The Man Behind the Organ in “Like a Rolling Stone”

Alan Peter Kuperschmidt, who became known as musician Al Kooper, was born on February 5, 1944. Kooper played a number of important roles in the history of music, such as work as a producer and writer and for organizing Blood, Sweat & Tears. But most people know his work from a chance role he played in one of the greatest rock songs of all time, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

On June 16, 1965, Kooper showed up for the second day of the production of “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was being produced by Tom Wilson. Kooper, who was a 21-year-old session guitarist, arrived merely as a guest of Wilson.

Initially, Kooper hoped to work his way into the session on guitar. But then he realized that guitarist Mike Bloomfield was more talented than him.

After Paul Griffin moved from playing organ on the song to playing piano, Kooper tried to get Wilson to let him play an organ part. Wilson rejected the idea. But when Wilson left the room, Kooper went into the session and took over the Hammond organ. Wilson let Kooper remain, and Kooper added the now famous organ riff to the song. When Dylan heard the playback, he reportedly asked for more organ.

The following video explains Kooper’s role in the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” including an interview with Kooper. Check it out.

Kooper went on to other amazing work, including playing organ for Dylan on tour and playing that instrument on the recording of “Just Like a Woman,” released in 1966.  Among his many other accomplishments, he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing and performing on their first three albums.  That’s him again on organ in “Free Bird,” even though he was officially credited under the name Roosevelt Gook.  He also played piano, organ, and French horn parts on The Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Kooper’s most recent solo album is WHITE CHOCOLATE (2008).

What is your favorite instrument on the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    A Famous Encounter and “Like a Rolling Pin”

    A “Talk of the Town” segment in The New Yorker featured a short profile of record producer Scott Litt, who had produced records by the likes of Nirvana and R.E.M. In the article, Litt told an interesting story about the first time he met Bob Dylan.

    More than a few decades ago, Litt was producing a Replacements album, working in the studio with the band. Dylan was working on his own record nearby, so he stopped by to check out the Replacements.

    When Dylan walked in the studio wearing a hoodie, it just happened to be the same time that the Replacements’ leader Paul Westerberg was singing a parody of Dylan’s hit song “Like a Rolling Stone” called “Like a Rolling Pin.”

    Westerberg did not notice Dylan standing there, and Litt failed to alert the singer, who continued with the parody. Finally, when Westerberg finished, Dylan asked, “You guys rehearse much?” Then he left.

    The lyrics to “Like a Rolling Pin” are nothing special, using phrases from Dylan’s original mixed with some small changes. I believe the song did not end up on the album at the time, appearing later with B-sides and unreleased tracks on All For Nothing/Nothing For All (1997). But the Replacements can sing the phone book and make it sound like a great song. So when they start off with a great Dylan song, one cannot complain.

    More than twenty years later, Litt finally got to work with the singer of “Like a Rolling Stone” when he was the engineer for Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest. While working with Dylan on Tempest, Litt did not mention their previous studio encounter. [Nick Paumgarten, Hello, Bobby, The New Yorker, 1 Oct. 2012: 22-23.]

    What is your favorite Bob Dylan cover? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Dylan Plays “Like a Rolling Stone” With The Rolling Stones

    In spring 1998, the Rolling Stones were doing a stadium tour in South America with a guy named Bob Dylan as their opening act. During the tour, Dylan often joined the Rolling Stones for a performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Although reportedly early joint performances of the song were a little rough, by the time the Rio de Janeiro performance was televised Dylan had adjusted to the Stones’s playing style on the song. Check out Dylan and the Rolling Stones on “Like a Rolling Stone.”

    The joint performance is one of the rare times Dylan has played with the full lineup of the Rolling Stones, even though he and the band are long-time friends. Before the South American joint tour, both bands were playing in New York earlier in 1998 and the Rolling Stones played “Like a Rolling Stone” in honor of Dylan, but he never joined them on stage.

    At Dylan’s 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Mick Jagger and a large number of other stars joined Dylan for “Like a Rolling Stone.” But the South American tour remains the rare time the legend and the legendary band played the legendary song.

    Who would you like to see Dylan perform with? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    High School Trauma for Pop Stars

    I once saw a story where Christina Aguilera told about her high school prom experience. She already had her first hit with “Genie in a Bottle” and was no longer attending regular classes. But one of Aguilera’s girlfriends found Aguilera a prom date at her old high school. So, Aguilera hoped for a somewhat normal experience for her age of attending prom, just as she was on the border between being a teenage student and pop star.

    Everything went well at first. She had fun with her girlfriends and her date. The other students were on the dance floor. Then, the DJ put on “Genie in a Bottle,” and all of her former classmates stopped dancing and went to their seats. Aguilera felt embarrassed and heartbroken.

    I can imagine both sides in the story. There was Aguilera trying to hold onto normalcy for a few hours longer before her life became completely insane, and then she was rejected and scorned by those from whom she sought acceptance. But I also understand teenagers being teenagers and making a stand against someone who had effectively placed herself on another plane, one they would never reach. Therefore, they refused to play a part in some rich and famous person’s fantasy.

    I thought of that story recently when re-watching Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (2005). One of Bob Dylan’s high school classmates told a story about Dylan performing at a high school talent show. Dylan banged on the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, belting out a rock and roll song. His Minnesota classmates did not know what to think and probably did not react the way the Dylan had hoped. The principal pulled the curtain while Dylan was still singing, thus ending one of the first public performances by the future icon in humiliation.

    I know we often ascribe too much to childhood events. But I still cannot help speculating how Aguilera’s experience shaped her, just as our high school experiences shaped us. Similarly, in a October 10, 2011 New Yorker article, “You Belong With Me,” Lizzie Widdicombe recounted how Taylor Swift went through a similar period of exile in adolescence when her friends turned on her as she started becoming famous. Despite her success, like Aguilera, she still felt the sting. To get back at the mean girls, during her sophomore year of high school, Swift bought a silver Lexus convertible because in Mean Girls, that was the type of car driven by Regina George, who the girls in Swift’s high school idolized.

    Just as in those cases, I see a little of the teenage Dylan, facing rejection from his principal and peers, standing on the stage with his older self years later in 1966 in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. As Dylan listened to a crowd booing his conversion from folk music to electric music, he might as well have been playing for his principal and high school classmates when he (or someone in his band) requested, “Play it fuckin’ loud.”

    Dylan found his high school revenge in an expression that was better than buying a car or anything else money can buy. While the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” ask the listener, “How does it feel?,” there is never an answer back from the song’s target. But we know from the roar of the song what the singer is feeling. Redemption.

    Note: The above Free Trade Hall performance later became misidentified as the “Royal Albert Hall” performance. Bonus Trivia Question: What legendary group mentions Royal Albert Hall in a famous song?

    What do you think of these high school stories? Leave your two cents in the comments section.

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