Podcast Transcript

>> Takin a walk the basic connection that I had with someone that was great coming out of the whiskey was David Crosby David I met David and Steven and Graham kind of around the same time basically through my wife Leah who is Cass Elliott’s sister.

So I was privy to being at Cass’s house and meeting lots of incredible people during that time. Welcome to the Take It A Walk podcast, the podcast where Buzz Knight talks with musicians and gets the inside story on their work and creative process.

Today, Buzz speaks with one of Rock’s great drummers. Russ Conkel is known for his work with an impressive resume of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor,

and Carole King. He’s also part of the session supergroup, The Media Family, which includes Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, and Danny Kortchar  Russ has appeared on some of the most iconic albums of our time,

and he joins Buzz Knight Next on “Takin a Walk.” Well, the great Russ Kunkel is here on the “Takin a Walk” podcast. We’re gonna take a walk down memory lane,

Russ. Thanks for being here. My pleasure, Buzz. Did it all start for you with Wipe you with Wipeout? No one’s ever asked me that question before but it’s pretty spot -on.

I mean it’s certainly a song that inspired me early on because it was such a huge hit. I think it was a song was recorded by the safaris,

is that correct? Yes. And it featured a very repetitious kind of drum part in it that everybody loved and gravitated to.

Probably, I guess that must have come out in 1963 or 1964, somewhere around then, because I think I was in high school at that time. So, yeah, and the bands,

the early bands that I was in, in Long Beach, California, we certainly played that song when we were in our surf music craze so and at the same time I was actually surfing I started surfing then so Wipe Out has a double meaning for me it was the name of a song and I actually got wiped out many times so I understood it.

Did you have someone teaching you and mentoring you similar to the movie Whiplash? No, not at So, for the most part,

I’m self -taught. My brother, Gilbert Kunko, my oldest brother, who’s passed on now, was a drummer, and he sat me on his lap and put the sticks in my hand when I was probably about six or seven years old,

and he introduced me to the drums. He had a band, and his band rehearsed in our house from time to time. So, You know,

I kind of grew up with a little bit of an inclination of what that meant, and it was very exciting. So I give him credit for certainly setting me off in the right direction. And the band that really began things in the big way,

was your band Things to Come that ended up landing that, was it 19 -week run as the house band at the whiskey, is that right?

– It was very close to that, it was a long period of time and we were taken under Mario and Elmer’s wing and we were just the opening act for lots of bands that came through at that time.

It was an eye -opening experience, I’ll say that. – More ways than one, I bet. – Yes, It definitely was. We don’t have to go into detail, but I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

And you saw a few notorious bands come through during that period. Care to talk about any of those bands? Well,

one of the bands that came through was The Hourglass, which became The Almond Brothers. And it was interesting to see them in that configuration.

It was pretty much the, I can’t be certain of this, but I think it was the same personnel. And then, of course, we know they went on to unbelievable greatness.

And another band that came through there was, what a different name? It was CTA, which was the Chicago Transit Authority. And I think they had a different name at that time before they were called Chicago.

Oh, I forget what they were called. Anyway, they had a different name at that time before they became Chicago. Got to see them. Got to see the Hollies open for them, open for cream,

open for the electric flag, Paul Butterfield, Gene Clark, the birds. Got to see Jimi Hendricks play there. We didn’t open for him,

but he did a show at the whiskey before going up to the Monterey Pop Festival. Got to see that. It was it was definitely eye -opening. And you were just in this phase,

certainly, that I still believe you are in, which is learning and being a sponge for everything you were witnessing. Is that fair to say? Yeah,

I don’t think I’ve given that up. I, you know, I’m being like to learn new things and I practice drumming and guitar every day and you know so it’s a I I think it’s a it’s a book that you you can never finish reading so can you describe what are the traits that go into being such an accomplished drummer as you are I when you start out I don’t think you have any idea what you’re going to end up being.

So, to answer a question like that, it’s all hindsight. And I just never gave up. And I wanted to not get fired was the main objective and to listen enough to find out what people wanted from me and not get caught up in doing something other than that,

and more than anything I wanted to be appreciated and hired back to repeat. I was married at a young age when I was 21.

