Carol Kaye From The Top

Cashbox July 25 Carol Kaye.png

Submitted by Don Graham

Carol Kaye, bass player, guitar player, teacher and recording session legend is not known to everyone. Fellow musicians know and admire her work, the general music loving public don’t know her but admire her work. The number of recordings she has played on is astonishing but numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s the number of monster hits she’s played on that is mind blowing.

From playing guitar on Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” to The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys.TV themes like “Mash (Suicide is Painless)", “Mission Impossible” to the infectious Bill Cosby Show theme “Kiss Me”, Carol Kaye has played on the soundtrack to a lot of our lives. Mine for sure. There’s too many to mention here so for a full list of the recordings and TV and movie themes she was part of go the and you can see how many played in the background as you lived YOUR life.

In the late fifties, Carol was playing guitar with a jazz ensemble, The Teddy Edwards Jazz Group, which also included Curtis Counce on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. It was then in a local L.A. club when a record producer approached her.  “Bumps Blackwell walked in to the Beverly Caverns and he asked me if I wanted to do a record date. I didn’t think too long before saying “sure”.  So she went to the date and it was a soul group that featured Sam Cooke. The label was owned by Bob Keene and a date on Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba”. A Bob Keene act followed. “ That is basically how I got started on the studio session dates.”

Carol Kaye circa '60'sCarol Kaye circa '60'sAmong the guitars in her arsenal Carol had been playing a Danelectro 6 string guitar, commonly known as a Dano, which was a unique guitar tuned an octave lower than a regular guitar. “It was considered a ‘bass guitar’, therefore a ‘guitar’ not a bass, and the  only instrument called that in the 1960’s Hollywood recording scene.They were really poorly made, but I customized mine with a new bridge and better strings. Glen Campbell liked it and used it for his solo on “Wichita Lineman”. Kaye went on to say “The electric bass (which I named later in 1969 with my first book” "How To Play The Electric Bass”) was always called the Fender Bass in the 1960’s. I love to play bass, because you’ve got a lot of control. It’s like the basement of a house. I always say I love it on the bottom.  Took me years to get down here.” Kaye said.

And playing studio bass started one day at a session at Capitol Records when the bass player was a no show and someone handed Carol a bass. This was the start of an illustrious career as a studio musician on the coveted first call list. “A bunch of us worked a lot together and although we were never a band we got to know each other real well and complimented each other musically. We were called upon not only to play but to create as well.  The most famous example of course is Sonny Bono in the studio with a one chord song. I heard it and thought this isn’t gonna work. So, I wasn’t playing bass, I was playing my Epiphone Emperor and the third line I came up with was the lick you all know from “The Beat Goes On”.  I played it and Sonny said “Oh !! Give that to the bass player” and that of course was the signature lick on that record, which became a huge hit. ”

Carol ended up doing most of Phil Spector’s sessions. “ I played on all of his hits, from ’60 to about ’69.” She described a Spector session like this “They were long! He would sometimes do 25 to 35 takes. He knew what he wanted and waited ‘til he got it. Phil was real good to me and I helped him make some hits.”

And the session work just kept coming. “Once we got going with this session work we were all happy. We were mostly all jazz, be-bop players and we could make more money and have a lot of fun doing session gigs. There were simple rules to the gig. First of all play your butt off and then be on time, don’t be egotistical, get a parking spot and bring a pencil.” When asked about the grind of all the hours of work Carol commented, “ It was exhausting. You got 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night or sometimes 5 minutes on the studio floor when we  took a break. But you never, ever said NO to a studio gig. You might not get called back.”

Studio Legend Carol KayeStudio Legend Carol KayeThere was work on The Monkees records and The Beach Boys. “Brian Wilson wrote the bass parts. They were simple parts and not perfectly written with stems on the wrong sides of notes and things like that. But they were good parts and I’d sometimes add a few fills just for color. And then The Beach Boys would just copy what we played on the record when they toured.”

“Basically what we did in the studio was make hits. It was a job, from 8 AM until midnight, every day. We were that good.”  When you mention a song to Carol she doesn’t always know the title but when she hears it she’ll remember playing on it. She said “Just the other day I was driving and I heard “River Deep, Mountain High” on the radio, the Ike and Tina Turner cut. And I thought man that’s a big sounding record. Almost a little too big for the vocalist. And believe me I’m a big Tina Turner fan. Just a little big and maybe not enough highs?”  So cool that all these years later Carol is still listening with an ear to making something better.

Carol played on so many of the TV and movie soundtracks we all knew and loved. The  music was a huge part of many a film and TV shows. The musicians all played with a constant click-track on in their headphones all in sync with the film. Carol says “Many a chase scene had the excitement of a Quincy Jones score with lots of bass, he always had lots of bass, or a bedroom scene with sentimental trombone solos of a great David Grusin score, soft pop-jazz or exciting music of Michel LeGrand, or the excitement of a car-truck duel in “Duel", Spielberg's 1st film, I was the "truck" sometimes, don't laugh, it paid well.”

Then there was the "Mission Impossible", “MASH”, "Airport", "Sweet Charity" & "The Thomas Crown Affair, all with their own great scores. Bill Cosby would join in on tambourine for his TV show theme song,“Kiss Me”.

I asked Carol her favorite songs that she recorded but as she said, “ The list changes all the time. Sometimes I’m driving and I hear a tune and say “ Hey I played on that! Cool tune.” But I’m very proud of “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker and Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were.”

Her ultimate rhythm section? “Tough one, there were some greats but I really enjoyed working with Earl Palmer on drums. On, guitar Billy Strange was great, and a great arranger. And Barney Kessel, an old jazz and be-bop player like me. Keys?  Mike  Melvoin. He died about 2 years ago, that was so sad. Everyone came to the funeral, he was well-loved by us all.  Fantastic No. 1 keyboardist-musician,  Jazz icon also. He played organ on Brian Wilson's Good Vibration bridge part and the organ solo on Frank Sinatra's That's Life" so many big hits. He was composer-arranger for big awards shows, president  of NARAS from the  late 1970s into 1980s. He was a wonderful man, now gone. Wendy Melvin is his daughter. She plays with Prince.”

Talking to Carol Kaye on Skype was an incredible experience. She had her guitar and bass plugged in and by her side. When she talked about a song or a lick she would play it as she explained it. Very cool and interactive. The music has kept her vibrant and young. Her passion and joy and love of music is so obvious and contagious, you have to love it.

How many folks could answer the question what did you do today? with “I recorded with Frank Sinatra or Brian Wilson , Gary Puckett, Phil Spector, Simon and Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher, Joe Cocker. Barbara Streisand, Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, O.C. Smith, Nancy Sinatra and a host of others? There are estimates that Carol Kaye did over 10, 00 recording sessions.

There are a ton of other great stories and remembrances from Carol but they will all be available in her autobiography coming out later this year.

And the beat goes on! Carol offers bass and guitar lessons via Skype and very reasonable rates.  “I love the Skype lessons. Next best thing to being right there! I don’t take beginners though. It’s more for the guys and gals that already play but want to step it up and learn some techniques.”

Carol’s hope for the future of music is simple. “I hope we get back to real music played by real people. A lot of today’s stuff I hear is one or two people playing everything. What brings life to the songs are different musicians each giving their interpretation to the music. What  the song means to them. You can’t beat that.”


Okay Carol. One more time, from the top!

For more visit