Carol Kaye was the bass player on a lot of songs you’ve heard, even if you don’t know her name. She was part of a group of about 25 or 30 studio musicians from the Los Angeles area who played on records by artists ranging from Andy Williams to Frank Zappa. They were mostly men whose services were constantly in demand in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Only after the fact were they dubbed The Wrecking Crew. Most of them you’ve never heard of, though a few became successful recording artists in their own right.
For Christmas 2017, I received a massive book, which I’ve already finished, called The Sound Explosion by Ken Sharp (2015), from which I’ll introduce you to Carol Kaye. She’d been a professional jazz guitarist from the age of 14, in 1949. She, like several others, could see that the rock and roll revolution was eating into her live gigs, but offered opportunities for studio work.
She first worked with Sam Cooke, who she had never heard of at the time. Initially, she played guitar on a number of sessions from 1957 to 1965, but by 1963, she had “tired of playing fills and rock stuff. When the bass player didn’t show up for a date, someone elected me to lay Fender bass. I liked the bass role better and everybody liked my sounds and creativity and started hiring me. By 1964, I was the number one call on electric bass.
“Most early ’60s dates had no music… Your brought your own pencil to write your own chord charts with the licks and phrases you made up on the spot so you’d remember them for the take. we were fast because we were experienced musicians with great ears we developed from years of experience…”
The most famous story I know is that she took the boring bass line for The Beat Goes On by Sonny and Cher and created the iconic hook that defines the song.
Was it tiring? “Yes, you drank a lot of coffee.” But it was good money for gigs that might be Henry Mancini in the morning, the Beach Boys in the afternoon, and Ray Charles at night. “We were not interested in becoming stars. We were part of the process… to make people into stars.
“If I had time between my 2-5 PM date and my 8-11 PM date, I’d always make it home to North Hollywood. I’d check up on my three kids,help them with their homework, and eat dinner with them and our live-in nanny/housekeeper, and maybe take a quick 15-minute nap. Then I was back to Hollywood for date number three.”
She said there was no racial prejudice among the musicians, although she and others would push reluctant record producers to hire more blacks when they knew they were right for the part.
Here’s the massive list of her credits. She played bass on 3/4s of the classic Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. Just a handful of Some of her guitar credits:
La Bamba – Ritchie Valens
Summertime – Sam Cooke
Johnny Angel – Shelley Fabares
Unchained Melody AND You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling – Righteous Brothers
The In Crowd – Dobie Gray
Surfin’ USA – the Beach Boys (electric rhythm guitar, Billy Strange on solo lead)
Here’s a 70-minute Carol Kaye: Session Legend Interview
For ABC Wednesday