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The Section: Knights of Soft Rock

Back when there was plenty of room in Hotel California, a crew of hard-living session men created the sound of the 1970s

April 11, 2013
Danny Kortchmar
Danny Kortchmar
Michael Putland/Getty Images

By 1979, guitarist Waddy Wachtel thought he'd seen everything. He had shown up for morning studio sessions to find Warren Zevon already wasted; he'd seen California Gov. Jerry Brown, Linda Ronstadt's then-boyfriend, retreat from a room of stoned rockers after unexpectedly popping into one of Ronstadt's sessions; he'd walked offstage after playing with Carole King and into a brawl with her boyfriend. But he wasn't quite prepared for the strange, vexing behavior of James Taylor.

If anyone embodied the peaceful easy feeling of the decade, it was Taylor, whose inward-looking ballads and self-effacing stage presence hit the Seventies in its sweet spot. Women fell for the brooding guy on the cover of Sweet Baby James, men related to his reserved masculinity, and radio couldn't get enough of hits like "Handy Man" and "You've Got a Friend." But as Wachtel was learning on his first tour in Taylor's band, in 1979, another, far less relaxed Taylor lurked in the shadows. That Taylor was grappling with alcoholism and hard drugs and was in the midst of a troubled marriage to Carly Simon; their two-year-old son, Ben, had suffered from fevers in his infancy. Taylor had battled addiction before, and it was surfacing once again.

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The hints of trouble began before the first show. Toasting the musicians and the tour at a local bar in Texas, Taylor downed two martinis in one gulp each. "I went, 'Uh-oh – that's not a good sign!'" recalls Wachtel, chilling in his home studio in the San Fernando Valley. At 65, he looks very much as he did in the 1970s: like a hippie librarian, with his round glasses and slight frame. On the bus the morning after gigs, Taylor would be seen nursing the same bottle from the night before. At one gig, Wachtel broke his pinky toe after tripping over stage cables and later asked Taylor for a painkiller from his stash. Taylor begrudgingly said yes – but Wachtel had to physically pry one out of Taylor's mouth when his boss wouldn't give it up. Then, one day when he was riding in the back seat of a car with Taylor, Wachtel watched as a female tollbooth clerk asked Taylor for an autograph. Looking groggy, Taylor scribbled something on a piece of paper, said, "Hi, darling, here you go," and handed it to her. Wachtel glanced over and saw what Taylor had scrawled: "You bitch, I'll kill you" – signed, sardonically, "James Taylor."

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Wachtel still laughs at the memory: "He was hysterical!" But in a moment of seriousness, he says, "It was pretty intense. It was tough times."

For most of the Seventies, the singer-songwriter sound embodied by Taylor, Jackson Browne, King and Crosby, Stills and Nash dominated the charts and the radio, luring thousands of bell-bottomed fans to concert halls. Those acts – as well as Zevon, Ronstadt and many more – relied on a small, rarified group of backup musicians to shape that tight, gently rocking sound. Anyone who geeked out on liner notes back then will recognize the most prominent names: guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russell Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar and keyboardist Craig Doerge – known collectively as "the Section" – plus Wachtel and stringed-instrument wizard David Lindley. One or more of them can be heard on seemingly every one of the era's defining tracks: King's "It's Too Late" and "Sweet Seasons"; Taylor's "You've Got a Friend" and his remake of "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)"; Browne's "Doctor My Eyes"; Zevon's "Werewolves of London"; Ronstadt's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me"; Joni Mitchell's "Carey"; and entire albums by Taylor (JT, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon) and Browne (Running on Empty, Hold Out).

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"They were the best," says David Crosby, who hired all of them as part of his and Graham Nash's band. To Crosby, who worked with the previous generation of studio players in L.A., Kortchmar and crew were a different breed: truly sensitive musicians who knew how to get inside the emotion of a song. "They weren't just playing their instruments," he says. "That was a major change. It put them one up on all the session players before them. They took it way past 'That's a B flat.'"

Albums like Running on Empty set a high-water mark for skillful, soulful rock musicians. "It's one of my favorite records ever," says Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith, who had to learn the songs when his band backed Browne on tour. "It was so intimidating to play those songs because those tracks are incredible. It's a testament to what great players they are."

To critics, Taylor, Browne, and Crosby, Stills and Nash personified everything tame about Seventies rock, and the musicians who accompanied them were inevitably guilty by association. "We were the 'Mellow Mafia,'" says Kortchmar. He recalls a particularly nasty write-up of Taylor from the time: "We had [writer] Lester Bangs threatening to stab a bottle of Ripple into James. What the fuck is he talking about? James is doing 'Fire and Rain,' 'Country Road,' about Jesus and questions and deep shit."

"I can understand you have to put a label on something," says Kunkel, "but it wasn't mellow when we were playing with Warren Zevon or playing 'Running on Empty.'"

As much as the people who hired them, the Section were all strong, sometimes pugnacious characters: Kortchmar was the designated rocker, almost a Laurel Canyon version of Al Pacino; Sklar's mountain-man whiskers and Kunkel's balding pate, quasi-mullet and muscular upper arms were as totemic as the music. The records they helped craft may have been laid-back, but the scene backstage was often another matter. "When I think about the drunkenness and driving home from studios in the middle of the night, it's miraculous that we're here," says Wachtel. "You could get away with a lot back then."

From the beginning, the word was "quiet." In late 1969, Kortchmar and Kunkel showed up at Peter Asher's Los Angeles house to rehearse songs for Taylor's second album. Asher, Taylor's manager and producer, didn't want the cluttered, produced sound of Taylor's flop Apple Records debut. Instead, he wanted simpler, leaner backing that wouldn't detract attention from Taylor's voice and his batch of new songs, which included an autobiographical ode to his troubles called "Fire and Rain." "The key figure was Peter Asher," Kortchmar says. "He picked us and put us together."

Asher and Taylor already knew Kortchmar, a Westchester-raised aficionado of rock and blues who'd relocated to L.A. the year before. Asher also invited Kunkel, a rock drummer from Long Beach, California, who looked and sounded like an affable surfer. On piano was King, who hadn't yet launched her own post-Brill Building career and was mostly writing songs and jamming with other musicians. In Asher's empty living room, the musicians began playing Taylor's tunes. Asher didn't want to disturb the neighbors, so Kunkel played with brushes rather than sticks, and Kortchmar played softly. The result was, as Kortchmar recalls, "sensitive but meaningful accompaniment" – an ideal fit for Taylor's understated guitar playing and singing.

The same crew soon entered the studio and, in a few productive days, cut Sweet Baby James. The album connected with an audience still reeling from Altamont, Manson and other end-of-the-Sixties buzzkills. Kunkel heard about Taylor's breakthrough when he stopped by Asher's home office: "Peter's secretary and everyone is freaking out and going crazy," Kunkel says. "They said, '"Fire and Rain" just went to Number One!' Then you heard it on the radio forever."

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