Interview With Rock Legend Danny Kortchmar, Songwriter, Producer & Guitarist For Don Henley, Jackson Browne, James Taylor And Other Artists

Danny Kortchmar
Danny Kortchmar
(photo credit: Elissa Kline)

With an outstanding music career that has spanned five decades, Danny Kortchmar has been an in-demand guitarist, songwriter and record producer for many top artists who are now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He has made creative contributions to the music of Don Henley, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, Neil Young, Hall & Oates, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Carly Simon and Warren Zevon.

As a songwriter, Kortchmar has co-written or written several classic hit songs, and he’s co-written numerous other songs for acclaimed albums. He co-wrote with Henley the Top 5 hit “Dirty Laundry,” and he wrote the Top 10 hit, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.” Kortchmar also co-wrote Henley’s hits “Sunset Grill,” “Not Enough Love in the World” and “Johnny Can’t Read.” Impressively, he was Henley’s main collaborator, co-writing or writing 22 songs on Henley’s first three solo albums: I Can’t Stand Still, Building the Perfect Beast and The End of the Innocence.

Kortchmar also co-wrote two hit songs with Jackson Browne, including the Top 10 “Somebody’s Baby” (featured in the movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and “Tender Is the Night.” He also co-wrote Hall & Oates 1990 hit, “So Close.”

As a record producer, Kortchmar has worked with Henley, Billy Joel (River of Dreams album), Neil Young (Landing on Water), Jon Bon Jovi (Blaze of Glory), Stevie Nicks, Tracy Chapman, Hanson and Louise Goffin.

Kortchmar is also a well-known guitarist and session musician. Notably, he played on Carole King’s landmark album Tapestry, and he played on James Taylor’s early albums Sweet Baby James, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, One Man Dog, Gorilla, In the Pocket, JT and Flag. He also played on Ronstadt’s cutting-edge rock album, Mad Love. In addition, Kortchmar has toured with many artists, and he played on Jackson Browne’s classic album about life on the road, Running on Empty.

Kortchmar is longtime friends with other legendary musicians who’ve played on many of these same albums. In recent years, he has formed a new group with called Immediate Family, which consists of Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Steve Postell (guitar), Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums). With the help of these friends, Kortchmar recorded a solo album called Honey Don’t Leave L.A., that includes his new versions of the classic songs he’s written, plus new material.

Kortchmar & Immediate Family now tour frequently, and they’ve played shows in Japan, Los Angeles and New York. Also, Kortchmar was recently spotlighted at an event at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, called “An Evening With Danny Kortchmar.”

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Danny Kortchmar, He discusses his great career, his songwriting and his new band, Immediate Family.

DK: I read that you’re originally from New York. How did you get started as a musician?

The band Immediate Family: Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Steve Postel, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel.
The band Immediate Family (pictured l-r): Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Steve Postell, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel. (photo credit: Alan Kozlowski).

 

Danny Kortchmar: Well, I got started (as a musician) as soon as I graduated from high school. I graduated in 1964, and by early 1965 I’d started a band called the King Bees…we played around New York. That was my first venture as a professional musician.

DK: How long were you in the King Bees?

Kortchmar: I was in the King Bees for a year-and-a-half before we broke up. Then I started a band with James Taylor, called The Flying Machine. We played in Greenwich Village, mostly at the Night Owl Café, and we did that for a year. And then a little while after that, I moved to California.

DK: How did you meet James Taylor?

Kortchmar: James and I were boyhood pals…we met on Martha’s Vineyard. Our families went up there every summer. I met James on the front porch of a little general store there, and we started hanging out together. This was before we even played music together…we were 13 or 14 at the time. I’ve known him for a real long time.

DK: James Taylor originally signed with Apple Records (the Beatles’ label). Were you playing and writing with him at that time?

