The number, and breadth of the songs and hits that session bassist Carol Kaye worked on is almost inconceivable. Kaye was at the center of both the pop and movie soundtrack world of Los Angeles for more than a decade; yet she’s still virtually unknown.
Even though you probably haven’t heard her name before, there’s a very good chance you have heard the work of veteran bassist and guitarist Carol Kaye. In the 1960s, this studio musician performed on numerous recordings, including many famous pop hits: the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; the Righteous Brothers’ “You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and “Soul and Inspiration”; Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and “I Got You Babe”; Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright”; and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon and Garfunkel. In addition, Kaye has also performed music for TV and film, including the theme for Mission Impossible.
Kaye performed on so many recordings and worked with great producers such as Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector. She was the only female instrumentalist in the studio working with a legendary group of top-notch L.A. session musicians that included drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, and guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Barney Kessel.
“It wasn’t that [I was a woman] that made me want to play,” Kaye says in a phone interview. “I had to play because I was a poor kid that stuttered. As soon I could start playing music, I could put food on the table. I found something that I was really great at.”
Born in 1935, Kaye grew up in a poor household in Wilmington, California and worked to help out her mother. Her introduction to the guitar began at the age of 13, when her mother saved some money for lessons. “A friend of mine was taking guitar lessons from a man named Horace Hatchett in Long Beach,” she recalls, “so I went along with my friend. I brought my steel guitar and he said ‘Play it for me.’ He must have seen something because he said, ‘I’ll give you lessons for free if you come work for me.'”
A few months later she was a professional jazz guitarist by the age of 14. She did the jazz club circuit and then in 1957 met Bumps Blackwell, who was the manager of Little Richard and producer for Sam Cooke. This led to some early studio gigs with Cooke and Ritchie Valens, particularly on the latter’s “La Bamba.” Kaye saw security in studio work because it paid well enough for her to support her mom and her own two kids.
“I was working a day job in the daytime and playing every night too,” she says. “And so I went into studio work and I did five years on guitar. Then the bass player didn’t show up [for a session] and I thought I would have a lot more fun playing bass than guitar.”
Playing bass gave Kaye the ability to invent and play her own lines, and she became the number one bassist for session work by 1964. “At first I didn’t want to do studio work,” she says, because I knew that you get in there, you get locked in there [and] you can never get out. But the jazz clubs started to get shut down and reopened as rock clubs, so the handwriting was on the wall.”
Kaye was involved in many of the greatest pop songs of all time via the producers behind them. One of those was Phil Spector, who produced the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers. “Phil was a bit odd at times,” she remembers. “Sometimes it got a little rough. He picked on me one time: ‘Okay, you got the part down Carol?’ ‘F— off Phil!’ I don’t know why I did that. He was a genius.”
She also played bass on the Beach Boys’ single “Good Vibrations, ”and the group’s classic 1966 album Pet Sounds. “When I first met [Brian Wilson],” she says, “it was just simple rock and roll, and he got better. I think we trained him accidentally and he knew that we liked him because he had a lot of talent and he was nice to work for, although it got boring to work on one tune for three hours.”
A favorite session of hers was recording on Barbara Streisand’s 1973 song “The Way We Were.” Initially Kaye was told not to invent her own bass lines, as the long session ran for 33 takes. “If we keep going like this, I’ll never make my film call in the morning,” Kaye remembers. “So I started inventing the note. The whole band just started grooving and that’s the take that you hear. Unfortunately I was never called by that guy again, which is kind of funny because he got a big hit out of it.”
For a session Kaye and her colleagues worked long in the studio. “We didn’t sleep past five or six hours a night,” she says, “and that’s why we sat and drank coffee all the time. Guys had to crack jokes to keep from killing each other because you were so tired from the lack of sleep and then playing the same old rock and roll sometimes.”
There was a camaraderie between Kaye and the instrumentalists. “We were all pulling together with the feeling of ‘We better make this a hit so we can keep working next year.’ The guys didn’t think of me as a woman at all. I was just one of the guys, which is fine.”
Kaye took time off in 1969 and wrote a book on playing bass; a year later she returned back to the studio but wouldn’t do any more rock and roll dates. These days she focuses her energies as a music instructor and takes part in seminars. On a few occasions she’ll still do some session work. Currently Kaye is penning a book about her work, which is gaining a new appreciation. She would like the public to know that there were other people behind those hit records too.
“The only thing we cared about was getting the check,” she says. “Back in those days, the musicians were not recognized. Who would have thought that record companies would have put our names anyway—a bunch of white people and black people working together with one blonde chick on bass at a time when they had race riots.”
She continues: “A lot of our group has died without being recognized by the public. It’s not that we want the recognition but let’s get the truth out. I think the kids ought to know about us. I think it’s important they know the truth in back of those hit records, and what it took.”
Kaye is modest, however, about being regarded as a pioneer for women musicians in contemporary pop. “I don’t put myself to be the leading in that field,” she says. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It’s good that they know that I did that. That’s what you do when you’re older—you pass along what you learned. It’s a joy to show people the stuff.”
Watch a segment from a documentary made for YLE Finland about Kaye: