Bill Lowery

Al Kooper in the South: Excerpt from "Atlanta Pop in the 50s, 60s and 70s: The Magic of Bill Lowery"

They began going out together to clubs downtown, looking for promising bands.

Funocchio’s on Peachtree Street, formerly Kitten’s Korner, a nightclub, was a magnet for hard-rocking southern bands in Atlanta in the early seventies. Bob and Kooper began checking it out several times a week . . . [One night] they went into the club and a band from Jacksonville called Leonard Skinner was playing.

They were a good, tight band, but what stood out to Bob when he first saw them, was them. Most bands, when dealing with drunk, belligerent audience members, will just shrug it off or get the bouncer—“but not these guys. They’ll meet you out back during the break, take care of it themselves, and be back for their next set.” Not only that, but Ronnie van Zant, the singer, would pick fights with people in the audience. To Kooper and Bob, this was something novel.

On that first night, as they sat marveling at these pugnacious personalities, listening to the music, Bob and Kooper were only moderately impressed—until they got to a certain song. The song was “Gimme Three Steps” and Kooper went crazy. He immediately said, “We’ve got to do this group,” and after their show he approached them; within a few days had them in the studio making some demos.

These showed promise, they signed with Kooper’s short-lived MCA label Sounds of the South, and got to work almost immediately on their first album. They already had a lineup of good tunes for it, with meticulously rehearsed arrangements. They played their songs the exact same way every time, not only note by note, but timewise. The songs never slowed down or sped up, which Bob and Kooper noticed because they were stacking takes. The fact is, Kooper was playing a rather underhanded game with them during the recording sessions. They were recording on sixteen tracks, and the band had never been in a studio like that before; they had no idea what was going on technically.  The song that opened the rift was their signature anthem, “Free Bird.”

Kooper decided to take an innovative approach to the recording of that song. The only thing that varied from one take to the next was the guitar solos, and Kooper was having them play them over and over, always with some excuse—“didn’t quite get it”—“something went wrong”—and then, later, unbeknownst to the band, Bob and Kooper would ping-pong all the guitar parts together. When they did playbacks for the band through their headphones during the recording, they played only what they wanted them to hear—the single, most recent solo, although in the booth they were hearing something quite different. They were keeping everything—until they ran out of tracks. The band had no idea, at the time, about all the guitar stuff going on in the studio recording of “Free Bird.”

When, at last, they played the complete “Free Bird” back for the band, they were stunned and furious. “What the hell is all that?” they said. They demanded that Kooper and Bob undo it, but they couldn’t because all the parts were ping-ponged together. This was the maddest Bob had ever seen them, (or ever would see them). The band wanted to know—how the hell they were supposed to reproduce that live? Bob and Kooper were thinking, that’s up to you guys—we’re here to make a record. “It really pissed them off—until it went platinum.”