Jay Gilbert

Danny Kortchmar Discusses The Immediate Family Band, ‘Tapestry,’ Laurel Canyon, & Telecasters

Playing guitar isn’t easy and neither is being a professional guitarist – let alone for some of the biggest names of the sixties and seventies. After many decades, an abundance of friends were made and even more music, so while it’s not easy, it is a heartfelt career to have.

The Aquarian caught up with Immediate Family guitarist Danny Kortchmar just a few days after his performance with Carole King at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio where King was inducted into the performer category. Kortchmar and his own band will be rocking the Upper West Side at the New York Society for Ethical Cultural on November 20 – the same night that his appearance with King at the Hall of Fame will air on HBO and stream on HBOMax.

Don’t expect a laid-back affair from the Mellow Mafia (as they were called in the seventies), but rather a rockin’ bluesy blowout from the musical brotherhood. Per our conversation with Kortchmar, “It’s an incredible gift and a wonderful thing what we’re doing. We love each other very much.”

It’s also a return to the area Kortchmar adds. “I always considered New York City to be my hometown and there’s no greater city.”

The rhythm section featuring bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russell Kunkel met Kortchmar at sessions for James Taylor’s breakthrough album Sweet Baby James in 1971. They’ve been friends ever since, even backing up everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Crosby & Nash together and gaining the moniker Mellow Mafia and The Section with the addition of keyboardist Craig Doerge in 1972.

Queens native Waddy Wachtel who earned his wings playing with the Everly Brothers, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, and Keith Richard’s Expensive Winos adds a fiery touch to the band’s classic rock sound with his slide guitar. 

Danny Kortchmar got his musical chops early on in the East Village playing for the notorious Fugs who combined the radical politics of the times with a streetwise sense of the absurd. He met Carole King at a gig with the Flying Machines playing alongside his childhood buddy James Taylor. He ended up playing on some of her Goffin-King demos before forming The City with her.

Sweet Baby James was followed by sessions for King’s breakthrough Tapestry that eventually sold over 25 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1972. Kortchmar credits Sweet Baby James producer Peter Asher for putting the rhythm section of Kunkel and Sklar together for those sessions. The rest is rock and roll history. 

Tours and albums from the Taylor/King camp followed throughout the mid-seventies and peaked on the 1977 album Running on Empty by Jackson Browne that was recorded on the road. Watchel played a big part in Warren Zevon’s band co-writing the hit “Werewolves of London,” as well.

There’s also a new documentary by filmmaker Danny Tedesco on The Immediate Family band scheduled for release in 2022 along the lines of 2008’s Wrecking Crew.

At the Ethical Cultural Center on November 20, don’t be surprised if you know a few of the foot-stomping numbers that the band members either wrote or co-wrote, as well as some bluesy rockers from their self-titled new one Immediate Family.

Kortchmar was kind enough to share some insights from his career as a musician, songwriter, and co-producer who had worked with the likes of the aforementioned Browne, Taylor, and King, but also Neil Young and Bob Dylan, as well. For the guitar gear-heads out there, the musician also talked about his performance rigs with us.

I’d like to congratulate you on your recent appearance with Carole King at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last month. How did it go?

I’ve been playing music with her and been friends with her for since I was 19. She’s one of my dearest friends and I love her very much. It was great to be part of this celebration to her. 

How do you feel about not getting inducted into the Hall of Fame as well since you played on many of her most popular songs, including the album Tapestry?

[Laughs] They induct stars into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame more than the musicians, and if they were to induct Russell, Lee, and myself it would be under cover of the night. It wouldn’t be on TV. Maybe that’ll happen someday, but I don’t care. I like to play music for people that love to hear music. I love to play rock and roll and blues – that’s it. As far as the rest, who cares?

How does it feel to be back on the road with the guys? 

We love to play music together. I’ve known these guys a long time and we’ve been playing together since 1971. To be in a band with Russell and Lee is an incredible gift and a wonderful thing. What can I say about playing with the same guys more than 50 years? It’s incredible!

How did you meet?

We played on Sweet Baby JamesTapestry, and on subsequent albums and tours of James and Carole’s on a regular basis throughout the seventies. When you play that long with guys you get to that great place really quick. 

How did you guys get the job working on James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album?

It has to do entirely with Sweet Baby James producer Peter Asher. He found Russ Kunkel playing with John Stewart. James found Leland from his band Wolfgang. Before you know it the three of us are in the studio together working with James. 

On the new one, The Immediate Family, “Can’t Stop Progress,” “Everything That’s Broken,” and “House Will Fall” have me hearing some social commentary. This is plus a lot of edgy loud guitars and driving drums. It seems like you’re playing a lot harder these days.

I’ve always played hard, but it depends on who I’m playing with. I can’t pound away playing with Carole King and I’m not going to play hard for James, but I’ve played in other situations where I did play loud and really heavy. It’s the same stuff. It’s just a matter of scale. We all have to pay attention to the singer and the song and do what is right for that situation and that’s the way we all think. The band we have now is more rock and roll, so we’re cranking it up a bit! It has to do with what the situation is, what music we’re playing, who we’re playing with, our sound, and the situation that we’re in. 

What’s it like playing with such heavyweights like Waddy Watchel in the band? Does it ever get competitive?

If it’s competitive, it’s in a very good positive way since we are very close friends. We play together brilliantly yet our styles are so different.

Has your sound changed over the years?

It’s more rock and roll with Immediate Family. All our music is original and we play according to the song. Everything we do is based on what is going to work for that song. Our band is very different than doing sessions or backing Carole or James where we have to do what’s right for their music. With Immediate Family, we have nobody to please but ourselves.

What is your current guitar rig like?

I have always stuck with Telecasters, even though I veer off occasionally. I’m playing through the Chris Stapleton Princeton amp. It’s an amp modified by Chris. He put a 12-inch speaker in there instead of a 10-inch. It’s a fantastic amplifier, but it’s small and that’s good. We don’t want to overpower the vocals because we are about the songs and the ensemble playing more than anything else. We’re not a jam band and there’s no need for us to blast away and have Marshall Stacks. We have small amps that sound great and we make a hell of a racket with them!

What about pedals?

I’m using the Magma 57 which is a terrific pedal and it’s the front end of a Magnatone amplifier. I also love the Magnatone vibrato and I use that occasionally. Other than that, a Fulltone OCD, which is an overdrive, I use occasionally to add grunge – not for volume. The idea is to get to get the sound you want but not necessarily at a high volume.

Are you familiar with amp modelers like Line 6 and Helix stomp boxes? Do you ever use them?

Jackson Browne says, “Friends don’t let friends use modelers!” He’s sitting on three or four Dumble amps and he’s got an amazing collection. I prefer to play through an amp. Your guitar sound comes from your heart, your hands, your brain, and that that’s it. 

What songs can fans expect at the Ethical Cultural Center?

Half of it will be from the new CD and the rest of it will be our “hits.” The songs we wrote and recorded with Warren Zevon, Don Henley, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. 

You’re a New Yorker, how does it feel coming back?

I miss New York a lot. New York City is my hometown. There’s no greater city. All three guitar players including Steve, me, and Waddy are New Yorkers. We all grew up in New York City.

You’ve played with artists like Don Henley, Dylan, King, Taylor, Warren Zevon, Nillson, Neil Young plus a ton of other greats. Is there anything these guys have in common as far as working with them, any differences?

To be as brilliant a songwriter as those guys are, you pay a price for that. There is no easy way out and you don’t walk away from it as Mr, Well-Adjusted Groovy Guy. It takes a lot to create art like that. These are not normal people you’re talking about. It makes you a little crazy and you’re supposed to be a little crazy to do this stuff. 

What were the sessions for the Shot of Love album with Dylan like?

It was great and a lot of fun. I was invited to the studio by my dear friend and drummer Jim Keltner to a warehouse that Bob had rented in Santa Monica. We’re hanging around and Bob finally shows up and I’m the new guy, so I say, “Hey Bob. How are you doing? I won’t get in your way,” and he said, “What’s the point in me having you here?”  From there on I took off my gloves, played whatever I wanted, dug in as deep as I could, and didn’t lay back.