I had my son, Nathaniel, was born when I was 21, so I had to make an income. My wife worked at the time you know, I had to get serious real quick and I think in a lot of ways that kind of kept me on the straight and narrow when a lot of other people Who didn’t have those kinds of responsibilities,

you know went down a different road, so but You have to listen. I guess that’s the word that I’m coming around to you have to be aware of your surroundings and be Be very aware of what’s needed from you and really try to present it.

How do you balance the intensity of your job with the cool, common, collected need to be the glue that holds everything together?

When you walk into a situation where you’re either recording or you’re playing live, recording in particular you don’t necessarily know the song.

It’s all brand new. So there’s an unknown factor there which can be scary or it can be exciting. I try to approach every session that I do in a way that I try to play things that I’ve never played before.

At least I make an attempt to come up with something that I’ve never done before. And if I’m lucky enough, it suits the song and it makes everybody that I’m working for happy.

Playing live is, you know, it’s about connecting with an audience and really connecting with the people that you’re playing with. It starts there. You know, there has to be a real simpatico with the people that you’re playing for.

And then that magic or that feeling or that flow Can move on out to the audience and you can see it affecting audience One way or the other you can also see it affecting the audience if they’re not happy with what they’re hearing One of the things that came out of things to come and the whiskey experience was You got on the radar With this great man Peter Asher Tell me about that experience.

– Yeah, that’s true. Actually, the whiskey, the basic connection that I had with someone that was great coming out of the whiskey was David Crosby. David,

I met David and Steven and Graham kind of around the same time, basically through my wife, Leah, who was Cass Elliott’s sister. So I was privy to being at Cass’s house and meeting lots of incredible people during that time,

right after our stay at the whiskey and David took notice of me and he produced a single for the things to come,

he produced a few things and he was a real champion of me and my band at that time. After that I was working for a man named John Stewart who was replaced Dave Gard in the Kingston trio and he had just had an album put out an album on Capitol called California Bloodlines and I had met John through Henry Diltz and he asked me to come on the road with him to promote his album and was rehearsing with John for some

show and Peter Asher came to town and contacted his friend Chris Darrow who was also playing with John as a great fiddle player and he told Chris that he was looking for musicians to record with his new artist James Taylor and he was in specifically looking for a drummer and Chris said come to our rehearsals there’s a great drummer playing with us now and Peter came to the rehearsal and Liked what he heard and like

you’ve seen the documentary he asked me to play on the album and He doesn’t really think that John ever forgave him, but I think he kind of did so he is such a treasure,

isn’t he? Peter yes, absolutely. Absolutely. He without without Peter’s kind of intervention in my life and my career just you know kind of Being at the right place at the right time and a little bit of serendipity.

I my career wouldn’t have to be anywhere Like it is today. So he was a major factor and so was Lou Adler Tell me about Lou as a producer and what you learned from him Well,

Lou and Peter were very very much the same They they knew to stay out of the way of the artist and let the artists do do their art. And they were great organizers,

you know. The great producers are cheerleaders. Jimmy Iveen falls into that category as well. So does Jimmy Bowen. You know, Richard Perry,

a lot of the great producers that I’ve worked with, they all have that same quality. They’re cheerleaders and they stay out of the way of the art. So tell me how you remember the first Sessions with James Taylor Well Buzz I have to say,

you know that that period of time There was a lot of inviting going on so I don’t remember every single bit of it But I remember that it was an exhilarating experience to to play those songs with James and Carol and Danny I think we recorded that album inside of a week.

Everything was recorded. We recorded it at Sunset Sound. And it was magical. You know, it really, really was. But it’s hard to recall just exactly what you were feeling.

Something that happened over 50 years ago. You know, but I know I was there and I know I know I was just thankful.

