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Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Steve Postell & Denny Tedesco – In the Immediate Family

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel, Steve Postell, Russ Kunkel in IMMEDIATE FAMILY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Steve Postell & Denny Tedesco

Keeping It In the Immediate Family

By Jay S. Jacobs


It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the Immediate Family – guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel – played on most of the huge hits coming out of California of the 1970s and 1980s. But it would not be that big of an exaggeration.


The four musicians – at the time referred to as The Section – played on a staggering number of hit albums and singles over the decades. They were the band for James Taylor’s breakthrough album Sweet Baby James and Carole King’s classic Tapestry. Together or separately (but mainly together) they have regularly worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Phil Collins, and many, many, many more.

Their career trajectory intrigued documentarian Denny Tedesco, who also directed The Wrecking Crew, which was also about session musicians who had appeared on a stunning amount of hit singles from the anonymity of the studio in the 1950s and 1960s into the early 1970s. Tedesco came to that project naturally – his father Tommy Tedesco was a well-respected guitarist and a mainstay of the Wrecking Crew.


The Immediate Family was sort of the next wave of that type of artist – however they did not toil in anonymity in studio sessions like the Wrecking Crew. The Immediate Family members were pioneers for getting credit for their contributions to classic rock and roll, as well as for touring the world with different artists performing the songs that they created. Also over the years they have branched out into songwriting, production, musical direction, while still working regularly as gigging musicians.


In recent years, they have officially become a band, recording an album and doing concerts of many of the hit singles in which they played a part. They also added old friend and former Pure Prairie League member writer/producer/guitarist Steve Postell – the young buck in the group as a 60-something year old.


About a week before Immediate Family hit theaters and pay-per-view, we had the opportunity to speak on Zoom with Immediate Family stalwarts Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Steve Postell and director Denny Tedesco. Danny (Kootch) Kortchmar, who was also supposed to be part of the interview, had to bow out at the last minute.


Danny Tedesco, director of IMMEDIATE FAMILY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Immediate Family guys are somewhat like the Wrecking Crew. But in many other ways, they're very different. What was it about their story that appealed to you and made you think that that was how you wanted to follow up the last movie?


Denny Tedesco: Good question. If you remember, at the end of The Wrecking Crew, I was a little shell shocked to finally get that one done after 19 years. There are always other stories that can be told about session players, or other musicians and stuff. They brought this project to me. I thought, Oh, this sounds really interesting. They have a band called Immediate Family of their own. [In] Wrecking Crew, I always remember adding a line at the beginning, “This is the story of my father, and his extended family, the Wrecking Crew.” I realize with bands and groups like this, and all artists that have spent a lot of time together, they become a family. They spend more time with each other than their own families. I know from experience, growing up with a business where my dad was never around.


You guys have been performing together not just as coworkers in the band, but for like 50 years as friends and you consider yourselves a family. How do you feel that that relationship and all that shared history helped you as musicians working together?


Waddy Wachtel: When we get together to play for somebody, a lot of the communication that you would have to go through with people you've never worked with is gone. We all know how we play together. We all know what we do with each other. If our boy Danny was here, Danny and I know exactly where the other guitar player is not going to be playing. Me and Russell, we know each other like the back of our hands. (Leland Sklar holds up the back of his hand, then Russ Kunkel does.) It eliminates a lot of the “let's get to know each other” part front of a session.


Leland Sklar: There's no foreplay.


Waddy Wachtel: No foreplay, yeah. (They all laugh.)

You have performed on some of the biggest hits for well over a decade. What was it like just turning on the radio in the day and just hearing all these different songs that you performed on?


