Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Al Kooper and Rick Nelson (Part 1)

Here's the way this whole thing came together ...

KENT KOTAL / FORGOTTEN HITS:  Hi Al!  Any interest in doing a Forgotten Hits interview centered around the "Back To Vienna" album?  With the complete LP now available for folks to hear after all these years, I thought this might make for an interesting conversation ... plus it'll be something you haven't already talked to death over the years.  Let me know if this holds any appeal for you.  Thanks! 
AL KOOPER:  I'll do that. I always thought your heart  and passion were in the right place.  Nobody has ever inquired about this part of my life, and, as such you are the only one that has my side of it.  In terms of what happened, that would be the first time I have EVER spoken about it to the public. I think THAT is the important part and the fact that it is in my words.
(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Al has previously praised Forgotten Hits as being a reliable source of accurate information ... as we've learned, SO many websites and publications report .. and then repeat ... SO much inaccurate falsehoods that they are soon accepted as "fact" when, in many instances, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, one of the kindest things ANYBODY has ever said to me regarding Forgotten Hits came from Al Kooper when, several years ago, he emailed me and said:  "Thank you for spreading the truth."  It is EXACTLY what we have always strived to do ... and to receive that kind of compliment from a guy who's been around and seen it all literally meant the world to me ... no higher compliment could possibly be paid. - kk)    

kk:  On the surface, the idea of Al Kooper producing a Rick Nelson record may seem like an odd choice.  How did this pairing come about ... who contacted who?  
(For years, there was talk about John Fogerty producing a Rick Nelson album ... and that one made sense ... Creedence even covered a couple of Rick Nelson tunes over the years ... but Al Kooper?  

I mean, by then you were already producing Lynyrd Skynyrd, right?  Al Kooper was the "Super Sessions" guy ... the guy who played with Dylan and Hendrix and started Blood, Sweat and Tears ... one might think that Rick Nelson wasn't even on your radar at the time.)  Were you a Ricky Nelson fan growing up?  I mean everybody grew up watching The Nelsons on TV, right?  But were you a particular fan of his music?
AK:  Your timing's a little bit off.  I did '72, '73 and '74 with Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Then, three years after that, I did the Rick Nelson album.  Sure, I grew up loving his records, but a large part of that love was for his guitarist James Burton. I've often said that in the '50's if you were female and bought a Ricky Nelson record, it was for Ricky. If you were male and bought it, it was for James Burton. 

kk:  Just curious as to who approached who about you working with Rick?
AK:  I read that Rick had signed with Epic.  I then came up with the idea of putting them back together . It had been decades. So I hired James as a sideman on another record I was producing and posed the question to him. He said he would do it but he wanted a royalty. I didn't think that was unreasonable based on all those males buying those Ricky records to hear James.  I know I can count all the Yardbird guitarists, i.e. Clapton, Beck and Page, plus Richard Thompson, Brian Setzer, Ed King ... hell, we all worshipped James growing up! So I made my pitch to Epic, just saying that I was throwing my hat in the ring to produce Rick. I said nothing about James Burton. So I got the okay from Epic eventually and had a meeting with Rick's manager. He laughed at me when I told him James wanted a royalty. "Well, THAT'LL never happen!!" I believe was his reply. So now I was onboard to produce Rick and my Plan A was totally derailed.   

kk:  So was that the original concept then or intention with the album, to put Rick Nelson and James Burton back together?  Had that original idea stayed on track, might you have tried to do a return to his rockabilly roots of the '50's?  I mean, had that not fallen through, do you think you would have gone in a whole different direction with the album?
AK:  Oh, definitely ... I would have let the two of them, you know, decide what they wanted to do.  I just wanted to put them back together, because it was such a GREAT combination.  And, if it was possible, I would have used the rest of the band ... 'cause I thought that was a great band.

kk:  Interesting in a way ... because shortly after all of this, Ricky went back to his rockabilly roots ... and started billing himself as "Ricky Nelson" again, and doing the songs live in arrangements that were true to the original recordings, which he hadn't done in a number of years.  Previously in concert he might have done a "countrified" version of three or four of his hits, but he never really returned to playing them in the original style until later in his career.  And then he even went in and cut his next album ... the Epic album after yours ... as a "Rockabilly Renaissance", once again returning to those roots.
AK:  See, and I just know that I would have never have done that without James Burton.  I didn't see the point.  Because their records together were some of the definitions of rockabilly music ... initial rockabilly ...

kk:  Once this plan was debunked and James Burton was no longer to be involved, how was the musical direction for the album decided?  What were you looking to achieve by taking the reigns of a Rick Nelson recording project?  Were there some preconceived goals or aspirations?
AK:  When I couldn't get James Burton, by then I had already said that I was going to do a Rick Nelson album ... so then I had to come up with Plan B really, really quickly ... and I had a long think about it and tried to come up with a concept ... and I thought, "Well, I have a really good singer here ... he has a good voice and can handle a few genres with it. And it made me think of Linda Ronstadt ... because at that time, she was really at her peak ... and so then I said, "Well, let's make a Linda Ronstadt album".  And I used her albums as a blueprint for this ... and that's why I gave him the hundred songs to pick from because I wanted him to be in that category of looking for a song that Linda Ronstadt would do.  Hell, I'll make a Linda Ronstadt album with him. Just consider the kind of material she does and do the same kinda thing with Rick.

