It was a hit for both shock-rocker Alice Cooper and folksinger Judy Collins, charting in the U.S., the U.K., across Europe and in Australia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And it was written by Canadian guitarist Rolf Kempf, who continues to record and perform in and around Vancouver. Alice first heard “Hello, Hurray” through his producer, Bob Ezrin, who met Kempf at a Toronto party. With Cooper’s version of the song appearing prominently this past summer in the latest X-Men blockbuster and the documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper, Kempf reflects on how “Hello Hooray” came to be.
How did you get from playing Hamilton coffee houses to writing songs in Los Angeles in the ‘60s?
I was at McMaster University studying English, hanging around with these guys, Dave Morrow and Renny Heard. We played Lovin’ Spoonful and Byrds and a bit of Beatles. And we recruited Dennis Murphy, who later made his name as a producer. We were called Colonel Popcorn’s Butter Band, and we got as far as playing Yorkville in Toronto for about a week. Syd Kessler, who became a big jingles guy, became our manager. He had a contact in Los Angeles – a producer of bubblegum – and much as we bridled at the thought, Syd was very persuasive, and bought a car, and we headed for the border. At our first meeting with the producer in L.A. Dennis got into a fistfight on the guy’s desk. It did not end well.
Is it true you wrote “Hello Hooray” on a borrowed guitar sitting by a pool in Laurel Canyon?
Yes. A girl I had been staying with was really into Eastern mysticism, which was very much in the air at the time. And do you know that second Doors album? Strange Days? The one with the circus people on the cover? That’s kind of the vibe that was floating in my head, a kind of carnival atmosphere. I went down to the pool one day with a joint and a guitar and that’s what came out.
And this is the house where you played it for Judy Collins?
She came to the house, yes. At that time, Judy Collins wanted to go more rock, so when I played her all my songs she was very polite and listened but then asked me, “What else you got?” So I said, “I just wrote this thing” and she liked it right away. But she didn’t really “get” it. She thought “second son” was about the birth of a child but I was writing about the rebirth of man. But who am I to complain? It was a hit and got a publishing deal with Elektra from it.
What about Alice Cooper’s interpretation? Because like Judy he also changed lyrics. But his is a rather theatrical version, which sounds like it was closer to your original intent.
Alice really got it. He made the song better and stronger, more bombastic. His outro, “I feel so strong,” I think is perfect for the tune. He also made it shorter. Mine was over five minutes long and Alice made it just over three, which was an important factor in having a radio hit, even in the ‘70s. The thing is, “Hello Hooray” was never meant to be a hit. I wrote it when I didn’t really know how to write songs. I just put different segments together and they fit.
Is having one song that is so well known than anything else you’ve done more of a blessing or a curse?
It’s more of a curse. Alice Cooper’s version was so popular at a time when I was still an acoustic guitar player playing acoustic venues, and they hated Alice Cooper. I couldn’t even do the tune at my own gigs!
Alice continues to perform the song live. What about you?
Recently I have performed it at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver and the B.C. Disability Games. It’s a great song for athletic events,actually. I’m 67 now and I’m technically retired, but I don’t even want to [be]. I feel like I’m better now than I’ve ever been.