I mean, if there was a word that I can use of my dominant emotion, it was gratitude. Just thankful to be there, you know, and not until many,

many years later did I realize the impact or the significance that that music has had, you know, on the world. And I’m eternally grateful for that. Then there’s the first album that I ever bought and wore the grooves off of is this little number called Tapestry by Carol King.

Can you talk about how magical that was? You know, very similar to recording the Sweet Baby James album. It didn’t take a long time to record.

Carol was very prepared. She had gone over the songs with Lou at her house and all what Lou wanted to do, like he says in the documentaries, just recreate what she was doing at her house.

You know, playing the piano, just adding the instruments that they deemed to be necessary around the songs. I didn’t play on the whole album, Joe Bishop O ‘Brien played,

I think he actually played on more songs than I did on Tapestry, but it was, again, it happened very quickly, and it was kind of the same group of people,

you know. James was there playing on some of it, Joni was there doing some of it, Dany was there, I was there, she didn’t use Leland on that, she used Charlie Larky as the bass player,

and Ralph Shuckett played some other keyboard parts, and lots of other wonderful background singers and horn players from LA.

But it was very similar to “Sweet Baby James.” It happened quickly, and again, you know, in hindsight, when you look back, you kind of have an “Oh My God” moment that,

you know, that record was so satisfying to so many people. We’ll be right back with more of the Taken a Walk podcast. Welcome back to the Taken a Walk podcast.

Is there a similar zone like athletes talk about that a musician, a drummer, gets into either in a session or in a live performance,

is it the zone? I refer to it as a flow. And yeah, of course, yeah, but you know, I try to get into that thing in everything that I do,

you know, whether I’m surfing or swimming or working out or writing or playing an instrument, yeah, You definitely want to find that place and stay in it for sure.

Can you talk about the experience that happened in a session in New York City that included the likes of George Harrison and Bob Dylan?

I was in New York with Peter. He took me to New York to play drums on a Tony Kossin act record, an artist he was producing. This was after Sweet Baby James,

after the James Taylor albums. And we had finished recording and I was in my hotel, we were leaving the next day, and Peter called me and said,

“Put your drums in the cab and come down to CVS studios.” And I said, “What happened? Were we cutting more tracks?” He said, “No, you’re going to play with Bob Dylan and George Harrison.

They’re in the studio and they need a drummer, so they called me. So after I composed myself, I got my my drums down to the studio and took them inside and sat them up and I’m jamming with Bob Dylan and George Harrison.

Bob wanted to play Beatles songs and Elvis Presley songs, and George wanted to play Dylan songs, and so they kind of just traded back and forth. I think Al Cooper was there playing organ,

Charlie Daniels was there, I think playing bass at that time, and then Was it Bruce Johnson Bob who produced Bob Johnson exactly Bruce Johnson’s in the Beach Boys Is it ruling Bob member right?

Exactly he called me two months later to come to New York and play on the New Morning album with the same group of people So it was you know, I I had the headphones on and I have George Harrison in one ear and Bob Dylan in the other and I you know if I don’t know how I kept my head from exploding,

but it was a magnificent experience to say the least. And I think there’s a bootleg of some of that stuff that came out at some point. I seem to remember hearing some of it.

I was going to ask you because over time Bob has continually released treasures that were from sessions and whatnot. So, I have a feeling some of that keeps popping out as well and it really,

you know, of course, it showcases his brilliance in so many ways, you know. You know, as I get older, I started to realize that I don’t like things that are perfect.

I mean, so much of music today is perfect. It’s absolutely in tune. It’s absolutely in time. It’s all matched up to a grid.

And I think there’s something lacking in that. I think however far we’ve gone down that road, I hope that people jump off of it. Bob Dylan was never that way.

And I think that is part of his greatness is that he didn’t want anything to be perfect. The only thing that I could say that would approach being perfect are the amazing lyrics that he’s written.

What he was able to do with putting words together to tell a story or create an emotion or a feeling, I don’t know that anybody’s done it any better. But doing those sessions with him and playing on New Morning and the sessions with Harrison,

you only played a song one time. On the New Morning sessions, we would jam something like we would be playing a Buddy Holly song or something,

and then all of a sudden you’d throw in a new song. You never saw it coming. He would just go over to the piano and he starts playing, you know, “Winter Lube,” you know.