Leland Sklar: It's still weird. The other day I was at Home Depot. “You've Got a Friend” was coming over the music system that they were playing. I'm just kind of standing there. It's always so weird. I hear it in the supermarket. It's not just radio. At this point it's pretty pervasive into every playlist that's sent out for different places, restaurants and stuff. To me, it's really thrilling because I'm so proud of what we've all accomplished over the years in terms of bringing music to people's lives. One of the things you always get from people when you meet them, they always go, “Oh, man, you're like the soundtrack of my life.” I look at them and I go, “I'm really the soundtrack of my life, too.” I can step away from having played on something and still be fanboy and enjoy the stuff. I don't sit there listening to stuff I've played on. I'm not judgmental about the bass part. I still listen to it all and usually it's a really good feeling, thinking about the players that are on these things and the relationships, some that are gone now. You're hearing the music, so they're here for perpetuity, regardless if their physical body is gone. Their contribution is going to be there forever. It's thrilling to me. I love it.


Waddy Wachtel: Always. Yeah. It's a treat. The first time for me it happened was I played on Linda Ronstadt’s version of “That'll Be the Day.” I was standing, talking to some friends outside and somebody's car radio was on. All of sudden that song came on, and my solo came blasting out of the radio. I went, well, I like this. (chuckles) This is new. The same feeling happens every time still, 45 years later. You hear a song you played on, and you go (looks blissful) “Yeah. Wonderful.” Yeah. 

Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar in IMMEDIATE FAMILY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

How did you guys get involved with Denny for the documentary? Were you familiar with his movie about The Wrecking Crew previously?


Steve Postell: I had actually done some work [with him]. He was trying to raise money for The Wrecking Crew. I was part of a group of musicians to play some benefits to raise money so he could pay for all the sync licenses. So, I knew Denny, but Danny would tell you that Elisa Roy, who was working with us, connected Danny with Denny and the producer, Greg Richling. Danny just told the story, but since he's not here, (laughs) they were working on another project that apparently wasn't going the way they wanted. Lisa had the idea, “Well, why don't you do the next incarnation from The Wrecking Crew to The Section… to these guys. So Danny met with Denny and it just worked out from there.


Leland Sklar: It's a unique group. I knew Denny too from The Wrecking Crew, but I also knew Denny because I did a ton of sessions with Tommy, his father, over the years. So I knew Denny for years and when they did The Wrecking Crew, I ended up doing a lot of the screenings with them and the Q&A, because we were like this transitory group of players that were coming in towards the end of the Wrecking Crew’s time. One of the things that Denny talked about that was really one of his hooks for this movie was The Wrecking Crew really was about 10 years of solid work. He said, “You guys are 50 years and still going.” It was a different spin for him when he when he approached doing the Immediate Family documentary.


Denny Tedesco: The other big thing was at the end of The Wrecking Crew, Lou Adler, the producer of Tapestry, but he also did all the Mamas and Papas and Janis Ian and all that stuff with my dad and those guys of the Wrecking Crew. I asked him, I said, Did you make a conscious decision to change to different musicians and a sound when you did Carole King's Tapestry? He goes, “No, absolutely not. Carole brought her own friends in. She brought in James Taylor, and Kootch,” meaning Danny Kortchmar. So it's like, okay, this seems like the perfect handoff. I had a hook, and I was running after that.


I remember you said, when we spoke about The Wrecking Crew, that you weren't necessarily familiar with your father's work as a musician until years later. How did you first become familiar with these guys and their work? That's a little bit more from your era…


Denny Tedesco: It's funny, because I remember doing my interview with Peter Asher, and I said something to Peter that he looked at me like I was nuts. He goes, they weren’t legends, because I consider them legends. But he goes they weren’t legends when we started working with them, they were just friends. Leland, when he went on the road with Sweet Baby James with James Taylor, it was his first gig. He was still in college. Russ Kunkel had the most credits I think in terms of albums the first two years. That was Joni Mitchell's Blue, Sweet Baby James with James Taylor and Tapestry for Carole King. But they hadn't really started their careers at that point. They were going, but it was all those years later that I got to know their names because, you're right, it is more my music in high school. I always remember seeing the credits in the liner notes, which I never had in the 60s. We never had that, to look up who was on what album. I remember looking at those names. Kootch. Danny Kortchmar, that was his nickname. That's an odd name. Waddy Wachtel, another name. Leland Sklar. Another name. And then Russ Kunkel who's the drummer. It just sounds like a made-up name for a drummer. There were all these names in my head.

