SOMERVILLE — Al Kooper still remembers the first time he met the guitarist Michael Bloomfield. He tells the story as if it happened yesterday instead of in 1965. That’s how vivid the memory is.
“When Mike came in to play on ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ I had never heard anybody play like that before, black or white,” Kooper says. “Frankly, I was dismayed because I thought I was a good guitar player. He sat down next to me and started warming up, and I went, ‘Oh my God, what is this? This guy looks like he’s my age and he’s playing 20 times better than anybody I ever heard.’ ”
“I said, ‘Well, I won’t be playing on this session,’” he adds. “I packed up my guitar, lit a cigarette, and went in the control room, where I was supposed to be. That was the first time I heard him play. And it was terrifying.”
It’s safe to say everything worked out for the best. During that recording session for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Kooper went on to play organ on the song, which has endured as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most iconic riffs. His playing sticks in your mind as much as Dylan’s words.
Kooper and Bloomfield had an instant connection that day, and Kooper, as a producer and fellow musician, would go on to champion his talent.
But since Bloomfield’s death in 1981, Kooper has seen Bloomfield’s star dim among younger generations who aren’t familiar with Bloomfield’s music, even though he’s influenced everyone from Carlos Santana to Eric Clapton.
That could change with “From His Head to His Heart to His Hands,” a new four-disc box set from Legacy Recordings that Kooper curated and produced. A year in the making and finally released earlier this week, it’s a loving tribute to an unsung hero of blues-rock guitar from his first studio sessions in 1964 to his final recordings in 1980.
Over three CDs — “Roots,” “Jams,” and “Last Licks” — the set chronicles Bloomfield’s evolution through various bands (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag), along with his solo work and collaborations with Kooper, Dylan, and Janis Joplin, among others. A fourth disc is a DVD documentary about Bloomfield called “Sweet Blues.” It all comes with an in-depth booklet featuring an essay by Kooper and a longer one by music writer Michael Simmons that probes Bloomfield’s origins as a kid growing up in Chicago who idolized that city’s blues masters.
“This was specifically to step back and look at his career from start to finish,” Kooper says. “It wouldn’t have been done the right way if the record company had done it, with all due respect.”
Kooper says he occasionally locked horns with the label over budget concerns. “I really had to fight a couple of times for stuff,” he says. “As a matter of fact, the picture of Eric Clapton with Bloomfield — I paid for that out of my own pocket because I wanted it in there so much and we had already done the budget.”
Talking to Kooper in the living room of his stately home here in Winter Hill, you get a clear sense that the project was a labor of love, one that brought him out of semi-retirement. Kooper, who turned 70 this week, moved to Somerville in 1997 to teach at Berklee College of Music. His rock credentials are apparent from the moment he greets a reporter at the front door, where a mat features a giant “M” instead of the expected “K.” (“It keeps the Al Kooper fans away,” he quips.) Photos of his famous collaborators, including Bloomfield, are in the entryway, and then there’s a leopard-print sofa that could belong only to a rock musician. An upstairs music room houses thousands of LPs.
Kooper had worked with Bloomfield on a number of occasions, most notably on 1968’s “Super Session,” a seminal blues-rock album that also featured Stephen Stills. Kooper says he had a musical chemistry with Bloomfield that he hadn’t experienced before meeting him.
“When we would play together and rehearse, we never discussed the music and never had to talk about it,” Kooper says. “We both knew what to do with each other. I never had that before with any other musician. When he died, I thought it was so great that I had that experience in my life because I see it’s so rare.”
Along with a trove of previously unreleased material, among the box set’s unearthed treasures is part of Bloomfield’s audition tape for John Hammond, the legendary producer who signed Bloomfield to Columbia Records. Kooper had to scavenge his basement to find the tape, which Hammond had given to him more than 40 years ago, when Kooper worked at Columbia.
The box set’s liner notes make it apparent that Bloomfield’s acclaim among musicians is greater than his mainstream recognition. “Mike Bloomfield is music on two legs,” Clapton is quoted as saying.
“I don’t think he was ahead of his time, but I think he was a unique musician,” Kooper says of Bloomfield. “He could come along now and play like that, but the difference is there wouldn’t be all these other people who were influenced by him. And he would still stick out.”