And all of a sudden, you just, you jump in and hang on. And every time he did that, I would just, I was going, “God, if we could just do that one more time,

now I know what I want to play.” But he doesn’t, he didn’t want that. And that’s, I see the genius in that now. You know, there’s so many mistakes that I think are mistakes on what I played on those songs on that album,

but apparently no one else thought they were. Did you do work on the soundtrack of Peck Garrett and Billy the Kid? I did. Jim Keltner and I both played on that,

on a few songs of that soundtrack, yeah. That was a pretty amazing experience as well. Amazing seeing Bob acting too, you know. Oh,

yeah. Well, he’s very good, you know, as his leave on. For sure. Yeah. Tell me about the blue session with Joni,

which, you know, to this day people talk about that, you know, in her, of course, in reverence, you know, she’s so amazing. What do you remember about the blue session which you played on?

Well, again, when it was going on, it was just another day. You know, I had been working with James, I was friends with Stephen and David and Graham and Neil and we were in and out of the same studios and I got a call to come down to A &M And I knew Joan and to come down and play on some recordings that she was doing at the time.

And I overdubbed on some pre -existing things. And we played a couple of things live. And Stephen and I overdubbed together. She had Stephen playing bass on a couple of things.

And I was playing cungas and percussion. And I think I played drums on one or two songs. But the percussion and the drum accompaniment on blue is very subtle, you know,

it’s mixed exactly in the right way. And again, when you look back on that time, I had no idea that those songs,

I’ve worked on a little bit of Ladies of the Canyon as well, but I had no idea that those songs were gonna, the album blue is gonna have the significance that it that it has, and again,

just unbelievably grateful that I was there, there but for fortune. – Who are the drummers that have impacted you past and present and maybe particular work by them that has impacted you?

– Well, Stars with Ringo, Charlie Walts, Jim Keltner, Keltner, Jeff Baccaro, Leave on Helm, Huge Influence, every drummer that you would think,

Philly Joe Jones, Joe Jones, Louis Belson, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, for all the reasons that you would imagine. The body of,

just the body of work that Charlie and Ringo and Jim Keltner and Jeff Piccaro have played on is, you know, is enough. You know,

I’m quite fond of Dave Grohl as well, but Dave is more than just a drummer, you know. He’s a great human, a great talented individual.

You obviously observe the brilliance and the tragedy of Jim Gordon as someone in your profession. – I should have mentioned him because he was a huge influence on me.

– Talk about his work, obviously, which is pretty mind -blowing. – Well, the first time I became really aware of Jim Gordon was on Dave Mason’s song,

“Only You Know What I Know.” And that rolling snare drum part that he decided to play on that. No one ever did that before, you know. And it was that whole period of time of Delaney and Bonnie and all the musicians and Leon Russell and everybody that came in and out of that camp.

And then Delaney and Bonnie, you know, then that kind of gave birth to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And just that whole group of musicians were incredible. And I loved every bit of it.

But Jim Gordon’s session work. I mean he’s well known for his work with Clapton and stuff like that but he he played on so many records. I mean he was in the studio kind of at the same time that Howell was in the studio maybe a little bit after that and a little bit before me before I started working a lot in the studio and he had a he had a great groove.

He had just a great pocket you know and It’s tragic what happened to him It almost seems Like it’s a like it’s a a movie instead of reality,

but Because he seemed to be such a nice guy. It’s like a bad dream But everyone has a good. Yeah, everyone everyone potentially can have demons. So he’s got the best of him Yeah,

that was that that story just chilling, you know? Yeah, absolutely. Talk about the joy you’re experiencing with immediate family.

I love the documentary also as well and I love what you guys are up to, the camaraderie, the vibe, the spirit of it. Talk about how you love it.

