Danny Kortchmar

by Carl Wiser

He played guitar on definitive albums by James Taylor (Sweet Baby James), Carole King (Tapestry) and Jackson Browne (Running On Empty), but Danny Kortchmar says he is not a folkie.

The sensitive stuff was always a challenge because he had to hold back - to play soft when he really likes to turn up. The folk label has followed him around, which is what happens when you play on the hits that define the singer-songwriter sound of the '70s and appear on stage with Taylor and King at The Troubadour. It didn't help when Rolling Stone declared him a member of the "Mellow Mafia" along with his cohorts Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums), and Craig Doerge (keyboards). (Their preferred moniker is The Section; they released a few albums under that name.)

So what kind of musician is Danny? He says he's more of a rhythm guitarist along the lines of Chuck Berry and Keith Richards. He brings an edge to the songs (even the soft rock hits) that gives them permanence - it's why we still get sucked into a song like "You've Got A Friend" four decades after it was written. He's a rocker at heart, just with a penchant for playing to the emotion of a song.

Like Berry and Richards, Kortchmar is also a gifted songwriter with a substantial list of hits in the composition column. A sampling:

"Spotlight" - David Crosby/Graham Nash
"Honey Don't Leave L.A." - James Taylor
"Somebody's Baby" - Jackson Browne
"Dirty Laundry" - Don Henley
"Tender Is The Night" - Jackson Browne
"All She Wants To Do Is Dance" - Don Henley
"Sunset Grill" - Don Henley
"If Anybody Had A Heart" - John Waite
"So Close" - Hall & Oates

Danny is still writing and performing, playing many of his classic songs around the Northeast with Tim McDonald. From his Connecticut home, Danny told the stories behind many of these famous songs, and explained why music really was better in the Classic Rock era.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): One of the things that's really interesting when I look over all your songwriting credits, is that you write some of these solo - you're the only credited writer. Does that mean that you write lyrics as well as music?

Danny Kortchmar: Yes.

Songfacts: Tell me about that.

Kortchmar: Well, I'm not prolific as a lyric writer, but once I get an idea and I can put it together with a piece of music, I generally can finish it and make it into something. But it's not like I churn stuff out all day. It's kind of a once in a while process. When something hits me, I can write a song with all the lyrics combined.

But the thing is, I have kind of high standards because of all the brilliant people I've worked with. So I'm not a really prolific writer, but occasionally I get lucky.

Songfacts: You say you're not a prolific lyric writer, but you wrote a lyric to a Don Henley song, "All She Wants To Do Is Dance." Tell me about coming up with that one.

Kortchmar: I had the groove and the music going. That record was made back when the technology had just started to really take over in music. I had one of the first Yamaha DX 7s, which was a keyboard that was used a ton in the '80s, but we ended up luckily getting one of the first ones in the United States. It's a synthesizer keyboard, and I used it to get that sound that you hear the record starting with.

I was fooling around with that and created a track at home while we were making one of those albums. The next morning I woke up and wrote the whole lyric in about 20 minutes - wrote the whole thing. It came very easily.

I can't really tell you the process, just that the music suggested to me what I wanted and then it just came out very quickly.

Songfacts: Is that typically what happens, where the music drives the lyric for a song?

Kortchmar: Well, I think it does in my case, and I think it does in Henley's case. But not always. A lot of times they happen together, it really depends on who's doing the writing. There's no one way and there's no consistent way anyone writes, as far as I can tell.

Songfacts: One of the songs you wrote with Don Henley, "Johnny Can't Read," I thought it was an old '60s song, and then I realized it was an original. Tell me about how you guys came up with that one.

Kortchmar: That album [I Can't Stand Still], a lot of that came out of stuff Don wanted to say. We would sit around and discuss what he wanted to say and what kind of ideas he had. Then I'd go back to my place where I had a little setup - kind of a demo setup in my house - and I'd start banging stuff out.

At the time I had a Farfisa organ and that's the sound you hear. That's what makes you think of the '60s, that Farfisa organ.

I knocked off this piece of music, played it for Don, and he started writing lyrics for it right away.

Songfacts: That's what they used on "96 Tears," that Farfisa.

Kortchmar: Yeah. It was either a Vox Continental or a Farfisa [it was a Vox - my bad]. Electronic organs are what you hear on all those records. We wanted to use a piece of gear that hadn't been used that you hadn't heard much at the time. We were trying for new sounds and original sounding stuff.

