The man behind the curtain
Musician Al Kooper reveals the connection between Prophet Omega, Lynyrd Skynyrd and short shorts
“Friends, seen and unseen. To you that are riding around in your automobile, to you that are sitting around the table, I greet you with the holy word: Peace. Yes, I am what I am, and that’s all I am, and I am it …”
Some years back, a record-company publicist had been on the phone with me, seasoning his sales pitch by quoting some obscure 1970s-vintage Nashville radio preacher named Prophet Omega. The Prophet, as it were, was the founder and revelator of the Peaceway Temple, which was located at 488 Lemont Drive, Apartment Q-258—“that’s the Kenmont Apartments,” he reminded listeners—which was where he apparently lived, preached and broadcast his weekly radio show.
It sounded hilarious. So, quit teasing me and send a tape, I begged.
About a week later, a homemade cassette arrived in the mail. It contained a good 20 minutes of excerpts from Omega’s show, which culminated in an extended, head-thumping charismatic fit. Between James Brown-style yelps, Omega hyperventilated and babbled a curiously psychedelic biblical narrative, something about a big fish swallowing Jonah before jumping out of the water. “Fish took a blind stagger!” the Prophet barked, and moments later he was imploring his listeners: “Come close to the radio and lay your hands on the radio.” Great stuff.
The rest of the tape was pretty top-notch, too. Highlights included an F-bomb-laced dugout rant from Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda; an insanely profane post-gig verbal beatdown by jazz bandleader Buddy Rich; and a futile attempt at recording a commercial with KFC’s Colonel Harland Sanders, in which the fried-chicken king got progressively more extra-crispy, most likely on Kentucky bourbon, as the session transpired.
Another aborted advertisement featured film director Orson Welles, who whined and fussed over grammatical constructs in a script for frozen peas and then offered to “go down” on the ad-agency guy supervising the session. And another crazy bit featured a man with an outfit called J&H Productions who’d sent a couple of six-minute sales pitches on cassette, rife with tortured legalese, to various record companies: “Pertaining to the label industry, pertaining to shows at the coliseum which J&H Productions would like to promote with the label industry,” he droned on, promising “stars after stars after stars.”
Prophet Omega gained quite a cult following among musicians. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew sampled the Prophet on one of his albums, jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter titled one of his DVDs Friends Seen and Unseen, and an indie-rock band from the Midwest named itself Courtesy Move after a line in one of Omega’s Shipp Moving Co. ads. It was rumored that a number of musicians, from Bob Dylan to mandolinist David Grisman to country star Marty Stuart, had memorized large chunks of Prophet Omega’s sermons, which they would spout at will.
The point man for funneling Prophet Omega, the J&H Productions guy, the drunken Colonel, the psychotic bandleader and others into underground culture, as it turned out, was another musician named Al Kooper.
“I was the one who got all that stuff out,” Kooper said. “I had a network of people who would send me things, and I would put them out on a Christmas album—on vinyl—and I’d send them to about 300 people. And those people would make cassettes and send them around.”
Al Kooper is a lot better known for some other recordings, though. Perhaps most specifically, he’s known as the guy who talked his way into playing organ at a Bob Dylan recording session in 1965. He knew the producer, a friend named Tom Wilson, and when he realized the guitarist’s chair was already in the capable hands of Paul Butterfield Blues Band alumnus Mike Bloomfield, and that Wilson had moved the organist to piano, Kooper stepped in. The song was “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Kooper has been asked to recount that particular story so many times that he’s stopped telling it.
But Kooper has plenty of others. He began his career in New York, playing session guitar on rock ’n’ roll records in the late 1950s, and wound up joining the Royal Teens, who’d had a hit in 1958 with “Short Shorts.” One of the songs Kooper had co-written was a bluesy number for the Drifters called “This Diamond Ring,” but Gary Lewis & the Playboys had the hit with their wimpy up-tempo version of it.