A scene from IMMEDIATE FAMILY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Joel Bernstein. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Another way that you guys are different than the Wrecking Crew is that you performed live. The Wrecking Crew was all done in the studio. How do you think that the touring helped with the musicianship?


Leland Sklar: I've always been a live player, I've always told people if somebody told me I had to make a choice between touring or recording, I’d tell him I do touring every time. I like playing live. To me, that's what got me into music, being in bands when I was a teenager, and watching the response of people. The studio to me is frosting on the cake. But if I had to make a choice, I would be out there on the road. It felt natural to do records, and then go out with the artists. Even not with the artists and finding other opportunities to work with different people live.


Russ Kunkel: Also touring with the artists that we recorded with, and that list is pretty profound. It gave us a whole lot more exposure to a much greater audience. People were putting it together, “Oh, those are the same guys that played on the record.” Like Leland says, and then other artists that were coming up that liked the James Taylor, or Carole King record would say, “Well, I want to get those musicians for my album.” So we benefited from not only doing the records with these iconic artists but benefited from touring with them as well.


Denny Tedesco: Big difference there. The reason the Wrecking Crew never did it was because you never left town. Work in LA was so busy with those guys. The Wrecking Crew guys were doing three, four sessions a day. That's a lot of money at the end of the year. If you left for a day, someone else took your account. And going on the road paid nothing. So, all of a sudden, the business changed. Now you’ve got albums, LPs. The record companies are supporting them. Let's support the act. Let's let them go out on the road. Taking the band that recorded it. Big, huge difference.


Leland Sklar: We say this every time, we owe so much to Peter Asher. When we started with James, Peter insisted that our names appear on the album jacket, which almost never happened before Peter. So when people were signing artists, and they would look at James's record and see our names on it, they would go, “Well, if they're good enough for James, let's track them down.” All of a sudden, we had careers that one day earlier weren't there. I mean, it was very remarkable how quickly everything turned for us.


Waddy Wachtel: Also for Peter, I got to say, when I joined up with Russell, Leland and Danny to play for Carole King Thoroughbred on tour, Peter came to see us when we played UCLA. The next day, I got a phone call from Peter Asher saying, “Let's have lunch, I want to talk to you.” He wanted me to come play on some Linda [Ronstadt] records. But then he said, “I want you to go on the road.” He was always at the forefront of most of what we've done.


Leland Sklar: He never took me to lunch.


Waddy Wachtel: It wasn't such a good lunch. And it was Dutch [treat].


Leland Sklar: Okay, okay,


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

You’ve worked with so many great artists over the years. Do you ever look back at your history and say, “Wow, I can't believe I got to work with so and so and so and so.” Or “I was part of this?” Are there certain people that really bring this out in you?


Waddy Wachtel: All the time,


Leland Sklar: Every day.


Russ Kunkel: At this moment.


Waddy Wachtel: It's mind-blowing to us, as it is to hopefully to people who see the movie and realize, “Jesus, these guys have done a lot of work with a lot of artists that we love.” It blows our minds, too. It's quite a lot.


Denny Tedesco: I never had a project easier in terms of someone just instantly opening a door for us. There were no gatekeepers here. They love these guys so much. They were their brothers and sisters. It was different than when my father was going to work, for three hours, three hours, three hours. He didn't hang out with Brian Wilson, or Bill Medley. He was going to work. These guys went to work but they also spent more time at work. They're doing an album for a month. Maybe two, three weeks, maybe a month, or maybe six weeks. Then they would go out on the road with these guys. It's a huge relationship difference. They were brothers and sisters. And they're all of the same age, really. They're of that same era. They're all in the mid-70s, late-70s right now.


Is it fun to revisit all that music with The Immediate Family concerts?


Waddy Wachtel: Sure.