Songfacts: So you would have a concept of what the song was going to be about when you were composing the music for it?

Kortchmar: A lot of times with Don, yes.

Songfacts: How about "Dirty Laundry"? Tell me about coming up with that one.

Kortchmar: Same process. When we started working together, Don had this idea for "Dirty Laundry" that he wanted to write a song where he took on the media and local TV. So again with the Farfisa organ, one night I set it up, ran it into an Echoplex and started banging out that part that you hear on the record. I was up into the wee hours banging away on this thing. That's when I recorded it, and when I played it for Don the next day, I said, "I think this is 'Dirty Laundry.'" He said, "Yeah, that's it. Record it and let's go."

Songfacts: So that means the lyrics were already written for the song?

Kortchmar: No. Once he heard the thing, then we started writing the lyrics.

Songfacts: And then the title "Dirty Laundry," did you come up with that or did he?

Kortchmar: No, that's Don's. Don had that title in the first place. It was sitting around for months while we were making his first album. And then I came up with this music and we realized that this was good music for "Dirty Laundry," so we started recording the track. And then once we had the track, he wrote to it.

Don does this a lot: once the track is completed, he drives around in his car and listens to it and comes up with lyrical ideas. That's basically what happened with that tune, and that's what happened with a lot of the tunes he and I wrote together. The music would come first and then he'd have something to write to, and then he would complete the song.

Songfacts: What's the one you wrote with Henley that you're most proud of?

Kortchmar: Well, I love all those tunes. But I really love "New York Minute" and "I Will Not Go Quietly." I love "Sunset Grill," I love "Dirty Laundry."

Don Henley is absolutely brilliant. I haven't seen him in a while but he's one of the best singers I ever heard in my life and he's a brilliant lyricist with a lot to say. So any song I wrote with him was a treat.

Songfacts: And you really did come up with a wide variety of sounds. These songs just range the spectrum. "New York Minute," can you tell me about coming up with that one?

Kortchmar: Yeah. Again, his idea. He wanted to write a song called "New York Minute," and he wanted to capture the essence of New York. That's why those last verses he's singing, he's walking through the park and the leaves are rustling. He wanted to capture the essence of autumn or early winter in New York.

We had the title, and we had kind of the idea. I sat down at the piano and started playing the chord changes that you hear, and at home I fooled around with it for a while. Then I went to him and I said, "I think I've got something for 'New York Minute.'" I played it for him and he went, "Yeah, that's it, that's it. Let's record it." And we did.

Songfacts: Was "Sunset Grill" a similar situation?

Kortchmar: Yep. Very similar. He had an idea for "Sunset Grill." "Sunset Grill" is a real hamburger place on Sunset Boulevard that Don used to go to. He admired the fact that the same family and the same people had run it for many years, and that the burgers were made with love - they were everything he liked about American society. So he used that Sunset Grill as a metaphor for what he liked, what he thought was great about society. And then he also used it to describe what he didn't like, which is plenty.

He's a very conscious fellow and a guy with a lot to say, especially at that time. He had a lot to say and a lot to prove, and he did it.

Songfacts: Going back a little ways, you wrote a song solo for James Taylor called "Honey Don't Leave LA," which is a fantastic song.

Kortchmar: Thank you.

Songfacts: Where did that one come from.

Kortchmar: Oh, I don't know. [Laughs] Not really sure. I mean, some of it's real. I was going out with a woman and she did leave for the South of France with her boyfriend. I thought I was cooler than he was, and that she should have stuck around and hung out with me instead. So that was kind of a big ego trip.

Believe me, I made myself look like the good guy in that situation, but that's what songwriters do. But really, I took something that kind of happened and I blew it up and made it into that song, made it more romantic and interesting as I wrote the tune.

Songfacts: Was there any challenge in getting James Taylor to record it?

Kortchmar: Well, no. I kind of had a feeling after I wrote it. I said, "I betcha James would like this." And when we were doing his album JT, I brought it in to play for him, and he did like it. James was always struggling to come up with enough material for his albums because back then in the '70s, you made an album and then you toured, then you made another album and you toured, you made another album... it was continuous. There was a helluva lot of pressure on him and on all the artists from that period to come up with new material, make an album, and keep the standard as high as possible.

