By Martine Ehrenclou
You might not recognize the legendary sideman/guitarist, songwriter and record producer Danny Kortchmar. As part of The Section, he and the other session musicians played on almost every iconic album in the 70s by artists such as Don Henley, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Crosby Stills & Nash, Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards, Phil Collins, David Crosby and more.
Danny Kortchmar along with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel, were considered ‘musician’s musicians’ as part of The Section. They were the Los Angeles-based musical heavyweights behind the scenes with the famous artists of the singer-songwriter era. They not only played on their albums, co-wrote songs and toured with the artists, but also produced for them. The Section was revered by music insiders. Which is why the biggest names in the business hired them.
Think The Wrecking Crew, who played on so many albums, hundreds of top 40 hits, and never had their names listed. Why? Because if they were playing, then it implied that the famous artists were not. Ghost musicians, if you will.
But The Section was different. They came later. They were young, more contemporary, more rock and roll. They hit it big and had their names on many of the albums they played on.
In 2020 Kortchmar, Wachtel, Kunkel, Sklar and newest guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Postell formed their own rock and roll supergroup called The Immediate Family. Most of the band members had been playing together for 50 years so it seemed like the natural next step. The band has released two EPs (Slippin’ and Slidin’, Can’t Stop Progress), one album (self-titled) and are set to release a new album Skin In the Game in Spring of 2023 that will coincide with the release of The Immediate Family Documentary Film.
Danny Kortchmar and I talked by phone from his home in New York. I asked him to elaborate a bit on his experience as a sideman, songwriter and producer during the golden age of the singer/songwriter.
Danny said, “Well, in the seventies Russ, and Lee, and Wad and I, we really struck gold because we were at the right place at the right time. And this is when the so-called singer songwriter movement started to happen. Of course, we didn’t call it that, nobody called it that except for the press. At that time records were being made where they’d get four or five of us in the studio together and put the singer in a booth and away we would go. We’d start recording and we’d make sometimes three songs a day.
“For instance, when we did Tapestry with Carole, we were doing three songs a day. The whole thing took three weeks including mixing and mastering. So, things happen quickly and you had to know your stuff, you had to be able to find a part that was going to help the song, help the singer, and help the producer. And that was going to hopefully make a difference in making it into something that would be instantly recognized and related to.”
“Speaking of Carole King and Tapestry,” I said, “You two have been good friends and have known each other for a long time. Did you know that Tapestry was going to be such a hit?”
Danny explained. “We had already done two albums with Carole before that. And one was called The City, it was under the name of a group because she was leery about being a solo artist by herself. The next one was called Writer, which is also fantastic record. And neither of those two records went anywhere. So when we did Tapestry, I knew she was great, I knew the songs were great, I certainly knew Lou Adler was a great producer, but I had no idea what was going to make it or not. Because I knew a lot of great stuff didn’t make it and that it (the music industry) was very fickle and very kind of up-for-grabs situation. Lou knew it was going to be a hit. He had the foresight to know. But of course he is one of the greatest record producers ever.”
Having moved from New York to Los Angeles in the 60s and settled in Laurel Canyon where Jackson Browne also resided, Kortchmar toured and recorded with Browne. I wanted to know about working with Jackson Browne.
Danny shared, “With Jackson, the first time that we really worked together was on the Running on Empty tour. I had known him a long time before that. I met him when he was 18 or 19 in Laurel Canyon. When he put together the Running on Empty tour, he wanted the greatest– Russ and Lee, and Craig Doerge on keys, and myself. I’m not saying I’m one of the greatest, but he felt that we, The Section, were a great, great rock band. He knew we were expensive, but he wanted to spend money to take us on the road because he knew that we would be great and of course we were. And that was my first experience working with Jackson. I loved playing his music, loved it. His songs, I mean, he is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard, ever.”
After hearing about Browne, I couldn’t go without asking Kortchmar to share what it was like working with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
“With James,” Kortchmar said, “it’s the same thing. I’ve known James since we were both teenagers since we were like 13 or 14, and we came up together. We learned how to play together and we’re still very, very good friends. I love him very much. And I spent 10 years with him, we all did, Russ and Lee and I spent 10 years with him in the seventies going on the road and making his albums. Which was a joy, delight. Again, same thing, fantastic songs. He’d play us a song, we just go, ‘Oh man this is so beautiful.’ It’s a joy to play great songs with great artists.”
Kortchmar continued. “Same thing with Ronstadt, who is absolutely brilliant, one of the greatest singers I’ve ever been on stage with, maybe the greatest. She had so much power as a vocalist, tremendous power. And her set, she would do a Hank Williams tune, an Elvis Costello tune, a Jim Webb tune, a Chuck Berry tune, this wide variety of stuff. That was very interesting to me too, ’cause previously we would just do James Taylor songs with James. But with Linda we were doing a bunch of different songs by different writers, all of which were picked by Linda, who has brilliant taste and knows exactly what works for her.”
Known as a legendary sideman/guitarist, I asked Danny if he still did session work.
