Music

They’ve Backed Carole King, James Taylor and Jackson Browne — But Don’t You Dare Call This Band ‘Soft Rock’

Five of the world’s most prominent rock ‘n’ rollers walk side by side through Times Square, just before performing three straight concerts at the Iridium nightclub. And almost nobody recognizes them. “I don’t remember anybody going, ‘Look at those guys,’” says Waddy Wachtel, guitarist for the Immediate Family, session musicians who have played with Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Phil Collins, Carole King and hundreds of others since the ’70s. “It was just another semi-busy afternoon. People just doing what they do.”

Although giant-bearded bassist Leland Sklar clarifies that he did get recognized before those 2019 concerts, and snapped photos with three or four fans, the Immediate Family, stars of a new documentary, remains both unprecedentedly important and pointedly non-famous. 

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“If somebody stops me on the street and says, ‘Oh, I love your playing,’ yes, of course, I love that. How could you not?” says Danny Kortchmar, one of the group’s three guitarists. “But I don’t miss it. I certainly wouldn’t want the thing that Carole and James had. It didn’t do them any good, let me tell you.”

Denny Tedesco directed and produced Immediate Family to follow up his first film, The Wrecking Crew!, about an earlier generation of studio musicians who backed ’60s pop giants from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys. Tedesco’s late father, Tommy, was a guitarist for that band, and Denny made the film to “rediscover what he did,” he recalls via Zoom. Immediate Family was a natural next step, “like someone handed a baton over,” according to Tedesco. And while Tedesco and his wife, co-executive producer Suzie Greene Tedesco, went into debt licensing the classic songs for The Wrecking Crew!, its success allowed the filmmaker to secure financial backing for Immediate Family, including a rights-acquisition deal with indie giant Magnolia Pictures.

Shortly after Tedesco’s crew started filming in 2019, Wachtel, Sklar, Kortchmar and drummer Russ Kunkel, who’d been known for nearly 50 years as The Section, rebranded themselves as a new band called the Immediate Family. They began playing gigs on their own and added a longtime collaborator, guitarist Steve Postell, for a self-titled 2021 album. 

“We enjoyed it a lot. It wasn’t a drag,” Kortchmar, 77, says of the new film. “We didn’t have to sit around for hours and hours, the way a lot of movies are made.”

Carole King, James Taylor, Danny Kortchmar in IMMEDIATE FAMILY
Carole King, James Taylor, Danny Kortchmar in IMMEDIATE FAMILY, a Magnolia Pictures release.

Immediate Family begins with Kortchmar, known as “Kootch,” whose mother bought him a Stella guitar as a kid, although he didn’t take to it until he saw Elvis Presley on television. Vacationing with his family in Martha’s Vineyard, he befriended a 13-year-old Taylor; as Taylor evolved into a megastar, Kortchmar gigged in bands, first in New York, then Los Angeles, until producer Peter Asher hired him to play on Taylor’s second album, 1970’s Sweet Baby James, along with pianist King and drummer Kunkel. (Craig Doerge eventually replaced King on keys in Taylor’s band, and he was a founding member of The Section.)

After learning drums from his older brother, Kunkel played in his fifth-grade orchestra, which ejected him for playing too loud. He later joined bands in Southern California, evolving his sound into what Browne, in the film, calls “solid, but quiet, with these big toms.” Kunkel’s band, Things to Come, succeeded The Doors as the house band at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go, and, supporting a wife and baby, he used his music-scene connections to secure studio gigs — including for Sweet Baby James. “From there, the dominoes started to fall,” he says in the film.

Sklar, a fast-fingered bassist influenced by Liberace’s piano-playing, met Taylor through a friend, and joined the singer-songwriter, as well as Kortchmar and Kunkel, at a Troubadour club gig in LA. “Next thing I know, it turned into 50-plus years,” Sklar says in the documentary. King then made her smash 1971 album Tapestry with nearly the same backup band. And unlike The Wrecking Crew or Motown’s Funk Brothers, The Section benefited from Asher’s decision to credit them on each record — drawing the attention of music fans everywhere, from future stars like Collins to Wachtel himself, who noticed Kortchmar’s name and wondered, as he recalls in the documentary, “Why is he on all these records? How does he get all these gigs?”