Kortchmar: By that time, The Flying Machine had broken up, and James moved back to North Carolina where he’s from. Then he went to London, and by that time I was friends with (producer/manager) Peter Asher. So I gave him Peter’s number and address, and James showed up at Peter’s place. At the time, Peter was an A&R man & producer at Apple Records, and that was how it all happened with James for his first album. But I wasn’t on this album…I was in L.A. at the time.

DK: Did you play on James’ second and third albums?


Here’s a video of Don Henley performing his hit “Dirty
Laundry,” which was co-written by Danny Kortchmar.

Kortchmar: I did play on five or six of his albums (after his Apple album): Sweet Baby James, Mud Slide Slim, One Man Dog, Gorilla, In The Pocket and JT. I also toured with him for many years.

DK: I read that you also played with Carole King on her great album, Tapestry. How did you connect with Carole and play on this album?

Kortchmar: I met her when The Flying Machine was playing the Night Owl Café in Greenwich Village. A friend of mine, (bassist) Charlie Larkey, was in a band that also played there. I think he was dating Carole at the time (they later married). Charlie brought Carole down to the club to hear our band, and he introduced me to Carole. I was thrilled to meet her, because I knew all about her…I knew she was a great songwriter. And then I dragged James (Taylor) over, and introduced him to her as well…so that’s how it kind of started. And we all moved to L.A. around the same time.

DK: You’re known as a great guitarist and musician. But when did you start writing songs?

Kortchmar: Oh, when I was 14 or 15, and my (early) songs were really terrible (laughs). But I started to get a little better. I wrote some tunes for The Flying Machine, and by the time I got out to California, I started to write more seriously. Around that time, I wrote a song called “Machine Gun Kelly” which ended up on one of James’ albums.

DK: You’re also known for writing hit songs with Don Henley and Jackson Browne. Who did you start with first?

Kortchmar: I started with Jackson first. We did the Running on Empty tour with Jackson—it was me, Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, David Lindley and Craig Doerge. The songs on [the Running on Empty album] were related to the experience of being on the road. At that time, I’d written a song called “Shaky Town”. I played it for Jackson, and he said, “Oh that’s great. That fits our theme perfectly…we have to record it.” So we recorded it for that album.

DK: You co-wrote with Jackson the hit “Somebody’s Baby,” for the Fast Times at Ridgemont High movie soundtrack. How did you and Jackson write this song?

Kortchmar: We were both pals with (movie director) Cameron Crowe. He wrote the screenplay for this film, and he was asking all his buddies for songs. I came up with the music and the hook, “must be somebody’s baby.” I thought it was really good, so I took it over to Jackson. Then we sat there for several hours, and he started to write to it…he came up with that song. And because Jackson didn’t feel it was part of his milieua lot of his songs had political and social content. So “Somebody’s Baby” was kind of fluffy from his point of view, as well as a pop song. So it ended up on Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


Here’s a video of Jackson Browne performing his hit,
“Somebody’s Baby,” which was co-written by Danny Kortchmar.

DK: With Don Henley, you co-wrote many songs, and you co-produced three of his albums from ‘80s. First, how did you and Don write the hit, “Dirty Laundry”?

Kortchmar: Don had decided that he wanted to make a solo album, and he was talking with different people in L.A. about collaborating with him. He eventually called me, and I went up to his place, and he asked me if I wanted to work with him on his album. So we worked on a few things, and he had this idea of “Dirty Laundry”. It was originally about local news and how fluffy and stupid it was, and how much they liked negative stories about famous people. Don had the title and he knew what it was going to be about. So then the question was, finding the right music to go with that idea.

At home, I had a Farfisa organ, and I started banging way on this organ, and I came up with the vamp that you hear on the record. I thought it would be great, so I brought it to Don. And once I played him that groove on the Farfisa organ, he and I both realized that this would be a good vehicle for this song, for what he wanted to say. He then started writing words for it, and came up with the story that you hear on the record.

DK: You had another hit with Don, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” that you wrote by yourself. What’s the story behind this song?

