The Story of Al Kooper in "Like a Rolling Stone"

It was interesting to listen to Steven Van Zandt talking yesterday on Little Steven's Underground Garage about the story of how Al Kooper came to play one of the most famous organ licks in rock history. Unfortunately I don't have a recording of how Van Zandt told the story, so borrowing the story from Wikipedia will have to do:

As chronicled in the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary film, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan for the PBS American Masters Series, Kooper's most notable playing with Dylan is the organ parts on "Like a Rolling Stone". Kooper had been invited to the session as an observer, and hoped to be allowed to sit in on guitar, his primary instrument. Kooper uncased his guitar and began tuning it. After hearing Mike Bloomfield, the hired guitarist for the sessions, warming up in the room, Kooper concluded that Bloomfield was a much better guitarist, so Kooper put his guitar aside and retreated into the control room.
As the recording sessions progressed, keyboardist Paul Griffin was moved from the Hammond organ to piano. Kooper quickly suggested to producer Tom Wilson that he had a "great organ part" for the song (which he later confessed was just a ruse to play in the session), and Wilson responded, "Al, you're not an organ player, you're a guitar player", but Kooper did not retreat this time. Before Wilson could explicitly reject Kooper's suggestion, Wilson was interrupted by a phone call in the control room. Kooper immediately went into the studio and sat down at the organ, though he had rarely played organ before the session. Wilson soon returned, and was shocked to find Kooper in the studio. By this time, Kooper had been playing along with Dylan and crew, his organ can be heard coming in an eighth-note just behind the other members of the band, as Kooper followed to make sure he was playing the right chords. During a playback of tracks in the control room, when asked about the organ track, Dylan was emphatic: "Turn the organ up!"
I found the part of the story I've highlighted very intriguing, so when I listened to the song afterwards I paid extra attention to the organ in the background. Sure enough, Kooper does often come in a little late, and you really can visualize him listening intently for the correct note to play. It's especially interesting to hear the organ part get more complex as the song goes on, as if Kooper is getting more confident about the notes he's playing.

Why not give a listen for yourself and see if you agree? Be sure to turn it up nice and loud!


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