As a kid flipping through the liner notes of my favorite James Taylor and Carole King records, I’d see the same names pop up again and again: Kootch, Sklar, Kunkel, Wachtel. Though unknown to the casual listener, these first-name-basis players were the beating heart of the California sound.
In his follow-up to the celebrated doc The Wrecking Crew, director Denny Tedesco brings these unsung greats out of the shadows. Immediate Family charts the story of guitarists Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel — session player turned supergroup who contributed to countless ’70s classics before stepping into their own well-deserved spotlight.
With an obvious affection for his subjects and a bottomless supply of feel-good nostalgia, Tedesco traces his close-knit quartet from their scrappy early days on the Laurel Canyon scene to pop stardom and beyond. Their tales of late-night sessions and hotel hijinks are as smooth and irresistible as their creative chemistry itself.
Sure, it’s a full-on lovefest — but when your backing band boasts creds like “Tapestry,” “Sweet Baby James,” and “Werewolves of London,” the praise feels fitting. Like catching up with old friends, Immediate Family invites us to cozy up and enjoy the Company once more.
The Players Behind the Hits
It takes a special set of chops to craft pop’s timeless tunes — chops Danny Kootch, Waddy, Russ, and Sklar had in spades. From Carole to CSNY, their names graced some of the era’s most seminal album sleeves. Yet as in-demand as they were, these sidemen were anything but anonymous session players. Their signature licks shaped records from opening riff to fade-out solo.
Kootch brought country comfort with his acoustic picking and pillowy electric leads. A student of Nashville fingerstyle, he lent Laurel Canyon classics like “Fire and Rain” their melancholic warmth. And whether conjuring crying steel lines or driving 12-string jangle, Kootch supplied endless inspiration — co-writing primal screamers for The Eagles and Stevie Nicks when not catalyzing Tapestry’s mellow gold.
Fellow fretboard wizard Waddy Wachtel packed an encyclopedic vocabulary spanning surf rock twang to bombastic arena grandeur. From the swaggering wolf-howl of “Werewolves of London” to the metallic crunch of Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” his eccentric flair stole scenes with style. Yet for all his brazen fretwork, Waddy’s restraint spoke loudest: the crisp acoustic texture coating Everly Brothers standards on tour or the economic fills peppering pop perfection like Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby.”
Holding it all together was Russ Kunkel, whose loose grooves and dynamic touch lent albums their easygoing ebb and flow. Behind the kit, Russ orchestrated meditative folk symphonies and driving rock anthems with equal aplomb. Syncopated ghost notes on “Your Smiling Face,” brushed bossa bliss for Randy Newman, tumbling tom runs on “Doctor My Eyes” — all stamped with his nuanced rhythmic voice.
And anchoring each arrangement in melody and motion was Sklar, whose infectious and inventive bass lines remain the gold standard of feel. Over 50 years and 2,600 records, his tone and timing backed legends from James Taylor to B.B. King to Phil Collins as only a lifetime listener could. Sklar gave wings to so many hits, he scarcely remembers them all. Good thing we do.
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Paradise Found: The Laurel Canyon Heyday
Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon became hippie heaven for California’s counterculture — a pastoral refuge far from Sunset Strip that attracted artists like Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Frank Zappa to its wooded enclaves. The canyon’s cozy cabins soon hosted late-night jam sessions that forged lifelong bonds between players. Kootch first linked up with Carly Simon there. Waddy met Souther and Browne amidst the same smoky living rooms.
Yet the real magic happened when they descended to the city below. It was this bustling underground scene that spawned the singer-songwriter era and pioneered a new recording approach: ceding control from detached producers to visceral, voice-led sessions centered on feel over perfection.
At the vanguard sat trailblazers like Mitchell, whose Blue captured confessionals both wounded and wise. James Taylor emerged from McLean Hospital to record bittersweet odes evoking autumnal colors. Browne penned melodic manifestos melding personal and political. And topping charts was Carole King herself, whose Tapestry gave the Grande Dame of songcraft a long-overdue spotlight.
The common thread tying these Canyon classics together? None other than Kootch, Russ, Waddy and Sklar — by now L.A.’s first call for fire. Dubbed The Section, they backed Troubadour royalty onstage and provided the heartbeat in the studio, morphing from session guns to sparring partners. Their empathy and chemistry amplified the intimate music bubbling up from their quaint creative haven to timeless results. A magic brew was coalescing, and its name rang out from every turntable: the California sound.
A Fly on the Wall: Wild Times on the Road & in the Studio
Immediate Family brims with hilarious and poignant anecdotes that reveal as much about the stars themselves as the era’s anything-goes exuberance. Tedesco wisely lets the tapes roll as his raconteurs unspool story after story in their own colorful words.
Waddy steals the show with his loose charm and Zelig-like knack for misadventure. Whether narrowly dodging Kiss on a chaotic Everly Brothers tour or tearing up strip clubs with Linda Ronstadt, the guitarist lands himself in the thick of the decade’s manic magic. Yet Wachtel’s restraint could speak louder than his riffs: when Clapton’s axe sat unattended backstage, Waddy respected the unwritten rule amongst gunslingers, leaving the iconic Stratocaster untouched.