Also, James doesn't really write a whole lot of rock & roll. He does write some. He has written some really great rock & roll songs, but this one was something I guess he felt would be good on his album. Peter Asher agreed with him, and away we went. Peter is the brilliant producer of James' early albums.

Raised in Westchester County, New York, Danny was a teenager when he met James Taylor and performed with him at gigs on Martha's Vineyard. In 1966, they formed a group called The Flying Machine, whose demise prompted the "Fire And Rain" lyric "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground." They released a single called "Night Owl," but were not heard from again until 1971 when their record label exploited Taylor's success by releasing their old demos as the album James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.

After a stint as a sideman in The Fugs, Danny moved to California in 1968, forming a band called The City with Carole King and former Fug, Charles Larkey (King and Larkey were married from 1970-1976). The group released one album (Now That Everything's Been Said), but because of King's stage fright, never toured.

Another rainmaker bandmate of Danny's was David Foster, who would go on to win three Producer of the Year Grammy Awards thanks to his work with Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole and Chicago. In the mid-'70s, Kortchmar and Foster were in a band called Attitudes, which also included bass player Paul Stallworth and drummer Jim Keltner.
Songfacts: There are so many extremely talented guys like Peter Asher and David Foster that show up in your career. Is there something that draws these guys together?

Kortchmar: I don't know, really. It was a helluva community in LA at that time, in the '70s and '80s, going into the '90s. There was a major community of creative people - everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was on everyone's side and we all helped each other. It was a great time to be in Los Angeles and surrounded by all these wonderful people.

It was like a small town in a way, and you couldn't throw a rock without hitting some brilliant musician. We all knew each other, we all used to record things together. We used to tour together, we used to write songs together, produce each other's stuff and play on each other's stuff. It was a helluva community.

Songfacts: I think it was 1976 when you wrote something with Graham Nash, which is a terrific song called "Spotlight." Can you tell me about writing that one?

Kortchmar: Yeah. I had a chord progression and a groove, so I played it for Graham. It was just something I was fooling around with. And Graham being the kind of guy he is, he immediately started coming up with lyrics for it. Graham does that. He's not one of these grooving guys that sits and waits for the muse to hit him forever and ever. He starts writing right away. He's written a lot of songs. He's a prolific writer and he comes right to the point.

Graham is from the old school. He grew up in the early '60s when he was playing rock & roll with the Hollies and you didn't have a lot of time to meditate on what you wanted to say. You had to come up with something right then, and that's his way of writing.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing the Jackson Browne song "Somebody's Baby."

Kortchmar: Well, I had the music to that and the hook, "somebody's baby." So I had all the music and the "must be somebody's baby" part. That's what I brought to him: all the guitar parts and everything else.

I knew he was the guy to write with, Jackson being the brilliant writer he is. At the time our mutual friend Cameron Crowe had his first movie being made based on a book that he'd written [Fast Times at Ridgemont High], and we were all writing tunes for it. Don and I wrote a song for it ["Love Rules"].

So I brought it over. It was not typical of what Jackson writes at all, that song. But because it was for this movie he changed his general approach and came up with this fantastic song. It's a brilliant lyric. I think it's absolutely wonderful. But it's atypical of him - he wasn't sure what to make of it himself. He didn't want to put it on his album that he was making because it was atypical of what he did, but it ended up being something that got requested a lot and he ended up playing it live and taking it to his heart, as it were. And now he plays it all the time.

Songfacts: What about the song "Tender is The Night" that you wrote with him?

Kortchmar: Right. "Tender is the Night," that started with me and Russ Kunkel sitting in my living room and just throwing some ideas around. I liked the idea that we say "tender is the night," which is a literary reference, and then combine that with "when you hold your baby tight," which is a doo-wop sort of reference. So you had highbrow and lowbrow going in the same chorus. That's what we liked about it. And Russ had that [singing onomatopoeia], he was playing that. So we had the chorus, and I, of course, took it to Jackson.

At the time, when anyone had a good idea, he took it to Jackson. He's such a brilliant writer that you would always hope that you could turn him on and get him interested in a piece of music.

Songfacts: What's the literary reference in "Tender is the Night"?