Wachtel, a long-haired, skinny, bespectacled guitar hero, began a lifelong collaboration with Kortchmar, a fellow New Yorker, when they played together on a Tim Curry session. Influenced by Les Paul as a five-year-old watching TV, Wachtel soaked up early rock ‘n’ roll, played in a band, moved to L.A. and sought out the studio musician scene. He was driving to a studio gig in his ’57 Chevy when he encountered another ’57 Chevy on the way out. That driver? Kunkel.

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Wachtel’s car “carried me around for a while, and it literally died one day on the freeway and I just pulled over and left it there and walked away,” the 76-year-old guitarist says, in a phone interview from Ventura County, Calif. By contrast, Kunkel still has his Chevy, and, in a separate phone interview, he lovingly describes every detail, from its vertical chrome strips on the back to the original buying price of $400 to his sharing it with his adult son, Nathaniel.

“Waddy and Danny are two of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll parts-players of all time,” says Postell, 67, in a call from Marina del Rey, Calif. “Danny came up from the great R&B tradition of rhythm parts. Waddy has an incredible ability to find the right lines and the inner parts that drive a song along.”

Asher’s decision to credit the studio musicians on the album covers in the early ’70s was a “quantum change” from The Wrecking Crew days, says Sklar, 76, by phone from Pasadena, Calif. The Section, collectively and individually, went on to perform on Browne’s “Running On Empty,” Stevie Nicks‘ “Edge of Seventeen,” Hall & Oates‘ “Rich Girl,” Warren Zevon‘s “Werewolves of London,” Don Henley‘s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” and thousands of other classic tracks. “Unlike the Wrecking Crew, we got credit for it as it was happening, not necessarily later,” Kunkel adds. “It changed all of our careers. It made us who we are today.”

The Immediate Family film documents the band’s evolution, complete with funny stories like Zevon insisting on 61 straight studio takes of “Werewolves,” before settling on the second take for his album. Conspicuously absent are the usual recollections of drug and alcohol excess that accompany many documentaries about rock touring in the ’70s and ’80s. “We did talk about drugs here and there, and there are things that are very painful for those guys,” Tedesco says. “They took in a lot of things and they survived — some did, some didn’t.”

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Tedesco proceeds to tell a story about the band touring with Ronstadt in Detroit when a driver mistakenly takes them across the bridge to Canada. On the way back, worried about U.S. Customs, members of the band start throwing their drugs out the window. “One of the guys goes, ‘Probably thousands of dollars in drugs laying on the side of the road somewhere,’” Tedesco says. Sklar, a teetotaler and “real Type A kind of control-freak personality” who has never smoked or tried a single drug, wasn’t a fan of this side of his avocation. “I was never judgmental or anything,” says Sklar, also a prolific presence on YouTube. “The only time it would really get to bug me would be like we finished a gig and one of the guys would get really drunk on the bus and I knew we had eight hours in the bus and they immediately started saying, ‘I love you, man. I really love you.’”

Also absent from Immediate Family are references to the Mellow Mafia, a longtime Section nickname due to their work with Taylor, King, Ronstadt, Browne and others. A Rolling Stone 2013 profile of the group included the headline “The Knights of Soft Rock.” Wachtel, who has played in Keith Richards‘ raucous solo band, The X-Pensive Winos, for decades, is especially sensitive to this language. “These are just phrases you don’t really want to be associated with,” he says. “I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player and I play all kinds of music.” Kortchmar is even more pointed. “My answer to that is ‘F— you!’” he says by phone. “Don’t ever call me ‘soft rock,’ man. I really hated that terminology and I still do. There’s nothing soft about me and about the music we play.”

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