session, Kooper returned to New York to mix the album and add some horns to a handful of tracks. It was released less than two months later and would eventually go to No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and gain gold status in sales. Total cost to make the album, $13,000.

Following the release of Super Session, Kooper and Bloomfield joined up for a three-night run at the Fillmore West in San Francisco that September. The recordings culled from these shows were released as The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, and included a rare vocal by Bloomfield on a version of Albert King’s “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong.”

Bloomfield died in 1981 at the age of 37.

 

Leave a Reply