The rock star is perhaps the most alluring figure in our pop culture. A strutting embodiment of passionate emotion, each is nonetheless completely reliant on a critical sidekick, the musical soloist upon whom they rely to elevate and complete every song. Few fulfill the role with as much sustained mastery as Waddy Wachtel, the guitarist at the center of so many major rock 'n' roll constellations — with Rolling Stone Keith Richards, Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, the late Warren Zevon — that he ranks as a sideman without peer.
Wachtel, who appears Saturday, March 5, at Pickwick Gardens, has been featured on so many hit records that he makes it seem almost effortless, but it's a responsibility he takes very seriously.
"It is quite a feat to write a great song and it is quite a feat to make a great record of it," Wachtel said. "For me it's all about counterpoint, providing something to catch your ear within this song, between where the great singing leaves off. So, my thing is honoring songs. It's always all about the song."
The 69-year-old musician's vast list of credits spans rock, pop and country, and he is constantly expanding it, working regularly as one of the most in-demand studio players in the business.
"I am still definitely playing sessions all the time," he said. "I just did a great rock 'n' roll tune with Sheryl Crow. Next week I'm recording with LeAnn Rimes. There's always lots to do. The sessions are very important."
The Wachtel saga is a colorful and apparently fated one, which he recounts in a swift, loping style. "I grew up in Jackson Heights, New York, started playing guitar when I was about nine, moved to L.A. at 20 in '68," Wachtel said. "I came out here with a band, and, right off, I met David Crosby, who let me know that I 'was the only guy in the band.' I said 'Oh no, don't tell me that.' The band was pretty good, great singers, but it was going nowhere, mostly due to lousy management. So I disbanded it and by 1970 I had my first gig, with the Everly Brothers.
"I started meeting all these session players and I thought 'Hey, I'm as good as these guys.' Well, not all of them, because some of these session guys were just amazing musicians, but I thought 'I can do that.' And I met Nick Venet, who had produced the first albums by the Beach Boys and Linda Ronstadt and he liked me a lot, so I started getting more studio jobs. Then I met [famed producer] David Foster, and he also liked what I was doing and he introduced me to [manager-record executive] Lou Adler, and we were just working like crazy from then on."
"I have been very lucky. It's been an incredible ride, Los Angeles was just such an open, creative place then, it was an amazing time to be here. I was playing with Linda Ronstadt and then James Taylor, I met Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, played on their album around 1980 and we've been together ever since. And that's when I met Keith Richards, and we immediately hit it off. The next thing I know I get this message: 'Call Keith. He's looking for you,' and so I get him on the phone and he said 'I'm putting a band together and you are in it.' Well, what can you say but 'OK!' And that was the X-pensive Winos."
Always more often in the studio than out on the road, Wachtel eventually developed an enduringly popular club gig, his famed Big Monday at Los Angeles club the Joint. "About 15 ago, [singer-songwriter] Jack Tempchin decided he wanted to start playing live, so we put together a band, Terry Reid was in it, Bernard Fowler, Blondie Chaplin, Rick Rosas and we were playing every week, and we found that whenever we did a rock tune the audience reaction was incredible. They went wild. So we gradually stopped playing so many originals and we turned into the best rock cover band in the world. We were there for years, and so many great guests would come in. We had everybody: Robert Plant, Keith Richards, Bobby Womack, Neil Young — he got up one night and did 45 minutes with us."
The club eventually closed and Big Mondays evaporated, but now Wachtel intends resurrect the night.
"So now, at Pickwick, we want to keep it going, and whenever everybody's in town, they will come down and we'll do it," Wachtel said. "Unfortunately, Rick is no longer with us, and Bernard is out with the Stones but Blondie Chaplin will be at this Pickwick show. It's an amazing lineup of great musicians: Phil Jones, Jamie Savko, Keith Allison, Brett Tuggle, Al Ortiz, Danny Kortchmar. It's always an overpoweringly rock 'n' roll event — we do 'em strong and true. It's a lot of fun and a lot of work. People always say 'Oh, you do such great jams' and I tell 'em this is no jam. We work very hard to sound this loose!"
"There's no retiring in this business, you just keep going. I mean, the Stones all thought that band would only last four or five years. Nobody thought rock 'n' roll would last. If you can still play, you play. I'm too old to be doing this, but I still do it. Ferociously."
What: Waddy Wachtel Band
Where: Pickwick Gardens' Pavilion Room, 1001 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank
When: Saturday, March 5, 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Cost: $17 to $28.
More info: (818) 848-8810, waddywachtelinfo.com/WaddyWachtelBand.html
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."