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San Clemente Journal

Keeping the Beat - Russ Kunkel: a Rock & Roll Story

Mar 01, 2022 10:27AM ● By Don Kindred
by Don Kindred

Carol King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in October of 2021, a half-century after her landmark album, “Tapestry” swept the Grammys. As she made her way to the piano to perform a medley of those timeless classics, King paused a moment for the unprecedented act of acknowledging the three special musicians that would accompany her. They were the same musicians who had first recorded with her five decades before; the same musicians who had roamed those same winding, rural roads of a once magical, musical Eden known as Laurel Canyon in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s ... Danny Kortchmar was on guitar, Leland Sklar on base, and at the drums behind them, a 6-ft. legendary percussionist named Russ Kunkel. While those names may not be easily remembered, their music will not be easily forgotten...

As one of the most recorded musicians alive, Kunkel's storied career is like a stroll through rock and roll history. He has either toured, recorded, produced or written hit songs with those artists that created the soundtrack of my generation, and maybe a couple others; George Harrison, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger, Warren Zevon, Harry Chapin, Don Henley, Phil Collins, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Carly Simon, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks,  Jimmy Buffet, Dan Fogelberg, Lyle Lovett, and a long, long list of others. 

Russ has often attributed his success to simply finding himself in the right place at the right time, but that’s not the whole story.

A winding path that led straight to Hollywood.
Russell Kunkel was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1948. But he would be 
uprooted across the country to Long Beach, California with his mother nine years later, when his father passed unexpectedly. 

At elementary school in the beach community he joined the orchestra and learned to surf. He became a star on his high school swimming and water polo teams. His coaches tried to steer his 6-ft. wingspan towards the Olympic trials. But, by then, he had also started a high school band that practiced in his garage and would perform at the local the sock hops and school dances. 
Then came the fateful summer when his mother suggested he might need to get a real job. So, he found work at a neighborhood gas station. He survived just enough of those long, grueling hours to realize it wasn’t for him. “That’s when I knew,” Kunkel says with a smile, recalling that horrible summer. “That’s when I got serious about music.” 

The experience served to laser-focus him on a career from which he would never waver. Following the same simple dream he first discovered at seven years old, pounding his heart out on his big brothers drumset, as the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” screamed from the turntable.
Russ became a professional drummer.

Making it Happen
Before he was old enough to drink, legally, Kunkel was a member the house band at Hollywood’s famed ‘Whiskey a Go-Go,’ where he opened for such legendary groups as the The Byrds, The Doors, Cream, Traffic, and even Jimmy Hendrix. 

Not long after, his work would come to the attention of Peter Asher, the head of the Beatles' new record label, Apple Records. He was recruiting players for an album by a fresh, young artist they just signed named James Taylor. Asher hired Kunkel to play on Taylor's debut (which also included Carole King on piano, the afore mentioned Danny Kortchmar on guitar and other notables). The session proved to be the drummer's big break and it wasn't long before Kunkel found himself playing with George Harrison, Bob Dylan and others in a spontaneous, unrehearsed all-night recording session in New York City. The moment proved to be historical, with some of the material ending up on Harrison and Dylan albums. For Kunkel, it led to even more opportunities. He soon became a sought-after session musician and by the time he was 23, he had already played the drums on three of arguably some of the greatest LP’s of all time, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Carol King’s “Tapestry” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.”
“If I had stopped there,” he had said once, “It would have been a decent career...” 
He didn’t stop there.

“The Canyon”
I think that Kunkel’s life was so interesting to me was because of the time that I grew up. I turned 12 in 1969. Music was everything then. The singers and songwriters of that time period held a god-like status because of the social revolution that was dramatically re-doing ‘normal’ as we knew it. All the rules were blurry, but we thought somehow, the music had all the answers. 
Back then, Laurel Canyon was a 10-minute drive that carried you a thousand miles away from the lights of LA and the crowds of the Sunset Strip. It was a strangely-tight geographical and social area full of young musicians who had no idea how talented they were or what their impact would collectively make in American culture.

Imagine for a moment, that you lived in the Canyon then; your landlord is Cass 
Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas. ‘Mama Cass’, which she hated to be called, had never met a stranger. 

“If she walked in this room right now” Russ remembers, “You would feel better about yourself, she was that kind of person.”

On any given evening in her home you might discover strange combinations of the local musical wildlife; there might be Monkees, Eagles, Byrds or even a Beatle or two, hanging out, singing songs, and possibly smoking a joint in your living room. Crosby, Stills & Nash became a group in that room. You might watch Eric Clapton learn a new way to tune a guitar from Joni Mitchell in the backyard on Sunday. Or snap a pic of Frank Zappa talking contracts to Alice Cooper. 
And then on some nights, when it got quiet, you could hear Jackson Brown on the piano, or the guitar of Graham Nash’s next hit echoing along the valley floor. Or, perhaps it’s just Jim Morrison’s angry girlfriend Pamela, throwing his books and clothing at him off the second floor balcony. Down on ‘Love Street,’ such were the times.

Russ and his wife Shauna, love their life in San Clemente.


Personal Life
In 1968, Kunkel married Leah Cohen, who was the younger sister of Cass Elliot. Their son Nathaniel, now a Grammy and Emmy winning recording engineer and producer, was born in 1970. When Cass died in 1974, Russ and Leah Kunkel also adopted her daughter Owen. 
In addition to his session work, Kunkel toured with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Carol King, and others into the 1980s. Kunkel was also known for a cameo as doomed drummer Eric ‘Stumpy Joe’ Childs in the classic 1984 film, “This Is Spinal Tap.”
In 1990, Kunkel married singer Nicolette Larson, a beautiful singer who had a hit with a Neil Young song “Lotta Love”. Their daughter Elsie May Larson-Kunkel was born that year.
Elsie’s Godmother is Nicolette’s best friend Linda Ronstadt. They were married until Larson’s death, in 1997.

