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© Elissa Kline
During the 1970s and into the first part of the '80s, it seemed as though Southern California had a lock on hit records. The Left Coast, which had ceded a sizable chunk of the '60s to British hitmakers, came alive with the deeply personal, meditative sounds of James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne and other similarly introspective troubadours who connected with the masses and summed up the post-Vietnam era zeitgeist.
“It did feel like the center of the universe," says guitarist Danny Kortchmar, whose robust, rock and blues-infused licks and highly intuitive way of interpreting material made him the era's first-call picker among the period's A-list stars. "All hell had broken loose, and we were on fire," Kortchmar says. "We were cutting records all the time, every day. LA was the place to be back then, just like London in the 1960s. There was tons of work, tons of studios, musicians everywhere – you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a genius."
Despite his hit-filled resume, Kortchmar says that he never intended on being a session player. In the mid-'60s, the native New Yorker hoped to find stardom as a member of such groups as The Kingbees and The Flying Machine (the latter of which included the then-unknown James Taylor). “I wanted to be in a band, but I also wanted to be in something like Booker T and the MGs or the Motown crew," says Kortchmar. "I always admired those guys who went into the studio all day long and cut hits, one after the other. So I was torn as to which direction I should take."
When The Kingbees broke up in 1967, Taylor headed to London to try his luck as a solo artist. Kortchmar had already hipped his friend Peter Asher, ex- of the duo Peter & Gordon and now running The Beatles' newly formed Apple Records, to Tayor's talents, and Asher quickly signed the singer to the label. Kortchmar stayed in New York City, playing for a time with the psychedelic rock band The Fugs. Around this time, an LA-based group called Clear Light came to town in search of a guitarist. Kortchmar quickly landed the gig and made the easy decision to relocate to California. "I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go out there,’" Kortchmar recalls. "New York was freezing cold, and there were no gigs, so I didn’t think twice about it."
Kortchmar's worked with Clear Light for the next six months until they disbanded. He then reunited with one of his ex-Fugs mates, bassist Charlie Larkey, along with another Manhattan friend, noted Brill Building songwriter Carole King. With King on vocals and piano, the trio formed The City and cut a record with producer Lou Adler called Now That Everything's Been Said. "That was the first full album I played on," Kortchmar says. "It was my real introduction to big-time LA recording work. I felt immediately comfortable in the studio, even though I was learning as I went."
The record failed to hit and The City called it quits, but soon after, when King cut her second solo album, Tapestry, one which would prove to be an unqualified breakthrough, Kortchmar and Larkey were aboard as part of the singer's studio backing band. At the same time, Kortchmar had reconnected with his old pal Taylor, now transplanted to LA himself, who was about to record his Warner Bros. debut, Sweet Baby James, with Asher producing.
The guitarist joined Taylor in the studio, along with a group of musicians that would soon loom large in his life, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel. “Once I started playing with Russ and Lee, I just wanted to be in the studio all the time, playing with those guys and cutting records," says Kortchmar. "My focus changed. Russ and Lee and I knew one another’s playing so well, it’s like we developed three-way telepathy."
The three established a tight bond, one which continued further with the addition of keyboardist Craig Doerge. When they weren't recording, the four musicians hit the road with Taylor, who nicknamed them The Section. "We’d be on tour with James, and after he finished his soundcheck, we kept jamming until they threw us off the stage," says Kortchmar. "But by playing so much, in the studio and out on tour, we really got to know what each guy was going to do in any kind of musical situation."
For Kortchmar and The Section, the work (and the hits) continued throughout the '70s. On many dates, Kortchmar found himself rubbing shoulders and trading licks with a shaggy-haired wild-card guitarist, fellow New Yorker Robert "Waddy" Wachtel. At first, Wachtel regarded Kortchmar as the enemy, but any perceived animosity fell away during their first encounter during a Lou Adler-produced date for a Tim Curry record. "I took one look at Waddy and said, ‘I love this guy,' remembers Kortchmar. "'He looks like a muppet – he’s gotta be great.’ We fell into it right away. One of the things we had in common was reggae – we’re both major reggae fanatics. With rock ‘n’ roll, we came at it with slightly different points of view, but once we started playing together, it all clicked."
For the majority of sessions, Kortchmar – or "Kootch," as he was affectionately called – relied on a Fender Telecaster Thinline he had bought in 1968. He brought the guitar to Red Rhodes' guitar repair shop on Cahuenga Boulevard, where Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who would go on to fame in the Doobie Brothers, came up with a pickup and circuitry configuration that would prove invaluable. "I had three pickups – a Telecaster, a Stratocaster and a humbucker – and I could turn them on and off and put them out-of-phase, as well," says Kortchmar. "Jeff gave the guitar a wide variety of sounds. I put the Tele through an old Fender Deluxe. That was my go-to setup for a long, long time.”
As the '70s drew to a close, tastes changed – punk and new wave became the order of the day, although Kortchmar participated memorably on Linda Ronstadt's new wave-flavored 1980 release, Mad Love – and Kortchmar found new life as a co-producer, co-writer and musical foil for ex-Eagle Don Henley. "I did want to produce because it was like, ‘How fun is this? You get to hang out in the studio with your pals and create something?’" Kortchmar remembers. "Plus, I knew I’d be good at it because I was taught by the best – Lou Adler, Peter Asher, Carole King. I had a good idea of how to make a record. I was a good arranger, and I hired all the best guys, so I felt ready by the time I fell into it."