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What Happened Before What Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears
A salute to the Al Kooper era of Blood, Sweat & Tears
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions,’ and an especially warm welcome to those who have recently subscribed. Thanks to a nice influx of new readers, I am pleased to share that there are now over 750 readers who subscribe to my Substack. I feel ever grateful that so many of you find the work I am doing here worthy of appearing in your inbox every 10 days or so. Thank you to you all for your continuing support and encouragement.
This edition’s essay is about a group that has recently attracted some renewed public interest: Blood, Sweat & Tears. A new documentary is making the rounds that focuses on a State Department tour the band undertook in the summer of 1970 to countries such as Yugoslavia, Poland and Romania which would prove to have devastating consequences for Blood, Sweat & Tears, at the time one of the most popular of American rock groups.
Many, however, would argue that the group had already long lost its lustre by mid-1970, pinning the moment of their downfall not as the result of being coerced to become musical emissaries of President Nixon but when Al Kooper, a musician of dazzling and fascinating versatility, left the group in the spring of 1968 (an opinion I would mostly share) after their debut album was released, Child is Father to the Man, the focus of the below essay, which I do hope you will enjoy.
Please be sure to also scroll to the bottom of this edition for a brief comment on the launch of a new tool for Substack, Notes.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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A new documentary poses the question: What the hell happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? The answer it offers centres around the United States State Department tour the band undertook in the summer of 1970 that brought the new horn rock sound to countries such as Yugoslavia, Poland and Romania in an effort to ensure that Canadian lead singer David Clayton-Thomas could keep his green card. What ended up happening was the band being branded a tool of the Nixon administration (a sign that the cultural is also political is far from a new phenomena), musical and countercultural kryptonite that led to the band’s fortunes falling almost as quickly as they had risen.
In a way, the recently renewed interest in Blood, Sweat & Tears and the accounting for why the group’s grip on the zeitgeist was so fleeting strikes as a bit of revisionist history. Blood, Sweat & Tears 3, released in June 1970 and the follow-up to the chart-topping and Grammy-winning Blood, Sweat & Tears, did top the charts but the feeling that creative stagnation was beginning to creep in was unmistakable—the most prophetic sign being an egregious cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’—even as inspiration struck in the band’s hit version of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s ‘Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll)’ as well as interpretations of Joe Cocker’s ‘Somethin’ Comin’ On’ and James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain.’
Chicago, the band to which Blood, Sweat & Tears is most compared, was another exciting example of the movement to broaden rock’s sound palette by including a horn section as a Greek chorus to a band’s primary rhythm section. Both bands are also linked in how they eventually exhausted the novelty of their musical conceit (more grumpy types may label it a gimmick) with Chicago’s burn rate being more pronounced and prolonged. Reconciling that the band which unleashed something as aggressively atonal as ‘Free Form Guitar’ on their debut in 1969 also brought us in the mid eighties ‘You’re the Inspiration’ requires a feat of reconciliation of such cognitive dissonance that it may be hazardous to your health.
When it comes to Blood, Sweat & Tears and wondering what happened to them, there are some who say that the band was already through before the summer of 1968. That’s when Al Kooper departed the group.
Kooper, Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised, is one of those musicians whose life and work has intersected with a wide and impressive range of American music. Consider these two events in 1965: in mid-February, a just turned 21-year-old Kooper saw a song he had co-written with Bob Brass and Irvin Levine, ‘This Diamond Ring,’ hit the top of the charts in a version recorded by Gary Lewis and the Playboys and in June, he wise-guyed himself into playing organ on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ By the end of the year, Kooper became the keyboardist in the Blues Project.
The band was a sure sign that the music counterculture was percolating all across America, not just, as it sometimes seems, on the West Coast. Lead guitarist Danny Kalb—the group’s founder—was steeped in the blues and folk revival of the sixties, second guitarist Steve Katz’s interest leaned more into the jug-band scene, bassist Andy Kulberg was also a flutist and drummer Roy Blumenfeld brought a jazzman’s verve to the kit. Kooper, who had been working in the studios since his teens, fit right in with this eclectic clan.
Their second album, Projections (the only studio recording the classic lineup of the group ever recorded), was released in November 1966 and stands out for the sheer diversity of its material (truth be told, it deserves its own essay). Kooper’s contributions on the album included a psychedelicized arrangement of a Blind Willie Johnson number ‘I Can’t Help Keep From Crying Sometimes,’ complete with a freak-out section in the middle with Kooper playing the ondoline, a keyboard instrument with an eerie sound that is a cross between a clavinet and a soprano saxophone, a phrenetic reimagining of an old spiritual ‘Wake Me, Shake Me’ and the folk-rock closer ‘Fly Away.’