Kortchmar: "Tender is the Night" is the name of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and it goes back further than that. It's a quote, I don't know from who, but Fitzgerald used it as his title for one of his famous books. I'm not sure of the origin of that phrase, but it's literary and it's arcane. It's been around a while.

Songfacts: Had you read the book?

Kortchmar: Yeah.

Songfacts: Has that happened to you fairly often that you get something inspired from a book, a movie, or some kind of work?

Kortchmar: Yes. Of course I'm inspired by everything that inspires me, and I'll use these ideas to create a song. In other words, anything I read or write or hear on TV or in the news or that somebody says, it's all something that if it sticks in my mind, it may very well turn into a song.

Songfacts: Is there one that comes to mind, an example?

Kortchmar: My song "All She Wants to do is Dance," that's influenced by The Great Gatsby, where you've got this really rich couple that's oblivious to what's going on around them. It was also influenced by a book called The Ugly American, which is a book about Americans coming into third-world countries and acting like they own the place. So that was what turned me on, although to be honest with you, I didn't think about it that hard. It just came out.

Songfacts: You did, in 1990, a song with Hall & Oates called "So Close" that has quite a list of composer credits. You wrote this with Jon Bon Jovi, Daryl Hall, and George Green, who I believe is John Mellencamp's co-writer for a lot of songs.

Kortchmar: Right. George used to write with Mellencamp. Really, really nice guy. I haven't seen him in a while, but he's a really good guy.

Songfacts: So how did that whole thing come together?

Kortchmar: I think that Daryl wrote the song with George. They recorded an acoustic version of it and then their record company decided they wanted to do a rock version of it with a full band.

At the time I was working with Jonny, we had just finished his album Blaze of Glory, which I co-produced with him. We were having a great time with the musicians we were playing with and we were just having a ball in the studio. So when I got the call to produce this single, I said, "Jonny, what do you say, let's do this." So he said, "Sure, man. Great. I love Hall & Oates. Let's keep going."

But then we got in and we started changing around the song a little bit. Jon said, "you know, let's get writers on this, as well." So he finagled that and we ended up with a little writer's taste on it as well.

In the '80s, Danny took on more production work; his musical skill set and ability to work and play well with even the most volatile artists made him a natural fit for the job. In addition to his work with Jon Bon Jovi, Danny has also produced songs by Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Hanson.
Songfacts: Tell me about your philosophy as a producer.

Kortchmar: Well, I think I have the same philosophy everyone has, which is just to get the most out of the artists you're working for. And get something that's true to them and that represents them and is also catchy and is going to attract people - attract ears. So it's really just a matter of being true to the artist's original vision of himself, because I'm not one of these people that wants to be a svengali and wants to change somebody into something else. If I work with an artist, I like them and I like the way they're singing their songs. So my job, I feel, is to capture the best of what they're offering at the time.

Songfacts: Does the "Mellow Mafia" nickname drive you crazy?

Kortchmar: Yes.

Songfacts: When did that first start coming around?

Kortchmar: It was probably in Rolling Stone or one of the music papers at the time.

Songfacts: But it did exist since the '70s?

Kortchmar: Yeah. The first time I heard that expression was in the '70s, but I can't remember where I heard it or read it.

On James Taylor's 1970 album Sweet Baby James, Danny is credited as "Danny Kootch." On Tapestry, his credit reads "Danny 'Kootch' Kortchmar." In Rolling Stone, Kortchmar said: "I never wanted to be Danny Kootch. I always thought it was the stupidest fucking nickname in the world."
photo: Jennifer Dowlingphoto: Jennifer Dowling
Songfacts: The Rolling Stone article, the most recent one, said that you don't like the name Kooch, or at least you didn't.

Kortchmar: Well, I didn't like the name Danny Kootch, which is what I was called on the first few albums. I thought that was a stupid name. Kootch was a childhood nickname. My name is Kortchmar, so I didn't realize they were going to call me Danny Kootch until I saw Sweet Baby James. I saw it and I went, "Oh, god." On the next album I think it changed. And then they called me Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar, which I also didn't like.

Kootch is a childhood nickname that my friends called me, people that know me call me. It's not how I want to be referred to generally, although a lot of people call me that. And I don't mind. Just on records I prefer to have my real name on there.

Songfacts: What's the most lucrative of the songs that you've written?