After the Dylan session, Wilson asked Kooper to play on a session with a band he was producing, the Blues Project, and the band soon asked him to join. (One of that band’s songs, “Flute Thing,” later was sampled by the Beastie Boys.) Three albums later, he left, and after a stint as stage manager for the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967—where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin made their breakthrough performances—Kooper moved back to New York. He formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, which introduced the big-band sound to rock, but left after one album. Then he recorded an album called Super Session with Bloomfield and Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills, later of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But the most recognizable records Kooper had a hand in making came from a Jacksonville, Fla., bar band he found after work while producing a record in Atlanta in 1972. “I listened to them, and I thought, ‘This is really good,’” Kooper recalled. “I was looking for something like that, because at the time, there was nothing but progressive rock going on, and that music had been kind of sidelined for a while. Listening to the radio, I’d said if I could find a great three-chord band, I could make a zillion dollars now, ’cause nobody’s concentrating on that.”
Kooper liked the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, so much that he got MCA Records to give him a custom label called Sounds of the South. Kooper produced Skynyrd’s first three records. The debut album featured a long signature song called “Free Bird.” Encores were never the same afterward.
Though Al Kooper has a long and storied history, he isn’t wholly a creature of the past. He released a new album, Black Coffee, this year on the Favored Nations label; it’s his seventh solo record, his first since 1975. “All the solo albums are basically the same,” he admitted. “There’s always cover songs, and then the originals are in every possible genre of music there is—except hip-hop. I still kept writing and recording. I had over 130 tracks to pick from. And I don’t think I’m burnt out; I mean, I think I’m learning how to do my stuff better all the time.” In November, Kooper released a four-song EP called Beatle-ized!, which is only available at iTunes.
Kooper’s old label, Columbia Records, compiled an excellent two-CD retrospective, Rare & Well Done: The Greatest and Most Obscure Recordings, which it released in 2001 through its reissue division, Legacy, with one CD composed entirely of unreleased material. Like Black Coffee, it makes a case for Kooper as an American eclectic who freely synthesized rock, blues, R&B, gospel, jazz and country sounds into his own original blend. Stylistically, Kooper’s work is along the lines of a white Ray Charles. “Yeah,” Kooper modestly admitted, “but [Charles] did have a hundred million times more talent than I did.”
Kooper has produced a number of artists throughout the years, including Dylan, B.B. King, the Tubes, Green on Red and Joe Ely. He’s played on a ton of records, including ones by the Rolling Stones, Hendrix and George Harrison. He worked as an A&R man for Columbia and PolyGram Records, and he did soundtrack work for directors Hal Ashby, John Waters and Michael Mann. In the 1990s, he served as the musical director for the Rock Bottom Remainders—a touring band featuring writers Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry and Barbara Kingsolver.
These days, Kooper plays live in three configurations. The Boston-based Funky Faculty are all professors at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Kooper taught until his failing eyesight forced him to retire. Another combo, the Rekooperators, consists of guitarist Jimmy Vivino and bassist Mike Merritt, who also play in Conan O’Brien’s house band, and drummer Anton Fig, who plays in David Letterman’s. Since both of those bands are anchored to the East Coast, that leaves Kooper’s solo act, the one he’s bringing to Sacramento. “It’s sort of an interesting show,” Kooper said, “because I tell the story of the songs. But I’m also a frustrated comedian, so I do a lot of sit-down comedy in the show. It’s pretty funny.”
The solo show at Harlow’s will be Kooper’s first since reworking his material. He’ll tell stories and play songs on piano, synthesizer or guitar. “I like to break down the wall between myself and the audience,” he said. “I don’t like to put myself up on a pedestal.”
When Kooper isn’t playing, he’s busy listening. The easiest place for him to find new music, he says, is online at Apple’s iTunes store, where he listens to new releases every week. He even keeps a diary of songs he’s downloaded at his Web site, at www.alkooper.com. For a 63-year-old man, his taste is reasonably contemporary.
“ITunes pretty much changed my life,” Kooper admitted. “I didn’t know that there were so many great new bands out there, and iTunes is one of the only arenas in which they can appear in. As a matter of fact, I found a band a few years ago that’s from Sacramento that totally rocks: Hella, when they were a two-piece band. I went berserk over that. I went to meet them, and we’ve become friends.” Kooper even tried to get Hella signed to Blue Note Records.
Other recent Kooper discoveries include Illinois-based instrumental band Von Fickle, San Francisco band Deerhoof and Milwaukee acoustic singer-songwriter Willy Porter. “I love meeting these people,” Kooper said, “because music really makes my life better. It makes me think that maybe I should start producing again.”
Someone recently remarked that listening to new music is akin to discovering the fountain of youth. Kooper would probably concur, as would Prophet Omega: Come close to the laptop and lay your hands on the laptop.