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© Sayre Berman/Corbis
“There was an incredible spirit in the air," says guitarist Waddy Wachtel, looking back on a golden period of time, during the '70s and early '80s, when he and an elite, close-knit group of Los Angeles-based musicians (including drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar, keyboardist Craig Doerge and guitarist Danny Kortchmar) helped define the sound and mood of the era on a staggering array of hits by the likes of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Stevie Nicks and others.
"You would go to the studios and be with people who you loved, who you dug," he says. "I’d be doing Warren Zevon’s record, and Don Henley and Glenn Frey would be there having a drink. And if you weren’t working, you were hanging out with them. ‘Oh, you need a background vocal? I’ll do it.’ ‘You need some guitar on that? Let me see what I can do.’ Everybody was helping each other. It was sensational. The creative flow was unstoppable."
Wachtel came to Los Angeles from the East Coast in the late '60s, and after a few years of barely scraping by while trying to break into the inner circle of new-breed studio players who would gradually become as dominant a force as LA's famed "Wrecking Crew," he finally got his big break when producer Nick Venet, who had used the guitarist on a series of acoustic, folk-based gigs, told him, "Waddy, it’s time for you to move on."
"My heart sank," recalls Wachtel, laughing. "'What’s wrong?'" I said. "'What did I do?' And he said, ‘No, no, no. You’re not fired. You’re better than what we’re doing here. It’s time for you to move up.'" Venet invited Wachtel to play electric slide on a session, which then led to the guitarist getting a call to perform on a Tim Curry record, and on that date he not only played with Kunkel and Sklar, whom he had already worked with previously, but he finally got a chance to meet and trade licks with Kortchmar. Before long, Wachtel's dance card was filled, and he often found himself in the studio with the same core group: Kunkel, Sklar, Kortchmar and Doerge.
The three-hour session recording blocks of the '60s gave way to extended periods in the studio as producers and artists crafted whole albums, not songs, affording Wachtel the opportunity to explore the nuances of each cut, including the emotional messages behind the numbers.
“I would look for the spaces in the music," Wachtel says. "It’s all give and take. My life is counterpoint. That’s what I’ve built my world around: Here’s the singer, here’s the song, and here’s a spot where I can add something that matters. The spot where the singer takes a breath, that’s where I add a little burst to counter the melody. You have to use your ears and listen to the song to get that give and take. Tiny moments add up."
For most dates, Wachtel relied on a 1960 sunburst Les Paul that he purchased from Stephen Stills. "That's the guitar you’ve heard on pretty much all records," he says. "At some point, I started using Fenders, but for most of it, for anything electric, the Les Paul was always with me." Complementing his 'burst was a Music Man 210 HD amplifier, which Wachtel describes as "beautiful sounding, not too loud for a studio room. That guitar and amp were a perfect match; notes would just fly out and sing.”
By the mid-'80s, tastes had changed, new bands and players invaded the scene, and the studio musicians, who not too long ago were booked round the clock, began to find new opportunities for employment, often as key touring figures for the stars they'd recorded with. Wachtel, who would hook up with Keith Richards and become one of the rock legend's X-Pensve Winos, still records and tours with artists regularly, but he regards the glory days of the '70s with a hindsight view.
“When we were doing it, all the focus was on the work," he says. "It never occurred to me, like, ‘Gee, everybody is so creative and is doing all of these amazing songs.’ That only comes with years. But it was an incredible period where you had Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Little Feat, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor – all the best people were blossoming at the same time. Los Angeles was on fire."
The tale of Wachtel and his session comrades will soon be the subject of an upcoming documentary, King Of The Sidemen, the title of which causes the guitarist to squirm a bit. "I ain't no king," he asserts. "Everybody was doing great stuff." On the following pages, Wachtel looks back on 11 of his most notable recordings.