By the spring of 1967, Kooper had left the Blues Project although not before writing ‘No Time Is the Right Time’ for the group which was immortalized on Lenny Kaye’s important Nuggets anthology. According to Katz, one of the reasons Kooper left was due to creative differences with Kalb. Kooper wanted to add horns to the group’s sound, an ambition that he had harboured ever since seeing trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band but something that Kalb wanted nothing to do with.
An essay that critic Ted Gioia, aka The Honest Broker, wrote last year gave an overview of the use of horn sections in rock. He ballparks the trend as a viable art form from about 1967, when the horn-heavy Buckinghams, under the tutelage of James William Guercio, had a string of hits to 1977 and the release of Steely Dan’s Aja with the late, great Wayne Shorter’s tenor saxophone solo on the title track. But, as Gioia makes clear, horn rock’s most fertile period was considerably more brief.
When Kooper played a date with former Blues Project bandmate Katz in mid-September 1967 (by then, the group had disbanded) with bassist Jim Fielder and drummer Bobby Colomby at the Fillmore East (then still called the Village Theater), the Buckinghams’ fourth-straight hit ‘Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)’ had just entered the Billboard charts. Soon joining the fledgling foursome was Fred Lipsius, an alto saxophonist from the Bronx, who was soon tasked with building a horn section for the group. An ad in The Village Voice brought trumpeters Randy Brecker and Jerry Weiss as well as trombonist Dick Halligan.
The now eight-man strong unit debuted with three nights at New York’s Café au Go-Go in mid-November and were billed as Al Kooper & Steve Katz’s Blood, Sweat & Tears. At the same time, they got a record deal with Columbia. One month later, they were in the studio recording their first album, Child is Father to the Man, which hit stores on February 22, 1968.
While the horns on the Buckinghams’ records always seemed, in a sense, separate and superfluous to the group’s sound and a gambit driven exclusively by producer Guercio, the horns on Child is Father to the Man are integral to the sound of Blood, Sweat & Tears. This was a true rock band with horns.
After a short overture—a mini-symphonic suite sampling the album’s thematic material balanced against the sound of a laughing, almost maniacally so, man—the slow blues beat of ‘I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ begins. At first, it’s just Kooper’s organ stabs, Katz’s stinging guitar, Fielder’s hopped-up bass and Colomby’s drums, hinting at a shuffle beat. On the resolution of the first A section, singers Valerie Simpson (also a songwriter of distinction with Nick Ashford) and Melba Moore (soon to appear in the first, legendary Broadway production of Hair) back Kooper’s lead vocal. Then, there is the first brass blast and the sound switches to widescreen, the emotional urgency of Kooper’s song—the most well-known of the pieces he penned for Child is Father to the Man—is heightened.
What distinguishes the horn playing from their use on a blues record, to give one example, is that riffs are eschewed for countermelody: a running commentary on the longing in Kooper’s lyrics. Hear in the bridge how at the start, the horns are declarative and on the beat, they underline lines like “I’m tryin’ to be somebody / you can love, trust and understand,” and then they are sighing, behind the beat now, and smearing into Kooper’s plea that “I just got to hear, to hear you say / it’s all right.”
The song also introduces two of the group’s primary instrumental timbres: there is Katz’s aforementioned guitar, he favours slow, deliberate lines here and there is Lipsius’ alto. His tone, with a little distortion on the high end reminiscent of Cannonball Adderley’s sound (Lipsius once shared a great anecdote on Twitter of Adderley sitting in with Blood, Sweat & Tears) as well as the cry at the heart of many a jazzman’s sound. Strings also interweave amidst the horn lines—it’s an ensemble of 11 (seven violins, two violas and two celli)—in an arrangement by album producer John Simon.
Simon, an inventive and adventurous record maker who was especially attuned to how the sound of rock and pop music was broadening at the end of the sixties, was picked by Kooper to helm the album. While Simon was an inspired choice, it’s likely the album would have been successful should Kooper have chosen someone else, someone more concerned with minding the studio clock. The fugal section in the middle of the band’s cover of Randy Newman’s ‘Just One Smile’—one of several early compositions that made clear Newman wasn’t just a misanthropic songwriter of delicious cynicism—in which Kooper and Simon play organ lines around each other with Katz adding a part on lute is something that is easily missed in favour of the powerful horn voicings for the song written by Kooper and Lipsius. Equally, the speakeasy middle section of ‘House in the Country’ is incidental to the powerful horn opening with the brass sounding like a siren. But still, having Simon in the control room can’t be discounted, especially on an album in which a reconsideration of how a rock album could sound was its primary preoccupation.
