Guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel. Drummer Russ Kunkel. Bass player Leland Sklar (whose beard is still so long it makes David Letterman look clean-shaven).
If you bought any rock albums during the singer-songwriter era of the 1970s, you saw those names listed on the back. Just as the studio musicians of The Wrecking Crew played on hundreds of songs backing up big name artists in the 1960s, so did those four guys in the succeeding decades, working with James Taylor, Carole King, Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne, Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Henley, to name a few.
They all appear to sing the praises of the foursome in “Immediate Family,” a new documentary made by Denny Tedesco, who compiled the “Wrecking Crew” movie (which I reviewed here). Unlike the Wrecking Crew, this group didn’t limit their work to the studio. They went out on tour with the stars, often for months at a time, becoming a tighter group — musically and personally — and helped create a ton of hits.
They share many of those experiences in the doc, including my favorite, told by Waddy Wachtel. They were on the road with Linda Ronstadt, and after a gig went back to a motel. But they were all still energized after playing for a couple of hours on stage, so some of the guys decided to go to a strip club across the road. They asked Waddy if he wanted to join them, but he passed. A little while later, Linda walked into Waddy’s room and asked where everybody was. He told them about the strip club, and she said she wanted to go. So, Waddy went with her. When they got inside the door, the young woman at the front desk asked for their IDs. He showed his, but Linda didn’t have hers and the clerk wouldn’t let her pass. Waddy told the woman, “Hey, this is Linda Ronstadt,” but the clerk wouldn’t budge. So Waddy told Linda, “Sing something.” Linda sang a few lines of “Blue Bayou,” which was a massive hit at the time (“I’m going back someday, come what may, to Blue Bayou”). The clerk’s jaw dropped and she let them in.
Tedesco uses cheap-looking animation to illustrate some stories and there’s bad Zoom footage of some of the guests, including Neil Young and Steve Jordan. But on the positive side, Tedesco includes individual scenes with each of the foursome sitting alone in a studio, wearing headphones, while playing their instruments along to recordings of songs they’d appeared on. Tedesco very smartly lets us hear just their parts, then fades into the full versions to give things context. In doing so, he increased my admiration for these pros even more.
The doc’s roster of interviewees includes record company executives and producers like Lou Adler, Lenny Waronker, Steve Jordan, and Peter Asher, whose sister, Jane, dated Paul McCartney for a time in the mid-1960s. That’s how Peter became an executive with Apple Records and signed James Taylor as the new label’s first non-Beatles artist. It was Asher who decided to include the names of the backup musicians on album covers, a move which made Wachtel, Kunkel, Sklar, and Kortchmar familiar to music fans — who often bought new albums just because they appeared on them, thus introducing them to other artists. Music professionals noticed, too, and hired them over and over again.
Like similar documentaries (e.g. “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown,” “Session Men,” “Twenty Feet From Stardom”), “Immediate Family” offers a glimpse behind the scenes at the people who generated the soundtrack of a generation — songs that, to their surprise, remain popular today. At one point, Kortchmar is sitting next to Carole King discussing the session in which they recorded her “Tapestry” album. They both admit they didn’t know at the time they were creating songs that would be heard everywhere — on radio and TV, in movies, but also in elevators, restaurants, and offices — for the rest of their lives.
That’s quite a legacy, and Tedesco captures it beautifully.
I give “Immediate Family” an 8.5 out of 10. Available for video on demand streaming this Friday.