Leland Sklar: Yeah. The chance to get up on stage with this band, and then have people sitting out there. Then you're talking to them after and they go, “It's unbelievable how many records that meant the world to me, are you guys.” A lot they don't realize when we start doing some of the old tunes, because the new album is all new material. So they're not familiar with that. But when they listen to the older stuff that we've done, and they're hearing the songs that Steve wrote, that Waddy wrote, that Kootch wrote, that Russ wrote, that I didn't have anything to do with. It's amazing the response you get from people. It's really heartwarming and really makes you appreciate the opportunity we've had to contribute to the music of our generation, especially.


Denny Tedesco: I've seen them live so many times. I've seen them in New York. Seen them in Los Angeles. [I] watch the crowds. They're the ones that are totally getting into it. Someone called them the best cover band ever because they play the hits that they did, wrote, or produced. So it was pretty funny. I mean, they just because they’re 77 – 76, they're playing their butts off, right? They never stopped playing. They've never lost the edge there. They just do it as if they were 18. There's all that energy. There's nothing missing. Waddy Wachtel’s on the road with Stevie Nicks still. He's her musical director. Leland and Russ Kunkel, they're on the road with Lyle Lovett. So these guys are just killing it still.


Having performed on so many classic songs and classic shows, are there any songs or sessions or shows that really stand out to you as exceptional?


Waddy Wachtel: That's such a hard question.


Russ Kunkel: Yeah, it’s really hard.


Waddy Wachtel: They're all incredible, you know?


Denny Tedesco: So many. Right off the bat, think of Sweet Baby James. Everything on that album. Then you got Tapestry, Carole King's album. Then you got Excitable Boy [by Warren Zevon], which is “Werewolves of London.” Waddy was with Jackson Browne for Warren Zevon. Then, Don Henley, his solo career. As he says in the movie, “I wouldn’t have a solo career if it wasn't for Danny Kortchmar. I had no interest. I had no thoughts about being a solo artist. It was Danny that pushed it. It's funny because Danny and James actually pushed Carole King into her solo career as well. So funny how some artists, even though the artists are reluctant to be a solo artist, but they encouraged each other.


Leland Sklar: Every time you walk out on the stage, and you look out at that audience it is still the most thrilling thing to me. I would pinch myself anyhow, but it is a pinch me moment though when you go out there every night. You look out there and you hit that first note and you can feel the electricity in the room and stuff. You go this is the greatest gift in the world, getting to do this. I have a lot of friends that have been in the corporate world, and they've got a countdown clock on their desk as to the day they get to retire, and not have to put on a tie again or whatever. I've never felt that way once. I get anxious when the phone doesn't ring. That might be only a couple of days’ worth of downtime. I'm already chomping at the bit to go do something. We're very fortunate that we get to do what we do.


Steve Postell: I feel luckier about it the older I get. Now, every time I get on a stage, there's an audience, like two thumbs up. (Makes the thumbs up sign.) One more.

What are some of the songs that people are most surprised to know that you have you played a part in?

Leland Sklar: (laughs) There's lots of those. For me, it's like, “It's Raining Men,” or “I Am Woman,” things like that. (laughs) They go, “really?” I'm a working musician. You do what you get called for. They all have wonderful stories behind them. There's been lots and lots of things like that.

Waddy Wachtel: I travel with Stevie Nicks, and she'll mention some songs she was just listening to. She'll look at me and I'll go, “Yeah, I played on that.” She’ll be like, “You played on that, too?”

Leland Sklar: It's great, isn't it? It's wild.


You mentioned Warren Zevon, and obviously, he's no longer around to speak with. Was he one of most important people that you wish you could have spoken with but couldn’t? Who else was there that you couldn't speak to?


Denny Tedesco: I think you're right. Warren for sure would have been one. I mean, a lot of the side musicians as well. But for Warren, I think absolutely. Warren was there with Waddy at the beginning when they were hanging with the Everly Brothers. Warren was their MD [musical director] when Waddy was breaking in. There are some great stories of conflict there, hilarious conflict. Warren was such a respected writer and artist among these guys. He wrote so many things for other artists, for Linda [Ronstadt] and for others. Another person that went way too early.