When you’re working a session or playing onstage and there are multiple guitarists on board, how do you figure out who plays what?  

It depends on who the guitar players are in the band. We have three guitars and there’s very little conversation. Everybody knows what to do. Don’t do what the other guys are doing. Listen to what’s going on around you, react and respond. We all have big ears. If I was playing with two guitar players I’d never played with before I listen, pay attention, and watch. Maybe there will be a brief discussion later on, but it’s about paying attention, listening, and reacting.

What was it like working with Neil Young on his 1986 album Landing on Water

Neil is a great cat and a wonderful guy. I met him in the sixties when I met everybody hanging around Laurel Canyon. I did a recording date with Neil and the Monkees. It was for Head, which is kind of a silly ass movie. I’m on a couple of tracks on that album and one of them is “As We Go Along” with Neil and Ry Cooder.

Landing on Water was a ball. We had a great time. Neil called me and wanted to know if I was interested in co-producing it. I called two of my dear friends: Niko Bolas, a brilliant engineer who is not afraid of the big beat and is a rock-and-roller at heart, and drummer Steve Jordan who is currently touring with the Rolling Stones. I played synth and some rhythm guitar on that and we just plowed into it. Neil has boundless energy and it’s infectious. He plays from the heart. Everything he does is full on.

Did you and Neil do any riffing off each other on guitars? Did you play guitar on any of the tracks? 

I played synth and rhythm guitar on it. My function wasn’t to jam with Neil. My function was to create tracks for him to play on and he played all the leads. It’s a very underrated album and he’s playing his ass off on it. 

Do you feel that album is under-appreciated because it wasn’t promoted well enough due to Neil’s falling out with Geffen Records at the time?

There was a lot of stress going on between Neil and Geffen Records because he wasn’t giving them material that they thought was typical Neil Young stuff– as if there was anything that was typical Neil Young! He’s going to follow his instincts and go that direction. He’s not going to constantly want to repeat himself. That’s not what he’s about. He’s not there to please the record company and isn’t there to make records that are easy for the record company to sell. That’s not the business he’s in. He’s there to create stuff that comes from the heart, that he means, and that he feels. That’s probably where the conflict came.

What’s up with David Crosby, who you’ve played and toured with?

He’s put out something like four or five albums in the last four or five years. He’s been very productive and is a beautiful singer, highly intelligent writer, and a sophisticated individual. This is a guy I am glad to see making music. I’m also thrilled that he’s alive.

It is a shame how he’s pissed off all the other CSN&Y guys.

They’ve always had a volatile relationship and it is a shame because they’ve known each other forever.

Any memories of the Running on Empty album and tour with Jackson Browne?

It was a blast. Jackson is fearless and decided he wanted to record new material on the road, live, in front of the audience, in hotel rooms, backstage, on the bus… anywhere. It took a lot of balls to make that move. It’s very ambitious of him, but those songs went over very well. They went over like people had already heard them. The first time we played “Running on Empty” in front of an audience they responded like it would have been on the radio already. His audience was receptive to his new material and that’s the way it is with him. They’re going to go with him and trust him to take them in.

Looking back what’s your take on the whole singer-songwriter era of the seventies?

There was no term called singer-songwriter back then. That’s a term invented by journalists. We just thought it was music and good songs. There was no name for it. After The Beatles, artists were supposed to – and expected to – be able to write as well as perform their music. We got very good at playing songs from working with James, Carole, Peter Asher, and Lou Adler who produced Tapestry, and as a result we got called… because we were good.

Did you ever think when you were recording albums like Tapestry and Sweet Baby James how big they would become and that you were ushering in a ‘singer-songwriter’ movement? 

No. I knew they were very good. I knew James was great. I grew up with him. I knew Carole was great. Carol made two albums before Tapestry that went nowhere. One was The City and the other was Writer. They were both incredibly good with great songs, but they went nowhere, so I didn’t really have high hopes for it being huge. Lou Adler, the producer, was a visionary, and he sensed how hugely popular she’d become. He got the timing right. It was music that people wanted at that time. I didn’t perceive that because I was just learning the tunes. My expertise is not in deciding what it is, it’s in writing songs and playing the guitar.