The invasion of the unplugged, soul-baring singer-songwriter had begun, and Kunkel and Kortchmar were immediately along for the ride. Both played on King's 1971 smash, Tapestry, the next major milestone. "We knew these guys would come in, roll up their sleeves, listen to a song a couple of times and start playing," says King, who'd been in an earlier band, the City, with Kortchmar. "We'd be recording by the third rundown."
Kortchmar's terse guitar riffs, inspired by his hero Steve Cropper, nudged their way into the songs. He had his own rules: "The parts gotta be simple. You gotta help the song. Don't step on the singer." Kunkel became known not just for his firm, unobtrusive playing but as one of the few drummers who would read the words to a song before recording. "I'd get a feel for what the artist was trying to portray," he says. "If it's a love story and doesn't require big drums, what can I do to complete the story?"
"They weren't the old, crusty studio players who'd come in and say, 'I'm here for three hours – leave me alone,'" says engineer Bill Halverson, who worked with some of them on various albums. The musicians also benefited from Asher listing their names in album credits – not business as usual for rock session players before that. "That made a tremendous difference," Kortchmar says. "Everybody who bought the records knew who played on them, and they said, 'Oh, let's get those guys.'" One downside: Kortchmar was listed on the back of Sweet Baby James as "Danny Kootch," after a childhood nickname – "I never wanted to be Danny Kootch. I always thought it was the stupidest fucking nickname in the world." But the tag stuck.
When Taylor took to the road, another player joined up – a Cal State Northridge music student named Leland Sklar whose fluid bass style fit perfectly with Taylor's songs. The quartet that came to be known as the Section – name chosen by Taylor, after "rhythm section" – was finalized when Cleveland-bred pianist Doerge (rhymes with Fergie) was recruited to replace King.
During this time, Sklar and Kunkel were hired for another session, backing a much-talked-about Orange County songwriter named Jackson Browne, who knew how to network. Doerge remembers walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard with Browne, past clubs and tattoo parlors where everyone seemed to remember Browne from the 8-by-10 publicity photos he would hand out. Kunkel and Sklar soon found themselves back on the radio when "Doctor My Eyes" – featuring Kunkel's congas and drums and Sklar's burbling bass line – became Browne's first hit.
Browne had originally wanted to play piano himself on several songs on his debut album, including "Rock Me on the Water," but he hired Doerge when he realized he wasn't getting the right feel on his own. "That was a pivotal moment for me," says Browne. "Craig played great piano and classed up my piano playing. They removed all the impediments."
During those pre-superstardom days, the scene was still cozy and informal. King brought her children to the sessions for Tapestry. At the Troubadour in L.A. in 1971, Kunkel was recruited to back another new addition to the balladeer crowd, Carly Simon. Simon knew of Taylor years before on Martha's Vineyard, but it was Kunkel who broke the news to Simon that Taylor was in the audience. "You didn't just tell me that," Simon said, blanching. Recalling the incident, Kunkel says, "That was a faux pas on my part. I had no idea of her unbelievable shyness and nervousness." After the show, Simon and Taylor met backstage, and Sklar cracked to Kortchmar, "Mrs. Taylor." He was right: Simon and Taylor would marry the following year.
For Taylor's 1972 album One Man Dog, the Section congregated on Taylor's property on the Vineyard. Between breaks, Taylor showed off his pet pig, Mona, and in the distance Doerge heard Simon working on a new song. "It was 'You're So Vain,' but she didn't have the words yet – we heard, 'It's a vein,'" Doerge says with a chuckle. "You could hear her experimenting on the piano with it. At the time, I'm sure all the guys were thinking, 'Well, James is the big cheese here.'"
For all of Kortchmar and crew's justifiable issues with the "mellow" tag, there were times that the music could be too gentle, even for the guys in the band. During his early tours, Taylor performed sitting in a specially made wooden chair. Kortchmar would needle his boss, "You look like an old man – come on, stand up!" But Taylor didn't just sit down because it was folksy – he often really needed a seat: The overwhelming success of Sweet Baby James and its successor, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, had thrown him even further off his axis. Fans were coming backstage to ask Taylor, who'd spent time under psychiatric care, for advice on their own mental issues, but as Kortchmar recalls, Taylor himself was "barely getting through the day."
He turned to self-medicating: "I was just totally abusing myself all the time," Taylor has said of those early tours. "I was taking a lot of drugs." Before one Chicago show, Asher had to look for a doctor to prescribe methadone to make sure Taylor made it to the show. "We didn't know from gig to gig what was going to happen next," says Kortchmar. "We were all hanging on by our fingernails hoping everything would be all right." Kortchmar and the band had no choice but to follow Taylor's lead and sit down onstage. "I hated the sitting period," Sklar says. "We're up there like a bunch of old farts." Asher credits the band with saving the tour: "If James was under the influence, they'd find a way to fix it," he says. "They were capable of covering for him. That band owes James a lot, but he owes that band a lot." Taylor wouldn't start standing onstage until 1975, when he had temporarily gotten his drug problem under control.
Given the license, the Section could let loose onstage. In 1975, Kortchmar, Kunkel, Doerge and David Lindley – a California-born boho with an impish wit whose fiddle and guitar were prominent parts of Browne's sound – were hired as Crosby and Nash's backup band. Crosby pushed them in ways few of their other employers did, particularly on an extended, spacey version of CSNY's "Déjà Vu" that became a highlight of their live shows. "I told everybody, 'Let's get weird,'" says Crosby. "They said, 'Oh, really?'" Kunkel started the musical craziness by dropping a bunch of coins onto his drums for a clattering sound. Kortchmar and Lindley began making animal noises on their guitars, before Sklar stomped in with his bass; eventually, Crosby began playing the song's recognizable opening lick. "They were some of the most creative musicians around," Crosby recalls. "You never had to tell them what to play. You sang them a song and got the fuck out of the way."
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