A girl's best friend is her guitar
You’ve definitely heard her play guitar and bass. Statistically, you’re likely to own albums she played on. Your parents almost certainly did. According to her, she is responsible for many of the famous Motown bass lines usually attributed to James Jamerson, including “Bernadette,” “Reach Out,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “I Was Made to Love Her.” She influenced The Beatles’ musical direction from Revolver onward. And it’s quite probable that you’ve never even heard her name.
Carol Kaye was one of the most prolific session musicians in American music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the male-dominated world of Los Angeles session players (whose early British counterparts like Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins were sneered at in The Kinks’ song “Session Man”), Kaye was a rarity and a powerhouse. She began playing music professionally at 14 in 1949, playing guitar in big bands and bebop jazz groups, playing in clubs and giving lessons around Los Angeles. Her first recording sessions, beginning in 1957, were on guitar for Sam Cooke, Richie Valens, and the Righteous Brothers. From 1964-1973 she primarily played bass and appeared on over 10,000 recordings of pop songs, jazz standards, television show themes, and movie scores. She was one of the few female members of “The Wrecking Crew,” the name given by drummer Hal Blaine to the mostly anonymous first-call L.A. session players in the ‘60s.
Some of the best known songs featuring Carol Kaye’s work are Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (on guitar), Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” Lalo Shifrin’s themes to Mission: Impossible and Mannix, The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Lettermen’s “Going Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” “Sloop John B,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Heroes and Villains.” She also played on Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out and Absolutely Free albums. All this while raising a family as a divorced single mother and supporting her own mother.
Carol Kaye was confident, reliable, and able to keep up a rough studio schedule that sometimes stretched into 12-hour days. She was also very opinionated and known for refusing to take any shit from her male (or rare female) colleagues. When session guitarist Tommy Tedesco once insulted her in the studio, she verbally ripped him a new orifice.
Note Carol Kaye in background during this mid-Sixties Beach Boys session
Even today, there are those who refuse to believe some of Carol’s assertions, such as her claim to have played on various songs, including Motown songs credited to James Jamerson and Beach Boys songs where a different bassist’s work may have been used on the final version. Detractors claim that she is either a bitter, jealous liar with a sinister agenda or a senile old lady with a failing memory. Her impressive archives contain evidence for most (though not all) of her claims. Human memory, of course, is not infallible.
David Hajdu wrote of Kaye in The New Republic:
“Smile was originally conceived as an extension of the experimentation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the album that Paul McCartney acknowledges as having transformed his approach to the bass, in addition to prodding The Beatles to employ the studio more adventurously. McCartney has repeatedly cited Wilson’s bass playing in the era of Pet Sounds and Smile as the inspiration for the lyrical, contrapuntal bass style that he developed around the time of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The problem is, the bass player on nearly all of both Pet Sounds and Smile was not Brian Wilson. It was a jazz musician and studio pro in Los Angeles named Carol Kaye.”
And so Paul McCartney once said of Carol Kaye’s bass technique (without, apparently, knowing that it was her talent and her interpretation of Wilson’s compositions he was admiring):
“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life ... I figure no one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century ... but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines ... and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. ‘God Only Knows’ is a big favorite of mine ... very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On ‘You Still Believe in Me,’ I love that melody - that kills me ... that’s my favorite, I think ... it’s so beautiful right at the end ... comes surging back in these multi-colored harmonies ... sends shivers up my spine.”
Outside of her years in the studio Carol worked as a music teacher, including a seven-year stint as on-staff Bass and Jazz Educator at the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA and teaching courses at other universities as well. She’s written over thirty bass education books (Sting told talk show host Arsenio Hall that he had learned how to play bass from one of her books), made instructional DVDs, wrote a column for Bassics magazine and given hundreds of bass seminars. Carol continues to teach and offers bass lessons via Skype.
Carol Kaye on being a female session player
Interview with Kaye about recording ‘Smile,’ with demonstrations on bass
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Listen to the Psychedelic Folk Music of The Deep Six: The whole album from 1966