Kortchmar: At the time you know, Don was a terrific muse. Anytime he or I came up with something, we’d just go and record it. I’d come up with a piece of music, and he’d go, “I can write to that.” Boom…we go into the studio and start recording it.

We had gotten one of the first Yamaha DX7s (synthesizer) in the country. One of the great things about working with Don, was we’d get every piece of gear…and there was a lot of new stuff coming out at that time. So we had one of the first DX7s, and I had one of the first Roger Linn drum machines.

So I took the DX7 home and I found the sample & hold sound on it. I slowed it way down and went up to a fuzz tone, and I started playing it along with this beat on the Roger Linn machine. I was just fooling around, but I was inspired to come up with ideas, because I knew if we came up with something great, we’d go in the studio and record it. So I came up with the music, and the sound you hear that opens that record.

I worked on it all night, then I went to sleep. The next morning I was listening to it, and I wrote the whole lyric in about 10 minutes. It just came to me real quickly.


Here’s the video of Don Henley’s hit “All She Wants to Do
Is Dance,” which was written by Danny Kortchmar.

DK: You’ve also produced albums with Billy Joel and Neil Young. Can you talk about working with those great artists?

Kortchmar: Well, I worked with Neil [on his Landing on Water album] in the mid-‘80s, and he was interested in doing something more with electronics. He had heard the stuff I was doing with Don Henley, and he was intrigued by the idea of using more electronics. He had a synclavier (synthesizer/work station), and so he brought me in, thinking I was a guy that knew this stuff, which I did to some degree. The first thing I did was call two of my great pals to work with me on it. One was Steve Jordan the great drummer, and the other was Niko Bolas, who’s a brilliant audio engineer. And we came in there and just blew the joint up. That was incredible working with Neil, because we were really pounding away. I was playing a synth bass on most of it, and Neil had pre-sequenced stuff that he’d done on his synclavier. So we’d run the synclavier, and Neil would bash away and Steve…his drum sound is just punching right through the wall. And Neil responded brilliantly to this big beat, so that was a lot of fun. I love Neil, he’s such a great cat…he’s such a talented, adventurous fellow, musically. We had a great time making that record.

DK: You also produced with Billy Joel, his River of Dreams album.

Kortchmar: With Billy, he had already started that album a little bit, and I think he wanted a producer. He wanted someone to come out, because he was just in there with his band. So I came on board, and I asked him to come to New York City to work at the Hit Factory Studio with a rhythm section that I picked. And he agreed to do it. After two days, he liked what we were doing, and we just kept going. We made that whole album, River of Dreams, and you can hear how great the songwriting is. I knew Billy was super-talented, but I had no idea how absolutely brilliant he was, until I got into the studio with him.

DK: More recently, you’ve released your own solo album, called Honey Don’t Leave L.A. Can you talk about this album?

Kortchmar: Yes. I was approached by Vivid Records in Japan to make an album…to make a Danny Kortchmar album. And I had [the older, famous] songs, and I had some new songs, too. So on this album, we did “Dirty Laundry” and “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” and we also did “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.,” which was covered by James Taylor for his JT album. And when I recorded the album, I was lucky that my old buddies were around to work with me on it—Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, and Waddy Wachtel. And we also had the great Jim Cox on keyboards. So we recorded it and I loved it so much, I wanted to keep going with those same fellas. So I thought, I’m going to call it Danny Kortchmar and the Immediate Family. The Immediate Family [consists of] myself, Waddy, Russ, Lee and Steve Postell.

DK: Will you be doing more recording and touring with Immediate Family?

Kortchmar: Yes. We made a live album in Japan, called Immediate Family Live In Japan. And we’re writing tunes for a new studio album, which will be all original material. We played in Japan, we’ve played in L.A. and New York, and we’re going back to Japan in May. Hopefully, we’ll be playing all over the place. I’m really happy to be involved with Immediate Family; that’s my current project.