Al Kooper! Now….here’s the story about how Al Kooper saved the day by sitting in on the recording of Like a Rolling Stone without ever having been invited. I pieced this story together from two key sources;
- An April 11, 2014 interview with Al that appeared in the Wall Street Journal
- The Wikipedia article about Like A Rolling Stone
We will start with the Wikipedia article:
The recording sessions were produced by Tom Wilson on June 15–16, 1965, in Studio A of Columbia Records, 799 Seventh Avenue, in New York City. In addition to Bloomfield, the other musicians enlisted were Paul Griffin on piano, Joe Macho, Jr. on bass, Bobby Gregg on drums, and Bruce Langhorne on tambourine, all booked by Wilson. Gregg and Griffin had previously worked with Dylan and Wilson on Bringing It All Back Home.
On the first day, five takes of the song were recorded in a markedly different style from the eventual release—a 3/4 waltz time, with Dylan on piano. The lack of sheet music meant the song was played by ear. However the essence of the song was discovered in the course of the chaotic session. They did not reach the first chorus until the fourth take, but after the following harmonica fill Dylan interrupted, saying, “My voice is gone, man. You wanna try it again?” This take was subsequently released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.The session ended shortly afterwards.
When the session re-convened the following day, June 16, Al Kooper joined the proceedings as a guest of Tom Wilson. Al picks up the story from this point in the Wall Street Journal interview…….
Question: How did you manage to play on a session you weren’t invited to: “Like A Rolling Stone?”
I was 21 by that time and because I wrote songs I knew a lot of producers. They would hire me to plan on sessions. So I was friends with Dylan’s producer (Tom Wilson). When he found out I was a Dylan fan he invited me to a session, not to play but to sit in the control room and watch. So I thought, I want to play on that record . I was practicing the guitar to be ready and I got there early–I wanted to pull this off before Tom Wilson could stop it. I got there 45 minutes early. But then like five minutes after I got there so did Dylan and he brought Mike Bloomfield. So I heard Bloomfield play and went into the control room where I belonged. I never heard anyone play like that, much less someone who appeared to be my age.
After a couple of rehearsal takes, Wilson moved Griffin from Hammond organ to piano. Al saw his opportunity and jumped at it but he had a couple of challenges to over come. We will let him continue the story from his Wall Street Journal interview:
Question: Then, long story short, you snuck in and played and Wilson didn’t kick you out. Had you played a Hammond organ before?
Yes, but I didn’t know how to turn it on-it’s very complicated. Also I didn’t know how to use all the controls. But (keyboardist Paul Griffin, who had moved to piano for the track) left it turned on and whatever the settings were that’s what I played.
Now let’s go back to the Wikipedia article to finish the story…..
Wilson, surprised to see Kooper at the organ, nevertheless allowed him to play on the track. Upon hearing a playback of the song, Dylan insisted that the organ be turned up in the mix, despite Wilson’s protestations that Kooper was “not an organ player.”
This session saw 15 recorded takes. The song had by now evolved into its familiar form, in 4/4 time with Dylan on electric guitar. After the fourth take—the master take that was released as a single—Wilson happily commented, “That sounds good to me.” Nevertheless, Dylan and the band persisted in recording the song 11 more times.
So, as they say, the rest was history. Al Kooper, an uninvited participant in the recording process, playing an instrument that he really wasn’t very familiar with, managed to improvise an organ riff that became one of the key elements of what is now widely recognized as one of the best songs of all time. That my friends is one of the best stories in rock history in my opinion.
Al went to to have quite a career but we will save most of that story for another day. Let me leave you with just one more tidbit. One of the great things that Al Kooper did later in career was to discover Lynyrd Skynyrd. The signature track of Lynyrd Skynyrd is a little ditty called Free Bird which happens to have a signature organ introduction. Guess who was in the studio playing that organ……yep it was none other that Al. Let’s listen….