Leland Sklar is a 67 year old bass player. Any musicians amongst you will know what a ridiculously inadequate statement that is. Lee Sklar is one of the most recorded bassists in music history. He has appeared on more than 2,000 albums. I won’t list them all here but if I tell you that he is on all of the classic James Taylor and Carole King albums, Jackson Browne’s most famous early albums and albums by Ray Charles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Phil Collins, Joe Cocker, Billy Cobham, Neil Diamond, Hall & Oates, Toto and Barbra Streisand, to name but a handful, you’ll get the picture. Lee Sklar is Mr. Bass. I have seen him play, some years ago, on a Toto tour, shortly after Mike Porcaro first displayed signs of the horrible muscular disease that eventually took his life, last month. Lee got the call, had just two days to learn the set-list, and looked like he’d been in the band for 20 years.
“I can pretty much guarantee that you own albums with Russ Kunkel on drums.”
Lee’s rhythm partner for much of his career has been Russell Kunkel. Russ and Lee were the foundation of The Section, the band that backed James Taylor and Carole King on those iconic songs that were the markers in my early teenage years. ‘You’ve Got A Friend’, ‘Fire and Rain’, ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘Natural Woman’ and ‘Sweet Baby James’ all bear their distinctive, laid back talent. I can pretty much guarantee that you own albums with Russ Kunkel on drums. He has been on thousands.
Waddy Wachtel (pronounced ‘Wok-Tell’) appeared on my radar in 1976 when his ‘fat’ sounding guitar replaced Andrew Gold in Linda Ronstadt’s band. He looked amazing, with his curly, blonde locks and big glasses, and he played like a dream. He became one of my favourite players, almost overnight.
Last night, Jan and I arrived in Oxford for a Bryan Ferry gig. We were going to be on the last train home so had been in touch with the venue all week, to get some confirmation of timings. All indications were that there would be no support act. As we made our way to our seats, for the 7.30pm start, I heard the guy at the merchandise table telling someone that he should go in and see the support. “She’s really good, has a great voice, and a great band,” he said. I noticed a flyer for a CD by Judith Owen. The names at the bottom of the flyer were Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Wachtel. We took our seats, the lights went down, and Judith came out onto the stage. She sat behind the grand piano, at the left of the stage. Quietly, without any introduction, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel and a young percussionist settled themselves onto stools and chairs and began to play. The next thirty minutes were a bit of a blur. We liked Judith, liked her voice, her ‘Laurel Canyon- inspired’ songs, and her sense of humour. She made no bones about being amazed to be sitting on the same stage as three of the best and most famous musicians in the last 40 years.
“We nearly knocked three people over in our haste to get out of our seats.”
Me? I don’t think I closed my mouth for the first two songs, my jaw dropping further and further as a beautiful bass-run rumbled across the stage, a delicate guitar phrase, filled the hall or another bass-drum stab made my heart skip, as Russ pushed the rhythm along. Thirty minutes later, it was all over. Judith announced that she would be out in the foyer, signing her new CD and said we would also try and get some of these ‘amazing musicians to join me.’ We nearly knocked three people over in our haste to get out of our seats. After a few minutes I spotted Judith coming up a small flight of stairs. Jan bought the CD, got it signed, and spoke to her about the music and the band. I was hanging about at the top of those small stairs and was duly rewarded as 2 of my absolute musical heroes appeared.
“His long, silver beard is legendary.”
Now, it is a standing joke among musicians that God looks like Lee Sklar. His long, silver beard is legendary, James Taylor often saying that, in the old days, he swears that Lee would keep a bottle of Jack Daniels in it. In the days when they all drank, that is. I stopped the great man and asked for a photo. “Sure, be glad to,” he said, shaking my hand. Jan took the shot and I told Lee that we’d last seen him on the Toto tour, in Bristol. He nodded. “One of my best and worst nights,” he said. “Worst, because of why I was there, but best because I got to play with my friends, some of the best musicians around.” Jan then showed him her screensaver, a lovely photo of the late Mike Porcaro, on stage, with that big old bass he used to wield. “Wow,” Lee said, “you guys are true fans.” At that point, we were joined by Waddy, smaller but younger-looking than his 67 years. I gushed about Linda Ronstadt albums, Stevie Nicks tours and the late, great Warren Zevon. “Wow, you guys know your stuff. I can’t believe anyone here knows who we are.” He posed for a photo and I took one of Jan proudly beaming between the two of them. I grinned to myself. Jan and I have been together almost 20 years. When we met, she wouldn’t have known Lee Sklar from a hole in the ground. When they had walked out on stage she leaned over to me and “Feck me, it’s Lee Sklar.” My grin meant ‘my work here is done.’
The young Portuguese percussionist joined us, eager to talk about playing with the best rhythm section, ever, and he signed our CD. Lee and Waddy shook our hands warmly, had a couple of photos with the only other people who recognised them, and were gone. Jan and I hugged each other, laughing like kids. Bryan Ferry was fantastic but, as we sat in the pub afterwards, waiting for that last train, the talk was of meeting two lovely, humble, brilliant musicians, as we pinched ourselves. So, we can officially confirm it; God looks like Lee Sklar.