Black Coffee and Some Lynyrd Skynyrd, Please
by Michael Buffalo Smith
No introduction is necessary. If you listen to rock and pop music, you know who Al Kooper is. For those of us entangled in the world of "Southern Rock," he is best known as the man who "discovered" Lynyrd Skynyrd. We spoke with Al about that legendary band and a whole lot more.
I was listening to your album last night and it was absolutely awesome. We have missed hearing your solo stuff.
I couldn’t get a record deal. If you are over 50 years old, forget about it. No matter how good your music is. Then when I actually got it I was 60. Talk about miracles, that was a miracle.
My first question was that it has been almost 30 years since you did a solo album, what made you decide to do a record? Was it because of the fact as you've gotten older you became almost an icon?
No, no, no, in the music business there is no respect for seniority, unless you are Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, or someone like that. But if you are not someone gigantic like that then forget about it. For instance someone like ZZ Topp, they don’t get any respect anymore.
I put them on the cover last issue.
Yeah, I saw that online. But you know what I am saying. Like me, forget about it. In 1989 I quit the music business, producing for labels and being involved on a day to day basis, I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. And so in 1991, I think, I am not sure the exact year, it could have been 1992, but at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Cream played. They reformed and played and I really wanted to see that. Well, I had been working with Stephen King at the time, the author, and he invited me and a date to go to that. This made me very happy because I wanted to see it and it was in L.A. So I asked the actress Bonnie Bedilia if she would be my date because she had just finished doing a Stephen King movie, and she also loves music so I felt like it would be a good date. She accepted and we went there and all of these people that I had known for decades looked at me like I was invisible. All the work I had done my whole life didn’t mean anything anymore.
The musicians that were playing spoke but that was it. This reinforced the choice I made because it was definitely the right one. My life was much happier after 1989 because I didn’t have to deal with those rat-fuck people that make up the music business. That gave me an inkling of what was going to happen to me for the rest of my life if I didn’t go back into the music business, which is what I definitely wasn’t going to do.
So around 1995, I decided that I really wanted to make another album and realized that I couldn’t get a deal if my life depended on it. It just ain’t going to happen. So I just kind of tucked it in, and felt like if that was the only problem I had from the whole thing that I could live with it. Then in 2003, I toured Japan with my band. It was so successful, the record company, Sony, who has my catalog they came and asked me if I would like to make a new album. I accepted and even though it was in Japan with the internet you can get it around. Get a Japanese record into America and people will buy it. Then right after that Steve Vai the guitar player, who has his own label, he came to me and asked to take that record to the rest of the world. That is miraculous for someone who is 60 years old. It’s like a miracle. I quit making solo albums 30 years ago because I got a chance to make an album with a new record company, that had an ad campaign, and got a publicist, they gave me tour support for a three month American tour, with a pretty big band.
I made a pretty good album, so I said if this album doesn’t do well, then I am going to stop doing this. So here I had a really good album going but it wasn’t selling very well. I had this good album support from this record company, and I said I would stop and I stuck to that. Then after about 20 years I felt like I wanted to make another one, but couldn’t make it for another 10 years, until I got that deal. This one came out even better than I planned on it being. So that was great and for me that was a successful record. When you can fulfill how you think that the record should be. My mantra is if you don’t expect anything, you can not be disappointed. I appreciate your criticism and that you get it. Some people won’t get it.
How do you feel that the album turned out?
Couldn’t be better. It’s better than I thought it would be.
I saw that you co-wrote with one of our Muscle Shoals friends, Dan Penn, how did you guys come to collaborate?
It took me about one year to get up the nerve to call him. Like I am not worthy, from Wayne's World. Then we did get together and he came over the my house and we tried to write a song, but we sure did laugh. We got along and had a lot in common. We wrote a few songs and also laughed a lot too. We became good friends and I adore him. He is one of the best people I have met in my life and in the music business.
That song is humorous and I just love it. "Going, Going, Gone."
How old are you?
I am 48.
You are definitely in the age range for that song. I have been doing that song live since I wrote it in1994-95. People will come over after a show and say they liked that song and want to know where to buy it. So it is great when you are a songwriter and can speak for other people, and they say that that is exactly what I think. Then you have scored a coup in song writing. That song has really done that over the years. A lot of people really like it and understand it. They say "you speak for me there." As a lyricist you can’t beat that.
That is true. I was thinking last night while looking over all your resume, that goes on forever, and saw one of the songs that you wrote, "This Diamond Ring." As a kid I remember that being one of the first records I had. I played it over and over. That was basically my record collection as a little kid, that and some Beatles records.
Tell me about the Funky Faculty.