Kootch too has his share of scrapes, though his biggest bombshells drop in the studio. Recording Browne’s classic “Doctor My Eyes,” Russ struggled to nail the off-kilter feel — until Kootch secretly sped the tape machine up. Presto! Signature sound born. And while penning Don Henley’s comeback hit “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Kooch found himself in traffic next to a head-bopping fan, realizing his music now lived a life of its own.
Yet the quartet’s bonds run deeper than hijinks, as shared glimpses of vulnerability reveal. While recording Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” substance struggles sent the session off the rails…until Kootch stepped in to salvage his friend’s career highlight. And though Sklar played on over 2,600 records, the softspoken bassist is still plagued by stage fright — making his willingness to tour ironic and brave.
Some stories swirl larger than life while others pierce the heart. But in every tale of hotel parties and pressure-cooker studios shines the rapport between musicians who spent their lives creating together — a rapport mirrored in Immediate Family’s infectious warmth.
Where Are They Now: Legacies That Endure
As the ‘80s brought clipped drums and icy synths, the acoustic warmth of Laurel Canyon faded from fashion. But Kootch, Waddy, Russ and Sklar only dug in deeper. When paths diverged, each player made the most of new frontiers now open to them.
Kootch shepherded Eagles into explosive solo flights as producer, co-writer and guitarist for Walsh and Henley. The slide work on “Boys of Summer” screams Kootch. Walsh’s ‘80s comeback “A Life of Illusion?” Ditto. And melting CSN harmonies into radio gold on “Southern Cross” fulfilled a childhood dream.
Waddy too lived out fantasies from the other side of the glass, producing discs for close confidants like Warren Zevon and sparring with Keith Richards in the X-Pensive Winos. When grunge gainst took hold in the ‘90s, Wachtel smoothly segued into scoring films like The Informant! His Compton soundtrack snagged industry hardware for its visionary blend of hip-hop and live orchestra.
Even Sklar, that model of flexibility, found new worlds to conquer. From touring benefactor Willie Nelson to trading licks with Eric Clapton, the globe-trotting bassist injects soul into every style. And penning an acclaimed memoir gave Sklar the chance to finally step into his own spotlight.
Which brings us to today — with Russ keeping time for Jimmy Buffett, Waddy mixing mortar for his new stonework passion, and Kootch and Sklar back on stage with their lifelong brothers-in-arms. Though hits may fade and friends may part, one truth persists for these consiglieres: the songs are secondary to the camaraderie…which, lucky for us, is only sharpened by age. Catch the Family while you can and witness pop history in its encore act.
The Circle Remains Unbroken
Like catching up with long-lost friends, Immediate Family welcomes us into the living room of legends for a reunion laced with laughter, wisdom, and above all, music. While the documentary captures an era now faded, its message persists: true artistry endures.
As touring troubadours, inventive arrangers, visionary producers, and counselors passing the torch, Kootch, Waddy, Russ and Sklar shaped the sounds of not one but two generations. Without them, the albums lining our walls would sound hollow indeed. From songwriters to superstars, every interviewee makes clear these names deserve equal billing for realizing our most beloved songs.
Yet legacy stems not just from credits, but character — from the compassion to meet each artist on their level and draw out their best. Decade after decade, the Family modeled not only creative excellence but the connections that sustain us. And if their festival of fame and fortune teaches any lesson, it’s to follow one’s passion surrounded by people who fan your spark as brightly as you fan theirs.
So once more, in closing, raise a glass to the Immediate Family: the session players turned stalwarts who brought California dreaming to life. Here’s to take after legendary take of hard-earned harmony, on records and off. Their circle remains unbroken to this day…and as long as vinyl spins and super fans linger, so too will their songs.
A feel-good celebration of talents too often unsung, Immediate Family hits all the right notes. Director Denny Tedesco returns to the era he documented so adoringly in The Wrecking Crew, this time shining his spotlight on four lifelong friends whose metamorphosis from session guns to supergroup mirrors the rise of the singer-songwriter. Tapping a staggering well of archival footage, incredible anecdotes, and effusive star testimonials, Tedesco constructs an oral history that's simultaneously hilarious, heartfelt, and historically illuminating. Any music lover who ever scoured album credits will relish these stories and sounds straight from the source. A hero's tribute to harmony, both creative and personal, it's an affectionate keepsake for fans eager to take a nostalgia bath...while reminding new listeners this Family's achievements warrant household name status. Their chemistry catalyzed classics; their legacy ripples onwards. Where Tedesco's relaxed approach sometimes meanders, the sheer joy and talent on display more than compensate with feel-good vibes to spare. Immediate Family is a long overdue valentine that should leave audiences grinning ear to ear — and ready to spin some vinyl once more.
- Great stories and insights from legendary musicians
- Rare archival footage and photos
- Feel-good nostalgia for music fans
- Emphasis on camaraderie and creative chemistry
- Strong musical performances
- Entertaining even for non-music buffs
- Structure and pacing feels loose at times
- Lacks gritty behind-the-scenes drama
- Very complimentary perspective throughout
- Can come across as a bit indulgent