Kortchmar: Oh, I don't know, man. You know, the ones that get played continuously. Fortunately, a lot of the stuff that I did with Don and with Jackson, that stuff is considered classic rock. And that's a format that keeps surviving, because it's classic. It's kind of like La bohème or Aïda or something. Those are the grand period of opera and that's still what people see when they go to see opera. Those are really well known and classical opera pieces and no one's ever beat them.

I think it's the same with classic rock. It's just a period of time that will last for a really, really long time, because it just spoke to people. I don't think music has the same social power now that it had then.

Songfacts: Doesn't have the same social power now as it had then. Can you explain what that means?

Kortchmar: Yeah. It means that back then if somebody had a hit record, everyone heard it. In other words, if there was a hit, it was ubiquitous. It was on everyone's radio and everyone heard it. And it influenced everyone. Now you can have a hit and only the people that want to hear it, hear it.

For instance, Rihanna has a hit or something. I've never heard it, because I don't listen to FM radio. I listen to satellite radio and I listen to the stations I'm interested in. So there could be huge hits that I never even hear.

Danny has played on albums by Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, J.D. Souther, Tracy Chapman, Billy Joel and Bonnie Raitt. One of his more memorable sessions was for Harry Nilsson's 1974 album Pussy Cats, which was produced by John Lennon. Paul McCartney came by at one point and led a jam of some early rock songs. As Danny recalls, Nilsson blew out a vocal cord when he started screaming along.
It's more niche now, so it doesn't have the same power. A song, when it was a hit in the '70s, everyone knew it. Everyone. Now, music is not as important. It's not as important to people in their day-to-day lives as it was in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Partly because of technology and partly because that's just the way things are. Nothing lasts forever.

Songfacts: What do you do with yourself most of the time these days?

Kortchmar: I'm up here in northern Connecticut, I work on music, I play music, I gig with my band, I travel, I spend a lot of time with my daughters. That's what I do.

Songfacts: Tell me about what you play with the Kortchmar-McDonald Band.

Kortchmar: We do songs from my whole career, tons of stuff that I've written. Some of it is 40 years old and some of it is a year old - it spans my whole career as a writer. And then there are also originals of Tim's we do, and a few covers, as well. Blues and R&B type stuff that we mix in with my stuff.

Songfacts: You've been involved with so many different aspects of the business, including the songwriting, production, performance. What is your favorite thing to do in the industry?

Kortchmar: I'd have to say my absolute favorite thing to do is to play music with my friends.

Songfacts: So if you do a club show, we're seeing what you really enjoying doing.

Kortchmar: You bet. Anyone that's seen my show can recognize that we're all having a terrific time. We always do. I love playing with those fellows. They're great. Tim is a fantastic musician and singer, and I really, really enjoy playing with him. So whether it's in the studio or on tour or in a club or wherever, I love to play music with my pals. And that's the joy of my life. Love to play the guitar and I love to play in a band.

August 26, 2013
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 7

  • Kevin Trine from Gilbert AzKootch is a class act and a phenomenal guitarist , no wonder he's blessed to have so many superstar friendships. Thanks Danny for enhancing classic rock !
  • David W. Gates from Lou.,ky.Seems as If Danny Kortchmar realizes the 'REAL' feelings that we,Musicians,have for close Musicology Friends,that maybe we started out with /Continue to enjoy their Camaraderie/Vibe by Playin the Gigs or 'Jammin', as often as possible,to keep the Musical Juices/'Chops'working out the Kinks+ Good Vibes of Collaboration in Arranging Tunes and Lyrics together, into A Final Structure. Quality is everything, in Arranging Music for other's Pleasure and Consummation. Never forget the 'Hook'that binds the Cheese Bait.
  • Fritz Souder from MarylandIt would be interesting to hear what Danny and Mike Campbell of the "Heartbreakers" would come up with if they were to work together. They seem to like to work off grooves and chord progressions when writing. I like writing that way too.
  • Pam Parker from Houston, Texashe too is a genius.
  • Jeff from Minneapolis, MnReally enjoyed his stories about songwriting; he mentioned writing with George Green on "So Close", and not seeing him for awhile. George passed away in August 2011.
  • Peter from New York, New YorkThe phrase "tender is the night" comes from John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale."
  • Dan from Winthrop,massGreat interview well researched you did your homework.I would have liked to see you delve into his work with Neil Young.I don't know if he had a falling out with Henley.
see more comments

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