They are all professors at Berkelee College of Music in Boston which is one of the top music schools in the world. They are great guys and amazing musicians.I started teaching at Berkelee around 1997 and I had been there about 2 months. One of the guys called me and he said he hated to bother me, but his name was Bob Dozima and he taught at Berkelee. Every year they have a charity show for the school and they rent a hotel or a building and take a lot of rooms and all different bands play in the rooms and then these big money people come and walk around from room to room and have a great time. He asked if I might want to play with them. He said, "We don’t have a keyboard player and we are in the Blues Room. I figured you might want to play but didn’t know anyone." I told him I would love to play with them. He said that we didn’t need to practice because it was just the blues. So by the third year I was in charge of the band. (Laughs) I added some horns and was singing some songs, and then we talked about rehearsing so we could go out and play in town. They are great guys and we have been around the world. We just get along great and it is fun when we get on the road. That is difficult to find, good musicians that are great people.
If you can get away from the egos and stuff.
I like to play with people my age. I get nervous when I see an old guy playing in a band of 20-year-olds. John Lee Hooker used to do that. I like it when people play with those their own age because as a band leader you don’t have to worry when you say, you know, "I want this to sound like blah, blah, blah. They don’t look at you with blank faces."
Make this sound a little bit more like The Ides of March, and less like Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
(Laughs) Actually it is more the other way around, more like Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
I'm sure you've worked around the Muscle Shoals scene, Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound, right?
Don’t be too sure, because I have never set foot in there. But I was a big fan and someone sent me a URL to a Muscle Shoals website and there is a great picture of Bobbie Gentry’s butt on there. It just stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought, what a genius photographer. He got right to the bottom of things.(Laughs)
Sounds like Dick Cooper.
Well, there you go it had to be a guy named Cooper.(or Kooper) It was the only one in all those pictures that got right down to business. If he is a friend of yours and I could get a copy of that I would be a happy guy.
How long have you had your Jack Russell terrier?
About three years. It is not an actual Jack, it is crossed with an English Foxhound, so it is not as hyper as the Jack Russell. She is pretty calm.
My boy Taz looks just like that one in the face.
My wife took that picture (inside the Black Coffee cd) and I loved it. I felt like people would relate to that dog. She is really smart and her communication skills are really good. Best dog I have ever had.
The inevitable is that I want to talk about Lynyrd Skynrd a little bit. I saw you on the CMT thing the other day and I felt like they did a good job on that. It was like much better than I thought is would be. Of course, VH1 did that Uncivil Wars, that was very nasty.
They don’t know what the fuck they are doing.
It was the Jerry Springer mentality.
I was a little worried when CMT called me. But I know a gal in Nashville that cuts my hair real good, so anytime I am offered something there I try to take it so I can go down and get a good haircut.
You say she cuts your hair real good?
Yeah, she is great and I do have some friends in Nashville, from when I lived there.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to discover this Lynyrd Skynryd Band?
I was producing this record down in Atlanta. I came through on tour in Atlanta and I had some friends in The Atlanta Rythm Section. I knew them when they were called The Candy Men, in the late 60’s. I met them when I lived in New York. We became friends so I called them and told them I was coming through for a week in Atlanta. I told him that when we came through we would have a great jam session. So that is what I did. They had a a great studio. I came back, and as a matter of fact, I was recording my back up band and they were making there own album called Frankie and Johnny. This was about 1972. So we were there for one month and worked every day from noon until about eight.
Then I met someone that I went to summer camp with and he was a manager of a club and I thought I could just go to his club and chase some women. Record all day and then chase women at night. That’s what it’s about. This place is called Finokeose on Peachtree Street. It was a rough place and there were lots of fights going on and stuff. We had a private balcony and we would tell the waitress to go tell that girl in the orange sweater that we were inviting her up here. We loved going there. The first week we were there they had a band called Boot playing. I went and sat in with them. In those days you played for a week at a time. It was not a one night thing like it is now. You would be there for one week. Boot played there for one week and the next week I saw it was Lynyrd Skynryd. I said, "what the hell is this?" Then they played and I thought, boy this is a weird band. They were doing originals. I always liked that.
A couple of them really started getting to me and I thought, this is really good. The singer is barefoot and walking around and throwing the mike stand around. By the third night I had heard some of the tunes and I was hoping they would play them again and by the end of the week, I was completely sold and felt like they were a great band. So I offered them a deal. We went back and forth on that and I heard lots of great bands in Atlanta. I didn’t even want to go home. I had my roadies go back and pack up my stuff and got a place to live in Atlanta and decided to stay there and start a label. That’s what I did. Skynyrd was the second album I released on my label and it just knocked all the other bands into the toilet unfortunately.
Oh, Sounds of the South, I remember that one. It always amazed me how legendary Ronnie became after the plane crash of '77. I guess when people die they turn into much more of a legend than if they had lived.
Well, if that is the truth maybe I should have died so I could have gotten a record deal. (Laughs)
I met Ronnie one time and that was the night before he flew off from Greenville, South Carolina. The next day that he died in the crash. I met them all backstage that night. I remember asking him about how everyone in the press has him painted as being a badass and wanting to fight all the time. Which I am sure that he did fight a lot. But I remember him saying that he would never fight unless he had to. I wanted to see if you could tell me with all your experience of being around that guy, what was he really like.