Well, these are guys that I’ve spent the better part of my musical career with in one configuration or another. So for us to have a chance to do something of our own was really,

it was really great. It kind of started right before COVID and having a new band during COVID kind of kept us all sane. You know, we recorded a lot of videos and we did a lot of recording kind of sending each other bits and pieces and we did a lot of writing during that time.

And it’s been a fun journey. It really, really has. Being fortunate enough to have the documentary made about us is profound.

I mean, how lucky are we that Denny wanted to do it, that he felt that that was a story that needed to be told. And in a lot of ways, it frightened me the first time that I saw it because I felt like not only was I looking at my life and when you look at something that kind of spans a period of time especially when you get to be my age you’re kind of you have less time to look at than you do than you’ve

lived and so it was a reminder I guess of our of my mortality and and the mortality of my friends so that’s the thing that hit me about it you know like oh okay I’m old enough now to where somebody thought we should make a documentary about the music that you played on so but yeah it’s every time we get a chance to play it’s it’s really fun we really have a great time doing it and and I hope we get to do

more in the future. Do they all make you a better player? Oh no you can’t get away with anything in this band no You can’t make a mistake. You don’t want to make a mistake because you’re trounced on immediately.

So yes, they do. We make each other accountable. – Who’s the toughest, though? – Well, Wadi and Danny can be a little tough.

They’re particular in the ideas of the things that they want, so I let them rant and rave and then I play what I want to play anyway. Any particular traits that you have taken on from anyone in particular you’ve worked with in your career that you can highlight?

Traits. Well I’ve learned a lot of stuff from a lot of people. I learned a lot from Stephen Stills, learned a lot from David and Graham, learned a lot from Neil,

I learned a lot from the producers that I worked with, learned a lot from Jimmy Bowen, from Jimmy Ivey, from Peter, Lou Adler, and I guess I and I’ve learned a lot from my friend Danny Kortsmar about songwriting,

you know, and so I guess I’ve taken bits and pieces of the things that I’ve learned from everyone and kind of tried to mold them into how I do those things, you know,

and yeah, I definitely picked up stuff along the way. What did you learn from Zevon? What did I learn from Warren Zevon?

Genius comes in all different kinds of colors. Bravo, yeah Are you gonna show up in the new Spinal Tep?

I don’t believe so Although I did get a my one of my dear friends is CJ Vanston and he’s been involved with the guys for many many years and He was just down in New Orleans where they were doing some shooting and He sent me a little video that he made of all the guys saying hi to the guy saying hi to me.

And they were all in costumes, so that was a nice thing to get. But no, I don’t believe so. Was Henry Diltz in New Orleans, per chance?

While they were shooting, I’m not sure. I don’t know. I think we interviewed him for an upcoming episode. He said he was heading down there. He wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen,

whether he would be on the cutting floor or not, but needless to say he was just as Henry, his wild -eyed and enthusiastic, he was looking forward to it. Henry Diltz is a beautiful human being,

and I’m so glad to see him getting the recognition that he so deserves. Thank you.

a signed copy of his CSNY book, Love the One You’re With, which is amazing, amazing stuff. He’s a treasure.

What do you think keeps him with that wild -eyed enthusiasm that he, I’m sure, started with? His spirit. He loves life.

He’s a You know, he’s in a good place. He’s a good man. Yeah, he definitely is. In closing,

what do you want to learn that you haven’t necessarily learned at this point in career and life? To not be afraid of the things you don’t know.

You know, to not fear. You fear. There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen the next minute. So, I just try to concentrate on really enjoying the one that I’m in.

I enjoyed this moment I’ve been in immensely. Well, thank you, Buzz. Thanks for wanting to do this with me. I’m just grateful that you came on the podcast.

It’s my pleasure. My pleasure. Thanks for listening to this episode of the “Takin It A Walk” podcast. Share this and other episodes with your friends and follow us so you never miss an episode.

“Takin A Walk” is available on the iHeart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.

About The Author

Buzz Knight

Buzz Knight is an established media executive with a long history of content creation and multi-platform distribution.

After a successful career as a Radio Executive, he formed Buzz Knight Media which focuses on strategic guidance and the development of new original content.