Whether as sideman, frontman or producer, Kootch is the catalyst

By Dave Thompson

It probably passed under your radar even then, but of all the albums released in 1973, one of the finest was the work of the under-sung guitarist whose name was paradoxically emblazoned across some of the best selling, and best-loved LPs of the previous year.
Danny Kortchmar, aka Kootch, established himself among the elite of American sidemen with three successive James Taylor chart-busters (“Sweet Baby James,” “Mudslide Slim” and “One Man Dog”) and three more Carole King albums (“Writer,” “Tapestry” and “Rhymes and Reasons”). His membership of The Fugs and the fondly remembered Jo Mama confirmed his versatility and skill.

Danny Kortchmar Kootch albumBut even they could not prepare people for the tastefully raw R&B that hollers from the grooves of “Kootch” — an album that even Rolling Stone ignored. But Kortchmar laughed (and still laughs) the album’s failure away. He made it because he was asked if he wanted to, and he had a lot of fun while he did. So what if hardly anyone heard it? He’d never even expected to make it in the first place.

Since that time, Kortchmar has continued on as sideman to the stars with stints alongside Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Keith Moon and Bill Wyman, Jackson Browne, Hall & Oates, Stevie Nicks — a who’s who, in other words, of ’70s immortality. His resumé as a producer includes albums with Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Don Henley, Bon Jovi and Van Halen. And all of this has taken him a long way from the coffee bar hootenannies of Martha’s Vineyard, where the teenaged Kootch and his best friend, James Taylor, cut their performing teeth back in the early 1960s.

Danny Kortchmar

Danny Kortchmar established himself among the elite of American sideman waith three successive James Taylor chart-busters.

“We grew up together on the vineyard,” Kootch reflects. “We met when we were little kids and taught each other to play guitar. We both played, and we both influenced one another tremendously; we both had a great love of music.”

Theirs was a stop-start partnership; Taylor’s family lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., at the time, so James & Kootch, the duo that the two boys formed to play around the Vineyard coffee houses, was active only during vacation time. Add Taylor’s much-publicized hospital visits to the brew, and, by the time the pair left high school, their musical paths had severed – at least for a while.

“As soon as I got out of high school I realized … The Beatles had come out the year before, and I realized I had to start a rock band,” he explains. “No way around it, no way that wasn’t going to happen, so I managed to find this diverse group of people, and we formed The King Bees.”

Fronted by the ultra-charismatic John McDuffy (who went on to replace Al Kooper in the Blues Project), The King Bees specialized in “soul music and R&B. I really wanted to try that, make it as good and as authentic as possible.”

Drummer Joel Bishop’s DJ father landed the band an RCA record contract, and a handful of 45s followed. The King Bees scored a residency at Arthur’s, a Manhattan nightclub that Kootch describes as the mid-’60s answer to Studio 54. Peter Asher and Gordon Waller were so impressed, they hired The King Bees as their backing band for a short East Coast tour. Kootch admits that he never did figure out how to play the distinctive guitar solo that bisects the duo’s biggest hit, “World Without Love,” but the tour ignited a friendship with Asher that would one day reunite them on the other side of the country.

The King Bees broke up in mid-1966, but not before setting in motion a fresh change of events. Singer Evie Sands was a friend of the band; she introduced them to her producer, Chip Taylor. Shortly before The King Bees folded, they joined Taylor on the set of what Kootch describes as “a typical teen exploitation movie whose name I have forgotten.” The movie vanished without a trace, but Taylor remembered Kootch, and he particularly remembered the young guitarist’s enthusiasm for a friend of his, a singer named James Taylor — who, Kootch continued, would soon join him in New York to form a new band.
“James had probably only written one or two songs back then,” Kootch recalls. “It was that he was such a phenomenal singer that was interesting. We were very good friends, and along with that he was a really good singer, and that’s what I told Chip.”

The new band was The Flying Machine, and toward the end of the group’s year-or-so lifespan, Chip Taylor found himself as impressed by JT as Kootch had told him he would be. Ultimately, record company politics cut their liaison off after just one afternoon in the studio and a going-nowhere 45 released in 1967. Kootch is still angry — not because they wasted an afternoon, but because once James Taylor hit it big in 1970, Chip Taylor released the tapes, “sticking this album out on the tails of James’ success. He didn’t ask us our permission, he didn’t tell us it was happening, and he certainly didn’t pay us. And we were furious. It was a low-ball, classless, jive-ass move.”

Elsewhere, members of The Flying Machine were reasonably content and astonishingly productive.

“I was having a good time. One of the first gigs we got was the Night Owl café. They had auditions every afternoon, and bands from all over the tri-state area would come in and try to get a job as one of the bands at the Night Owl. We went in there, auditioned and got the gig right away … because we had James Taylor and he was just a terrific singer.”

But Taylor was also deeply troubled, and his emotional issues were compounded by a drug habit that sent him spiraling. When The Flying Machine crashed, so did he, first running home to North Carolina, then across to London — where a judicious word from Kootch sent Taylor to meet Peter Asher. Taylor’s first solo record deal, with the Beatles’ Apple label, followed, together with the baroque carnival that is his eponymous debut album.

Kootch, meanwhile, joined The Fugs, friends of friends whose arch political stance marked them one of the most dynamic bands of the day on the East Coast. From there he moved on to Clear Light, the West Coast band that Elektra was marketing as “the new Doors.” It was in their company that Kootch moved out to California — to find Peter Asher, James Taylor and another New York friend, songwriter Carole King, swiftly following him.

In December 1969, this quartet entered the studio to begin recording Taylor’s second album, “Sweet Baby James.” There, they set in motion the musical movement that would all but revolutionize rock in America: a sometimes sleepy, often self-analytical, and, to be truthful, sometimes soporific fashion for one man and his acoustic guitar to sit on a stage in a packed auditorium and tell the world about his feelings. Folk, the musical form that gave Kootch his start, would never sound the same again.

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