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In 1970, as he was preparing to play on an album by Carole King, a hit ‘60s songwriter who had yet to make a name for herself as a commercial singer of her own compositions, drummer Russ Kunkel did a funny thing: He asked King for a copy of her lyrics.
"Back in those days we didn’t use charts that much,” Kunkel explains. “We played the songs enough that we would memorize them in the studio, but I also wanted to see the lyrics because I wanted to know what the songs were about.”
Kunkel’s simple request, and his subsequent playing on King’s landmark album Tapestry, made quite an impression on the singer-songwriter. The two began an association that would encompass studio recordings and stage work, one that continues to this day. “Carole King was recently quoted as saying that I’m a ‘singer-songwriter’s drummer,’” Kunkel says. "Again, that's her quote, not mine." Describing his approach in the studio, he says, “It’s like I’m able to play in all aspects of the song, not just the groove to enhance the song, but in a way that the composer or the writer feels simpatico with.”
Throughout the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, Kunkel was at the center of a small group of ace players – namely, guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Robert "Waddy" Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and keyboardist Craig Doerge – who performed on an astonishing series of soft-rock masterpieces by singer-songwriters such as King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and others. The double-shot of Taylor's Sweet Baby James and King's Tapestry, both released within a year of each other, primed listeners' ears for a more introspective approach to rock. The hits piled up, the studios were hummin', and the musicians were booked round the clock.
“It was an incredible time, but from where I sat, it was like being in the calm in the center of the storm,” Kunkel says. “I had no idea that James Taylor’s success would be as big as it was and that playing on Sweet Baby James would have the long-range effects that it did. I was just happy to be working. And I’m glad that I didn’t know – I think that would only have been a distraction.”
Kunkel enjoyed such a tight bond with his studio mates that he, along with Kortchmar, Sklar and Doerge, formed a band called The Section. The quartet hit the road in the mid-'70s and even cut a couple of albums. Kunkel maintains that the musical dialogue The Section shared on their own helped inform their work for their superstar friends.
"Playing as a group for James or for Linda or for Jackson was different because we played well together as a quartet," he says. "We knew how to stay out of each other’s way and how to enhance each other’s parts. That made it very easy for Jackson to put on the guitars and the piano – the rhythm section was just there, percolating around him. The same for James. We had spent enough time doing it that it just came naturally."
By the mid-'80s, Kunkel expanded into production, helming records for artists such Jimmy Buffett, Dan Fogelberg, Carly Simon and the Derek Trucks Band, among others. He credits Peter Asher, who in the '70s functioned as manager and producer for both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, as a major influence. "Having the good fortune to work with Peter Asher meant that I got exposed to lots of different artists," says Kunkel. "Peter is still is a great friend and a very, very smart man, because he really believed that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. He got a core group of people around him who were his support music people, and he stayed with them. He took them from project to project because he wanted that consistency.
“Although a James Taylor record doesn’t sound anything like a Linda Ronstadt record, the consistency is there. We were the string that held the pearls together.”
On the following pages, Kunkel looks back on 13 of his most notable recordings.