Family Affair: The Immediate Family

Though their names might not be widely known to the general public, the members of The Immediate Family are widely acclaimed within the business. And even after decades of lending their skills and talents to some of popular music’s most well-known recordings, they maintain a jokey, offhand attitude about their importance. Asked why they think artists like Linda Ronstadt, Carole King and James Taylor started calling on them for recording sessions in the early ‘70s and beyond, bassist Leland Sklar doesn’t miss a beat.

“Everybody else was busy that day,” he quips.

Beaten to the punch line, guitarist Waddy Wachtel chimes in a split second later. “I was going to say that we had the lowest price available.”

After the laughter subsides, Sklar reflects on the question. “It’s really hard to say, because so much of this is chemistry, the relationships that develop,” he offers. Sklar admits that there have been times that he’s thought to himself, “There’s a guy who’s actually better than me who could be doing this gig, but for some reason, I’m here.” In the end, he believes, being right for a studio or live gig goes far beyond a musician’s technical skill. “It’s the hang, it’s the relationship,” he says. “It’s the contributions you make beyond just playing. It’s your thoughts, going into their songs.”

Looking back on those sessions, Sklar emphasizes an important point. “It never felt like anybody was making an effort; it was this community of players that all got together. And it was just a natural fit.”

Wachtel first met Sklar on a Bobby Womack session. “That’s how we first got engaged,” the guitarist recalls. “And we’re still engaged; we never got married.” Wachtel became part of the loose aggregation of session players featuring Sklar a bit later. “Lee and Danny [Kortchmar, guitar] and Russ [Kunkel, keyboards] were already working,” he says.

Wachtel points out that studio sessions of the early ‘70s were approached in an informal manner. “It was an open invitation to play, really,” he explains. “But at the time, you’d do a couple of sessions, and the next thing you know, someone was suggesting you for another date, and then another.”

The comparatively small coterie of players in which Sklar and Wachtel found themselves had similarities to an earlier, larger L.A. aggregation. Renowned session drummer Hal Blaine is credited with coining the name “Wrecking Crew” to describe that informal group, one that included Glen Campbell, bassist Carol Kaye and others of great import. The Wrecking Crew played on sessions for everyone from Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass to the Beach Boys to Dean Martin, The Monkees and Richard Harris – sometimes in the same day.

The son of guitarist and noted Wrecking Crew player Tommy Tedesco was inspired to document the story of those ‘60s studio cats; Denny Tedesco’s 2008 film The Wrecking Crew is a highly-regarded document of their story. And his most recent directorial offering is the story of the that outfit’s ‘70s corollary: The Immediate Family.

“At the beginning of The Wrecking Crew, there’s a quote of me saying that it’s the story of my father and his extended family,” Tedesco says. “And that’s what these guys are like: they’re all brothers; they’re a family.” Tedesco points out that in many ways, the players known informally as the Immediate Family picked up the baton from the Wrecking Crew.

“I asked Lou Adler, ‘When you produced [Carole King’s] Tapestry, did you make a conscious decision to stop using the Wrecking Crew?” Tedesco recalls. Adler replied, “Absolutely not. When Carole came in to do Tapestry, she brought her own friends in.”

Tedesco acknowledges the parallels between the ‘60s collective of players and the Immediate Family. But he also emphasizes a fundamental difference. The Wrecking Crew players “never left town,” he says. “They were making too much money in ‘67, ‘68 to walk away from their seats.” In contrast, Sklar, Wachtel and their musical pals played live, backing James Taylor and other high profile artists on concert tours. Yet like the Wrecking Crew, they effortlessly changed from one musical style to another as situations demanded.

And along the way, a few of them decided to form a group of their own. Thanks to their musical associations with acts like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, they had acquired the informal name The Mellow Mafia. But trading in a very different style – instrumental jazz-rock fusion – Sklar, Kortchmar, Kunkel and others formed The Section. That group released three albums before its members again went their own ways.

But the longtime friends and musical associates continued to feel their relationship was familial. They remained in touch even while busy with other commitments: Wachtel, for example, is Stevie Nicks’ longtime musical director, and in recent years Sklar has toured with Phil Collins, Lyle Lovett, Tracy Chapman and many others. But in 2018, the two of them reunited with Kortchmar and Kunkel, adding guitarist Steve Postell. For the first time officially billing themselves as The Immediate Family, they released an album, playfully titled Honey Don’t Leave L.A.

Two EPs and two more albums would follow; the latest is 2021’s self-titled release. And while those albums serve up a mix of new material and standards, in concert The Immediate Family leans toward their own versions of songs they helped make famous.

“We’re covering all the songs we either wrote, produced or performed,” Wachtel explains. “Danny wrote Don Henley’s ‘All She Wants to Do is Dance’ and ‘Dirty Laundry.’ I co-wrote ‘Werewolves of London’ with Warren Zevon.” Audiences are treated to an evening of hits, performed by some of the guys who originally played on those recordings. “There are a lot of classic tunes in our show, and people are happy to hear them,” Wachtel says, pausing to deliver yet another punch line. “Even our versions of them!”