Danny admitted that he was focused on writing for The Immediate Family. He shared his passion for great songs and explained the difference between doing session work for commercials and playing with great songwriters, singers. “I’m terribly spoiled. I wanted to play great songs. Being a session musician is craft, you know? And stuff you’re not emotionally involved in. When you’re playing with James, or Carole, or Jackson, or Ronstadt, or Crosby & Nash, or Neil, or any of these, they’re passionately involved in their music. They’re not fucking around, you know? It’s not a Taco Bell commercial, it’s serious.”
Danny continued. “You bring your A game, but you’re playing serious songs, written by serious people. And I got really spoiled working with all these great artists and on these great songs. So, I became a bit of a snob, okay, not a bit of a snob, a terrible snob, from working on these great songs. And I didn’t want to play mediocre songs and I didn’t want to play Taco Bell commercials. And then fortunately, Don Henley kicked me upstairs, he made me co-producer on his first solo album. And at that point I became a producer and I stopped doing record dates altogether.”
I said, “You wrote some beautiful songs with Henley. ‘New York Minute’ is one of my favorites.”
“Glad you like it.”
Because Danny Kortchmar has been co-writer and writer on so many hits (‘All She Wants To Do Is Dance’, ‘Dirty Laundry’, ‘Somebody’s Baby’, ‘Honey Don’t Leave L.A.’, among many others,) I’d have been remiss if I didn’t ask him about his songwriting process.
Danny said, “If we’re talking about working with Don (Henley), that’s a different situation. He’s one of the greatest singers-songwriters ever. And I started working with him because he wanted to make a solo album and he wanted to sound nothing like the Eagles. So he called me. I was the right guy for this because I’m from New York and I came up playing rhythm of blues, blues, and soul music.
“Don is a great rhythm and blues singer. How he started was playing in soul bands down in Texas, so we kind of fell right into it. And with him, I would try to come up with a musical idea and if he would say, ‘Yeah I can sing to that yeah.’ We would start recording right away before the song was even written. And then as we were doing it, Henley was putting together lyrics for it. That happened with a lot of the songs we did. And then some of the songs I came up with the title, for instance, ‘New York Minute,’ I came up with the chorus and also wrote the music to it, and we threw ideas around. That’s the way it used to work with Don.”
Referring to The Immediate Family, Danny shared, “Very similar with my boys now–I wait for an idea to come along or I stumble on something. Every time I pick up the guitar, I find something that’s a little different than I’d ever seen before or heard before in my playing.”
I asked, “What do you think makes a good song?”
As if everything is on the tip of his tongue, Danny jumped right in with a response. “Well, it’s got to have soul, it’s got to have healing, and it has to move people. It can’t just be your story, it has to ring people’s bell, it has to be their story as well. I love songs that tell a story–we all do, and songs that are about us. It’s no good if the song is just about the person that wrote it. The song also, as I was pointing out, has to be about people who are listening to it.”
“The other thing I like is to have heavy rhythm,” Danny added. “I like my songs to be ass–shakers, but also have something to say, a message like ‘Dirty Laundry,’ for instance.”
“Or Cruel Twist.” I mentioned this tune from The Immediate Family’s first EP because of its funky groove and because it’s one of my favorites. Kortchmar wrote it himself.
Kortchmar shared the songwriting process for the band which sounded more like telepathy and intuition than anything else. After playing with the other band members for so long, it isn’t surprising that each compliments the other with such ease.
Curious if Kortchmar listens to contemporary music, I asked him who is on his playlist.
“Mostly I listen to the music I grew up with,” he said. “I think most people love the music they grew up with more than anything. I grew up with soul music, and blues, R&B, and of course rock and roll. I still listen to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed, and other blues masters. I still listen of course to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I kind of like young bands that sound like old bands.”
Danny continued. “I really like Greta Van Fleet. I really like Blackberry Smoke. Blackberry Smoke are a fantastic southern rock band. They’ve learned their lessons from all the bands that came before them. They’re as good or better than any of those bands, in my opinion. Greta Van Fleet– who cares that they sound a little like Led Zeppelin. That’s bad that they sound like Led Zeppelin? I don’t think so, I think it’s great. You got to learn from the people who came before you. I learned from the great guitar players, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, and Steve Cropper, Cornell Dupree, Jimi Hendrix, and everybody. You learn from the people that came before you. You’re not going to come up with original music that no one’s ever heard before. That’s a joke, there is no such thing and there never was. Music is all primitive, it all comes from what came before. And that includes European music, European classical music too.”
Along with The Immediate Family’s new album ‘Skin In the Game’ set to release in Spring of 2023, the award-winning The Immediate Family Documentary Film will also be released, directed by Denny Tedesco (The Wrecking Crew). I asked Kortchmar to tell me about it. “Is it the history of your band? To educate people about who you are?”
Danny said, “I think that was the director Denny Tedesco’s idea–here we are having played on all these records and worked with all these incredible artists, and most people probably don’t know who we are. Only people in the know would know. This is a broad history of all the people we played with– that’s an awful lot of people. And the hook of the story is that here we are still performing, we’re still out there. Unlike say, The Wrecking Crew. There were all the great side men and session guys from a generation before us, and they never left town. They never went out and gigged because they were afraid if they went out of town, somebody else would be sitting in their chair when they got back. With us, we didn’t care about that so why not?”
For more information about The Immediate Family see Here
Watch “The Toughest Girl In Town”