He was an amazing bandleader. I have never seen a better bandleader in my whole life. No one was trying to lead that band if he was the leader. You know how there are fights in bands, well they didn’t have anything like that because he would have whooped ‘em. He was a tough little mother fucker and he was a nice guy too. He was not just tough, but he was bright. He knew how to run a band. He did a great job. I have never seen anyone run a better band in my whole career. The thing he did that was different from other bands was that he wanted that band to sound the same every night. He was not interested in improvisation at all. There was no improvisation in that band at all, except when they were first rehearsing that song. They had a place out near the swamp where they would rehearse and there was no air conditioning or anything.
Yeah, well they would go out there and just get it all together.They wouldn’t even jam, like when you are working with a band and there is a guitar solo on the song, the guy comes in and tries to play a solo. They wrote all the guitar solos out, including "Free Bird." Every bit of that was planned out before I came into the picture. Every guitar solo was played exactly the same. I have never met a band that did that nor have I met a band since, and it was pretty amazing. He was a great leader and you know we banged heads many times during the making of the three records I did with them. It was always in an okay way. I would say something, then Allen or Gary would say, “Oh, man I don’t want to do that, it sucks. Al, just let us do what we do.” Ronnie would say “Gary, I don’t like that idea that Al is suggesting either, but I don’t want to stop him from speaking his mind. Even if we just use 10% of that idea, it’s something we wouldn’t think of ourselves, so I will always listen to him.”
And I thought, there was a wise guy. So I did get some things in there and I think that a great way to judge a producer is to listen to the album that they make after they split with the producer. You know what I mean? It is understandable. I think that the first album has a certain sound and whether it is good or bad it doesn’t matter, it has a certain sound. There were little things that I like to do that was appropriate for them. When we split up I was rooting for them to make a great album. I remember the day when the next record came to my house and I put it on the turn table and looked at the record and said “okay, kick my ass” - and I thought it was the worst album they had done.
You had produced the first three right?
I guess the second was my favorite.
There are things I like about the first one.
Absolutely. I had never heard anything like that at that time.
Yeah, me neither. The thing we had in common, because I was from New York and they were from Jacksonville, so you know, we didn’t have too much in common. One thing that we did have in common was we worshiped the band Free. On every album we did at least one track that was a tribute to Free. On the first album it was "Simple Man" and on the second album it was "I Need You," second track. "On The Hunt" was the third one. All three of those songs were where we were going for that Free thing.
One thing that I loved was the music festivals and all of that especially Monterey Pop. Were you hands on there?
Yeah, I was assistant stage manager.
What do you recall about that festival that you can share?
Well, I think that the most important thing is that it was the first one that had ever been. I worked in the planning stages of it and there were so many things that came up that we had to deal with that had never happened before. When you took a lot of people like that and put them on a show, kind of like a Dick Clark Roadshow or Alan Freed Roadshow. Each band would come out and play about three songs. There was a backline of amps or stuff and everyone would just come and plug in, you know. Then there was a backup band for people that didn’t have a band and they would finish a song and the band would play them off and then the next band would come up. I knew we weren’t going to do that. I remember saying to the stage manager, “What are we going to do between bands, because it is going to take about 20 minutes to change the stage?” He was just going to play some good music on the PA system. I said, “Really, maybe we should have somebody on the other side of the stage so there would always be live music going on.” He said, “No, I have to deal with everything on stage and I don’t want to have a band up there.” That decision that he made still goes on today. So just a little thing like that was something that had never happened before. There had never been a show where there was a 20 minute or half hour change over between bands. So that was one thing that we had to deal with and that was the first time that had ever happened. His name was Chip Monk and it is a tribute to him. It still goes on today some 40 years later. It was a good decision on his part. That thing that I did there at Monteray was a jam session, we didn’t even rehearse. That is pretty obvious by the visual. (Laughs) They came to me and said we want to use this in the special edition DVD. I felt it was totally embarrassing and my wife said, “Use it, you look great!” So I said, “Alright, I’ll buy that.” That is the only reason I let them use it, because it is embarrassing. It’s more humorous than anything else. It has a certain garage thing going on.
I loved that whole documentary. To see Otis Redding, it was great.
He had the best back up band of all time. Booker T. and the MGs.
Let me ask you this. Now that you have Black Coffee out what are your immediate plans?
I am between booking agents and I have not been able to book a tour. That is another thing that is tough nowadays is to get a booking agent. Now I have to let the record talk for me. So if the record makes a little noise or something, then I will probably be able to get a booking agent, otherwise I don’t know what I will do. I spent many years booking myself, so I could do that, but I can’t rise above the first level like that way, so I will just play it by ear.
Well, not to blow wind up your skirt or anything like that, the CD is really fabulous and all it is going to take is getting the right people to hear it. Let them play it on that new - fangled satellite radio.
They are playing it on XM now. They are playing "Going, Going, Gone." Lots of people have sent me e-mails that they heard it. I have not heard about Sirius yet. Maybe because they don’t subscribe. I got three different e-mails in the past three days, from different people that heard it on XM. These are people that are waiting to buy it and are wanting to get it when it comes out.