Danny Kortchmar on How He Rounded Up a "Family" of Session Legends

Along with Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar helped create a sound that permeated radio in the early 1970s. Here, he tells GP how he reassembled this group for his new solo album.
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Along with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar helped create a sound that permeated radio in the early 1970s. His work with artists like Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, David Crosby, Carole King, Graham Nash and Neil Young certified him as one of the next generation of session legends following on the heels of the Wrecking Crew. Now Kortchmar has reunited Wachtel, Sklar and Kunkel to record a rollicking set of tunes, including some he wrote with and for superstars like Taylor, Jackson Browne and Don Henley.

Listening to Honey Don’t Leave L.A. (Vivid Records) by Danny Kortchmar and the Immediate Family, Kortchmar’s and Wachtel’s guitar styles distinctly define themselves. The latter’s crunchy rhythm and gritty slide stand in contrast to the former’s cleaner-toned, funky fluidity. Though both grew up on the East Coast, Kortchmar’s eclectic style draws more on the jazz and R&B he heard as a young man in the Manhattan of the ’60s.

“I would go to the city and see every type of artist you could imagine,” he recalls. “We would walk into the Five Spot and hear the original John Coltrane Quartet. We’d see Cecil Taylor and then go see Dave Van Ronk. I even saw the Beatles at Carnegie Hall. New York was cultural goldmine in the ’60s.”

The grit in the Kortchmar’s style added an edgy, urban sophistication to the West Coast records on which he performed, a sound born of circumstance. “New York City was a hard-scrabble situation for guitar players,” Kortchmar explains. “For instance, there were amps in all the studios, but they were owned by the Guitar Club of Manhattan. You had to have a key to turn on an Ampeg Gemini II. There was no on-off switch. Also, all the cats in New York City were way more jazz oriented, whereas the L.A. scene around ’67 was full-on rock and roll.”

Kortchmar began his career playing the fertile 1960s Greenwich Village scene in a band called the Flying Machine, which featured a fledgling James Taylor. “We met on Martha’s Vineyard when he was 13 and I was 14,” Kortchmar says. “We had the same taste in music. We started playing together and we’ve been pals ever since.”

In those days, the band played the famed Night Owl club, where Kortchmar recalls using a 4x10 Fender Bassman combo. “I started with an Epiphone Sheraton guitar at one point, and then I wanted a Telecaster because my hero was Steve Cropper,” he says. “But I would go to Manny’s every four or five months and trade in whatever I had for something else. I was guitar happy.”

Following the demise of the Flying Machine and a brief tenure with the far-out Fugs, Kootch, as he came to be known, sought greener pastures. “Things had reached a dead end in New York City,” he explains. “There were just a few clubs to play. I was looking for a change. A band called Clear Light came to town looking for a guitar player. I got the gig and went to L.A. I started off doing sessions with Carole King and her husband, Jerry Goffin, when they were songwriters for Screen Gems Columbia. They’d go in every week to do demos. Fortunately, Carole decided I was the right guy to do those demos. She is an absolute genius, not just as a songwriter but also as a producer and arranger. I learned how to play on records from her.”

Kortchmar’s work as an L.A. session guitarist predates the days of Bradshaw racks and stacks of amps. “I wasn’t a big pedal guy, especially back then, so I had an Echoplex and a Fender Princeton,” he recalls. “I had a Stratocaster, but my house got robbed and my gear was stolen. I went to a music store and picked out a hollowbody Fender Telecaster Thinline with f-holes and a Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic guitar. I still use both of them. I played the Telecaster on everything.

“In 1968, I brought it to Jeff Baxter, who added a Strat pickup in the middle, and it became a very flexible guitar. I ended up sticking a lipstick pickup in there to get a different sound. The original system was three mini-toggle switches that turn the pickups on and off. The switch in the middle has on and off and also out of phase. A lot of guitar players hate that electronic out-of-phase sound because it sounds thin, but I ended up using it on various records when I felt it would help meld with the drums.”

By the ’80s and ’90s, Kortchmar had largely replaced sessions and touring with songwriting and producing. “If you do a lot of session work as a sideman, you ultimately progress to a producer role,” he says. “My first production was when Peter Asher got me the opportunity to produce an album for Carole King’s daughter, Louise Goffin. I knew a lot going in because I had been taught by great producers like Peter and Lou Adler.”

It wasn’t until he moved back to the East Coast that Kortchmar resumed performing. “I remembered how much I loved playing in front of an audience,” he says. “It isn’t so much the case now, but at that time you couldn’t go on the road because you wouldn’t be taken seriously as a producer, and you wouldn’t be there to take a gig when it came along.”

Performing with the Immediate Family. (from left) Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Kortchmar and Steve Postell

Performing with the Immediate Family. (from left) Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Kortchmar and Steve Postell

When the Japanese label Vivid invited him to record a solo album, Kortchmar realized he should employ the players with whom he had worked in the studio trenches. Fortunately, Kunkle, Wachtel, Sklar and new pal Steve Postel were all available to record.

“We went into Jackson Brown’s studio,” he says “We didn’t do a lot of talking about it. Waddy and I have been playing together for at least 40 years. He reacts to me, I react to him, and very quickly we come up with parts that are sympathetic. Postel is an astute musician who knows how to listen. He learned to play from listening to Waddy and myself, so he knew how to get out of the way. We fell into parts, and then we refined them. Waddy’s an absolute genius on slide guitar and always comes up with wonderful parts. His sound is always overdriven. I play loud, but it’s not the same sound as Waddy’s, which is why we can play well together.”

The record was done with everyone in the same room and exhibits that kind of live energy. The guitar amps were baffled, but not too much. “They weren’t completely isolated,” Kortchmar explains. “I wanted some old-school leakage going on, and I think we achieved that.”

These days the guitarist is playing an offset-bodied G&L Doheny guitar. “It’s well-made and plays great,” he says. “G&L has upped their game. I wanted a little more gain, so they designed humbucking pickups for me to replace the Jazzmaster pickups.” He strings his electrics with an Ernie Ball .010–.046 set and strums with a V-Pick. “I don’t pound away, but I like the weight of a thicker, denser pick,” Kortchmar says. “Vinny at V-Picks makes all sizes and shapes and thicknesses, and I use various ones.”

The tone on the tune “Machine Gun” is classic Kortchmar: plenty of sustain without a whole lot of distortion. “That’s just me playing the G&L through one of Jackson Browne’s Dumbles,” he reveals. “But there’s nothing added to make it sustain more. There’s no compression. It’s just a natural sustain.” The vibrato on “Cruel Twist” is a tribute to some classic players. “I always loved that Magnatone sound of Lonnie Mack’s,” he says. “Another great player was Robert Ward, who also used what I’m assuming was a Magnatone amp. I used that effect as a tribute to those cats.”

Kortchmar’s current amp of choice for live performance, a 2x12 Roland Blues Cube Artist, might come as surprise to tube purists. “I think it is the best amp I have played through, except for the old Princeton,” he says. “You can tune it to get a good sound in any room. It’s solid-state, but I’d defy anyone to tell me they can distinguish between it and a tube amp. It sounds very warm, rich and tubey.”

Speaking of live performance, there are some gigs planned for the Immediate Family, but with such an in-demand lineup, don’t expect a world tour. “We’re going to Japan for two weeks, and then a gig on Vancouver Island,” Kortchmar says. “It’s a little difficult, because Russ and Lee both have touring gigs they have to do, so we have to work around them.”