I found it kind of interesting in the movie that when you guys had the chance to perform as your own band back in the day, you became The Section and then did a very different type of music, instrumental, jazzy, fusion type of stuff. Why do you think that that was the direction that you felt like going at that point?


Leland Sklar: Russ?


Russ Kunkel: Well, the way The Section came about was that we were on tour with James Taylor. After James's soundcheck, James would leave, and we would jam a little bit. Our front of the house, mixer recorded some of our jams and showed it to Peter Asher. Peter played it for us. We listened to some of these instrumental things we were doing and just decided there that we should pursue it. So we started rehearsing, and Peter got us a record deal. We went in studio and recorded it. We did three albums. It was just the way it happened. But at the same time, this band is totally different. Danny, Waddy, Steve, myself, we're all songwriters. This band was not about instrumentals. It was about writing songs and performing songs and associating this band with a lot of the great material that already preceded us. That Danny and Waddy and Steve worked on. So definitely two different animals.


Steve Postell: I think this is the story, that that years ago, Danny said, “Do you want to join The Section?” And you said, “Well, if you ever write songs with vocals, let me know.” (laughs)

Waddy Wachtel in IMMEDIATE FAMILY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.


Waddy Wachtel: Well, I had the distinct honor of Danny calling me and saying, “We want you to come play with us.” So I went into a rehearsal. It was the guys, [keyboardist] Craig Doerge, Kootch, Russ and me. We played some of the kind of music they do, this jazzy, rock and roll fusion stuff. We did about two songs or so. I said, “I love you guys. And you've played on more hit records than anybody else I know in this town. But this is the kind of music you guys want to do. For me, I can't do this. I'm a rock and roller.  So if you guys ever decide you want to do songs with vocals, and stuff like that, I'm in and I'm ready. Now 45 years later, here, we are doing exactly that.


Leland Sklar: You don't want to rush into these things.


I was reading that you're in the early phases of working on another documentary, which is actually about finance rather than music. What is can you give us a little bit of information? I know it's still pretty early, but…


Denny Tedesco: That's funny. No, actually that one's on the backburner for a second. Yeah, the next one is about Wolfman Jack.


Wolfman Jack. Okay, that's interesting.


Denny Tedesco: Yeah. That I'm really digging right now because we've interviewed Richard Dreyfuss, DJs, Johnny Rivers… I'm loving that because I'm getting to know who Wolfman Jack was, even though we thought we knew who he was. Smith is his real name. The family is behind it. They're sending me all these home videos. As you can imagine, Jay, it's like, opening up the curtain and just seeing this guy was a mensch. He was a real guy, and that's what I'm trying to basically reveal. He's just not this guy (imitates his gruff voice) Wolfman Jack. He was more than that.


You could even tell that just from American Graffiti, playing himself.


Denny Tedesco: That's it. The greatest line in my interview with Richard Dreyfuss, at the end of his playing with Richard, after playing with the scene out, Wolfman goes to Richie goes, “Hey, man, thanks a lot. I've never done this before. Being on camera.” Richard looks at him like he's nuts. He goes, “What's your name?” He didn't know it was Wolfman. He thought it was someone playing Wolfman Jack.


Could you have ever imagined when you got started that you'd still be able to be performing after all these years?


Russ Kunkel: Modern medicine, the miracle of modern medicine allows us to continue.


Waddy Wachtel: It just seems retiring is not an option. It's like the Rolling Stones said, “We're going to be together, maybe five, six years.” They never foresaw 60 years of rock and roll. It's the same with us. You get into it because you love music. You play and you want to play, and you keep playing, and all of a sudden decades go by and you're still playing. It's an extraordinary existence. I can't imagine not playing.


Russ Kunkel: Yeah, we're supposed to be playing. That's what we do.


Leland Sklar: It's our DNA.


Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: December 14, 2023.

Photos © 2023. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. All rights reserved.


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