Kunkel soon expanded his career by becoming a song writer and a music producer, including producing six albums for his good friend Jimmy Buffet. Russ also maintained a state-of-the art studio in his Nichols Canyon home in LA, one canyon over from Laurel. 

Back to the South Coast
Kunkel married Shauna Drayson Hayward, who had been the widow of Little Feat’s original drummer, Richie Hayward. The couple moved to San Clemente in 2011, where they relish their time off together. 

Still an avid surfer and patron of San Clemente shaper Bill Stewart. San Clemente has been in Russ’s plans for a long, long time.

“I spent the better part of my high school years driving up and down the coast from Long Beach to San Clemente,” he says, “to sneak into the Marine base and surf Trestles. “
“After 45 years of living in Los Angeles, pursuing my musical career, I decided that I wanted to get back to that sleepy little surf town I remembered. 

“We moved here a decade ago, and we’re so happy to be here. The laid back vibe is intoxicating. My friend Bill Stewart once told me, ‘No one ever moves away from San Clemente once you’ve lived here.’ Now I know why.

“When I’m driving back home from up in LA, or points north, I smile every time I pass the Pacific Coast Highway exit, knowing that coming home is like going on vacation. 
“Last November the entire 4pm OC Tavern crew (you know who you are), came down to the Coach House to see the band. (Special thanks to Gerry and Janel for organizing the festivities.)
“Shauna and I are so grateful to be part of this wonderful community,” he says, 
“it doesn't get any better.”
 Meet the Family ... The Immediate Family

In case someone might think that Russ has retired to a life of surf, sun and an occasional cocktail at the OC Tavern, I can assure you, the opposite is true. He and his old friends have combined their 250 years of musical expertise to embark on a new musical adventure called the “The 
Immediate Family”. 

Composed of four of the most recorded, respected and sought-after players in modern music: Danny Kortchmar (guitar and vocals), Waddy Wachtel (guitar and vocals), Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel on drums, of course, and the addition of prominent touring, session guitarist and songwriter Steve Postell (guitar and vocals). These were the players, the writers, the guys on the tour bus. Collectively, these musicians helped define the sound of their generation.

Danny Kortchmar’s credits as guitarist, producer, songwriter, and session musician include work with James Taylor, Don Henley, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and Billy Joel, among many others. As a songwriter, Kortchmar has both written alone or collaborated with numerous artists, penning indelible tracks such as Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” and “New York Minute,” as well as Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” and “Shaky Town,” to name a few.  Danny likes to say of the Immediate Family “We’re a cover band that plays all original music...”

 Legendary guitarist, producer and songwriter Waddy Wachtel has worked with many of the same artists as Kortchmar, as well as artists like the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks, Randy Newman, Bryan Ferry and the late Warren Zevon, with whom he co-wrote and produced a number of hit songs including “Werewolves of London,” which The Immediate Family has included in their set list. Wachtel’s production work includes Keith Richards, Bryan Ferry, George Thorogood  and The Church, and he has composed numerous scores for feature films. 
 Leland Sklar has performed in the studio and on tour with Phil Collins, James Taylor, Toto and Billy Cobham, and more. Actually, Sklar has the most credits of any of the members of The Immediate Family, having worked on over 2,600 albums. 

Steve Postell is a seasoned touring and session player who has worked with David Crosby, Jennifer Warnes, Michael McDonald, John Oates, Robben Ford and many others. He recorded and mixed the final three performances of Ravi Shankar, and has scored films including “Dying To Know” about Timothy Leary & Ram Dass and narrated by Robert Redford.  He has released several solo records, including the critically acclaimed “Time Still Knockin’” on Immergent Records. 



Herb Alpert 
Stephen Bishop
Karla Bonoff
Sarah Brightman
Jackson Browne
Jimmy Buffett
Cecilio & Kapono
Harry Chapin
Tracy Chapman
Rita Coolidge
David Crosby
Crosby & Nash
Rodney Crowell 
Jackie DeShannon
Neil Diamond
Bob Dylan
England Dan 
       & John Ford Coley 
The Everly Brothers 
Don Felder 
Dan Fogelberg
Glenn Frey 
Richie Furay
Art Garfunkel
Debbie Gibson
Arlo Guthrie
Emmylou Harris
Don Henley
Bill Hughes
Elton John and Tim Rice
B.B. King
Carole King
Leah Kunkel
Lyle Lovett
Richard Marx
Reba McEntire
Bette Midler 
Joni Mitchell
Maria Muldaur
Anne Murray
Graham Nash
Aaron Neville
Stevie Nicks
Dolly Parton 
Bonnie Raitt 
Helen Reddy
Linda Ronstadt
Diana Ross
Carole Bayer Sager
Leo Sayer 
Seals and Crofts
Neil Sedaka
Bob Seger, Silver Bullet Band
Carly Simon
J.D. Souther 
Rick Springfield
Al Stewart
John Stewart
Stephen Stills
Barbra Streisand
James Taylor
Joe Walsh
Paul Williams
Carnie and Wendy Wilson
Wilson Phillips
Steve Winwood
Bill Withers
Warren Zevon

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