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Waddy Wachtel was about five when he saw a guy on his black and white TV, strumming ”a big old jazz guitar.”
He couldn’t get the image out of his mind, and knew he wanted one, too. But the New Yorker had no inkling that years later, his obsession would to encounters and sessions with many of rock’s top names, including Elton.
The musician shared his career highlights and future plans with EJW.
EJW: How old were you when you learned to play?
WW: I was nine years old. My teacher was Gene Dell. . . . I’m left-handed so I wanted to play that way. But he insisted I learn to play right-handed until about the age 14.
EJW: How about writing songs?
WW: I was 16 when I began writing and playing with guitarist Carl Wilkenfeld. We also performed at local clubs during high school with a band we put together.
EJW: How did you end up being called ‘Waddy’?
WW: We had like a little surfin’ band and we did songs by the Beach Boys, Beatles and others. Jerry Birnbach, a friend of Carl’s, was also in the group and constantly made mistakes. I kept yelling at him, and one day, to shut me up, he went in a whiny voice, ‘I’m sorry, Waddy.’ I said, ‘Don’t call me that,’ but after a while, I went, ‘Well, it sounds better than my own name, ‘Bob.’
EJW: One of your most famous compositions was Werewolves of London, penned with Warren Zevon and Leroy Marinell. How did you get the idea for the title and subject?
WW: After moving to L.A., one of the first gigs I got was playing for the Everly Brothers and Warren was the bandleader. So I had to audition for him. Several years later, I was asked to to play on Warren’s first album. Anyway, Warren told me that Phil Everly had given him a great title for a song, Werewolves of London. Actually, I had just returned from London . . .
EJW: See any werewolves there?
WW: No. . . . As for the song, I had another session to go to, so I just spit out that whole first verse, including the line about ‘a Chinese menu in his hand,’ and told Warren and Leroy to finish the rest.
EJW: Who was responsible for the ‘ah-roo’?
WW: I was.
EJW: When Elton first met you, it turned out he was a fan of yours. What did he say about your work?
WW: I’d gone to Dick Clark‘s party after the American Music Awards and saw him there. I thought, ‘Wow, I have to say hello,’ and was surprised when Elton told me Bryan Ferry‘s The Bride Stripped Bare, which I produced, was one of his favourite albums.
EJW: Have you and Elton done any recordings together?
WW: I played on I Swear I Heard The Night Talking, produced by Don Was, and we both contributed to the Leonard Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song.
EJW: Have you seen the piano player in concert?
WW: Yes, and the first time he was opening for Leon Russell in the Seventies at the Long Beach Arena. I was a huge fan of Leon’s, yet ended up more impressed by Elton. It sounded like a thousand people up there and I kept looking around for an orchestra. It was only Nigel, Dee and Elton then, but it was incredible. Years later, Stevie Nicks came with me to the Red Piano in Las Vegas. I couldn’t believe that she had never seen him in concert before, and we went backstage afterwards to talk with him.
EJW: Didn’t you and Stevie appear at the EJAF‘s Enduring Vision benefit last year?
WW: Yes, I’ve been Stevie’s musical director since Bella Donna, so we were both there. I noticed Elton shook every band member’s hand, and it was a beautiful evening.
EJW: You’ve scored music for quite a few films, and pretty soon, it’s you who will be the focus in a new documentary. Who participated in King of The Sidemen?
WW: There are still a few scenes to shoot, but Keith Richards (I was in his X-Pensive Winos band) was interviewed. So were Mick Fleetwood, George Thorogood, Joe Walsh and Jackson Browne.
EJW: You have a group of your own, now celebrating 13 years. Any plans to record or go on the road?
WW: No, we generally record with other performers. But we’ll continue our regular jam sessions (where people like Keith Richards and Robert Plant have shown up) in L.A. at The Joint. The next one is set for August 24.

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