Just how fresh and inspiring the vision at play here is illustrated on their version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory.’ While no one could ever match the grace and holiness of Buckley’s version, which closes his visionary album Goodbye and Hello, and the bright version here, in which Katz takes the lead—his voice has always had a haunting yet calming quality—is in strong discord with Buckley’s lyrics, the experience of listening, particularly as the third verse begins—Kooper and Lipsius wrote such ringing phrases for the horns at this point—manifests a moment in which the horizon of music is being stretched just an inch wider, capturing the excitement of a period of time in which experimentation and innovation were the names of the game, and were continually nurtured.
Katz also sings lead on his ‘Meagan’s Gypsy Eyes,’ a somewhat lumbering piece that despite its inherent awkwardness does, in a shining passage marking the transition from the bridge back to the A section, capture something ineffable about the so-called Aquarian Age, especially for those in which the sixties can only be experienced through its relics and artifacts, particularly those from when rock embraced the liberating spirit of cross-pollination.
There is the blues, not only on the aforementioned ‘I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ but also, and more powerfully, on the lengthy ‘Somethin’ Goin’ On.’ There is the assured gait affected by Fielder and Colomby—the sound of the song’s lovelorn protagonist prowling the New York streets. Katz, in his solo, reaffrims his twelve-bar bona fides and Lipsius does his best to exorcise Kooper’s demons, exhorted by the singer “to blow for the man facing an empty bed,” and then to “blow one for yourself” and finally, to “blow one for me too.”
There is jazz of the bossa-nova variety with a moody interpretation of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without Her.’ Randy Brecker’s most substantive feature is here and he plays a majestic improvisation on the flugelhorn. Kooper’s solo piece, ‘The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes and Freud’ is among the most interesting of the songs that came out of the baroque fad. Unlike many others, it wasn't simply a variation of the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home.’
There is also soul—authentic soul. It stems a great deal from Kooper’s voice. It is a limited instrument in terms of range, tone and what have you except in the critical factor, perhaps the most crucial when it comes to the art of singing, expression. Take ‘My Days Are Numbered’ for example, a desperate lament about the grief that attends the end of a relationship. Despite the potential for melodrama—and the scenario Kooper sketches is ripe for it—his approach is to go all in and he elicits a compelling, heartbreaking performance, providing a window for the listener to superimpose any experience in which it felt like “my days are numbered / down to a precious few.” King and Goffin’s ‘So In Love’ can be heard as how our spurned lover is rescued. Happier days dawn as Kooper earnestly relates to this new love, “now to you it might seem like a little thing / but to me it was like changin’ my winter to spring.” Both emotions are felt equally. Both Kooper is able to persuasively communicate.
Only one single was released from Child is Father to the Man: ‘I Can’t Quit Her’ backed by ‘House in the Country.’ It did not chart. There’s a moment on the former. It occurs just after the extravagant bridge in which the brass cushion Simpson and Moore’s backing vocals while the strings play staccato phrases that mimic Kooper’s attack. The brass play a descending line that resolves in a truncated fanfare with the string playing long tones underneath. The sequence is repeated at the conclusion of the song. It sums up what made, and continues to make, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ debut a beloved album.
Two months after it was released, Kooper was out. Fulfilling their desire for a more conventional lead singer, Katz (recall that the band was first billed as Al Kooper & Steve Katz’s Blood, Sweat & Tears) and Colomby choose David Clayton-Thomas. But before he was gone, Kooper had added a new arrangement to the group’s book. It was of a Motown number, ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,’ co-written and sung by Brenda Holloway in 1967. There’s a rare recording of it by Blood, Sweat & Tears with Kooper floating on YouTube (listen to it here). In Kooper’s hands, it’s hard to ignore that for all of how he made his limitations as a vocalist work for him, it’s an ace chart that is undone by his vocal. When Clayton-Thomas got a hold of it, it became a massive hit—the first of three straight smashes by the group. Indeed, it’s fairly impossible to hear Kooper’s version with fresh ears. Clayton-Thomas could sing circles around him, but for all his gifts, he often couldn’t inhabit a song like his predecessor could, often substituting Kooper’s striving authenticity for an often-disquieting glibness and overly broad braggadocio.
When sharing on the newly launched Substack Notes that Child is Father to the Man was going to be the subject of my next essay here, the responses I got were unanimous: Blood, Sweat & Tears lost the magic touch when Kooper left, so even if the group had managed to not been coerced to be a musical battalion for the Nixon administration, the luster would have and already had, in fact, worn off.
To be sure, their first album with Clayton-Thomas is often great and, in my opinion, unjustly maligned. Commercial success often breeds its own brand of misguided contempt. But still, Child is Father to the Man remains Blood, Sweat & Tears’ shining hour.
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