kk:  Tell me a little bit about the song selection process ... did Rick bring in some tunes he wanted to record? Did you go through a demo-listening process together?  Or had you already selected some things that you wanted him to try?
AK:  I made a tape with 50 songs on it that I thought Rick could do well ... 'cause back then everything was cassettes of course ... and gave it to him.  I said pick 12 outta these and we'll go make an album. So two weeks later he said he could only find four that he liked. I said that was a fine and a few days later, after we talked about what he liked, I gave him another tape of 50 songs and he was able to pick the others from that. Now we had the repertoire.

kk:  So off of your tape of 50 songs, Rick picked four that he liked ... and that started the process.  Was there anything else on that tape that we might recognize today?  Maybe some things that he turned down that turned out to be hits for some other artist(s)?
AK:  Do you REALLY think that I remember what was on that tape?!?
kk:  LOL ... OK, OK ...
AK:  LOL ... not a chance!!!  But when he said that he only picked four, you know, he was really throwing a gauntlet down to me ... so I said, OK, gimme a few hours (lol) ... and then I sent him another tape ... with another fifty songs on it ... and he got the rest from that.  Then I went and booked some studio time at the LA Record Plant and hired some musicians. I hired some people he knew and had worked with at various times. Guitarists Don Preston and John Beland were on most of the tracks and the steel player from Stone Canyon band for one song.  I hired Michael McDonald to play piano 'cause he was a flexible player and for some reason people didn't hire him to play keys - just to sing.
But I thought he was a great under-used pianist. I used Dr. John on piano on the Allen Toussaint song "What Is Success'. Richard Green played violin on "Carl Of The Jungle." I hired some great background singers for the R&B songs. And we started recording in Mid-May 1978.

kk:  So he didn't come in with any of his own ideas as far songs that he would have liked to do?  I would have thought, for example, that maybe the Dylan song ("Mama, You've Been On My Mind") might have been his suggestion, as he was a HUGE Bob Dylan fan.  (During the course of his career, Rick Nelson probably recorded at least a dozen Dylan songs ... in fact, I'm kind of surprised he hadn't covered it earlier!)
AK:  No, no, no ... it wasn't.  I mean, I'm sure he KNEW it ... and maybe that's why he wanted to record it ... 

kk:  Well I just kind of picture Rick Nelson ... a HUGE Bob Dylan fan ... and now here he was, working side by side with a guy who has one of the most famous Bob Dylan stories ever to tell ... it almost seems as though this should have been a major "mutual admiration society" moment.
AK:  Well, that's probably why he let me produce him.
(Al Kooper famously walked in on a Bob Dylan recording session in 1965 at Columbia Records and ended up playing keyboards on the classic Dylan track "Like A Rolling Stone"!!!  Over the years, they did numerous shows and sessions together ... and Dylan was clearly one of Rick Nelson's idols.) 

kk:  Did you spend a lot of time talking about Bob Dylan and/or his music?  
AK: Nope ... no, no, no no ... not really. 

kk:  How about the early days of rock and roll?  I mean this is the guy for whom they coined the phrase "teen idol"!!!  Did you talk much about that?
AK:  No, we really didn't talk about that.  But after we cut all the tracks, Rick had a two week gig in Vegas and I went with him and played keyboards in his band so we could keep the vibe going.  It was right in the middle of that album ... and he had a gig at the Aladdin Hotel in Vegas ... and I went with him to keep us together and I played keyboards on that show ... with no rehearsal, I may add ... and it was easy 'cause I knew all the songs.  But he played all the old songs ... only this time he had a keyboard player with him who knew all the old songs, because he wasn't carrying a keyboard player at this time. I'm pretty sure it was John Beland or Don Preston playing guitar ... and I can't remember the rest ... it was a long time ago.  We got along quite well and we laughed a lot.

kk:  And after that?
AK:  Then we came back to LA and started putting vocals on the tracks. It would take him about 90 minutes to warm up and get his sound but once he got there he sounded great.

kk:  What was that process like?  When Rick would warm up, would be loosen up by playing some of the old hits again?  (I think of The Beatles during "Let It Be" ... where it wasn't at all unusual for them to dig out tunes from their old Hamburg stage show ... rather than resurrect some of their own hits!)
AK:  No ... when Rick warmed up he would just practice the song he was about to record. The band tracks were already recorded so we just set up the tape recorder(!) to play over and over ... and he was set up with his mic and headphones and he would warm up by himself.  That album took about seven weeks to record and mix. It was mostly done at Record Plant LA and Bob Edwards was the engineer.

kk:  Was Rick easy to direct in the studio (and willing to listen to direction) or did he have his own ideas about what a Rick Nelson album should sound like at this point?  (You mentioned earlier that after picking only four songs from your first tape of fifty choices he was, in effect, throwing down the gauntlet ... but in truth, hadn't he pretty much been producing a good amount of his own work up till then?)  It must have been difficult to work with an outside producer who brought his own ideas to the table.  As such, did you feel like you had to hold back or compromise on some of your direction or intentions?
AK:  He was aware we were doing some material he hadn't ever tried before and I was amazed how comfortable he sounded on those songs. I was glad he was breaking some new ground and thought his fans might appreciate it. It was the total opposite of that rockabilly album he did for Epic. My model of a Ronstadt album pretty much came to fruition with a Little Feat song, an Atlanta Rhythm Section song, a ZZ Top(!) song, a Dylan song, a 50's oldie "Every Day I Have To Cry Some": it was all in the mode of an Andrew Gold produced Ronstadt album.

(More tomorrow in Forgotten Hits!)