Whatever your preferred instrument or genre, Carol Kaye is part of your history. You’ve heard her playing on your favourite classic songs, on the radio, on television, even on your parents’ records. Her style and influence are in your musical DNA, through the countless albums, hit singles, television theme songs, and movie soundtracks that feature her iconic guitar and bass-lines.
That’s her work on the Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds album, on records by Ray Charles, Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra, the themes from Mission: Impossible and M*A*S*H, scores for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair – and those aren’t even a fraction of her sprawling discography. As one of the A-list session players in Los Angeles, she worked with top producers and arrangers, working with the likes of Michel Legrand, Lou Adler and Phil Spector. Quincy Jones, whom she describes as “a genius”, wouldn’t book a film session without her. “You not only play well,” she remembers him telling her, “but the sound you get on that bass is one that nobody else can get.”
British readers may well have heard much of Carol Kaye’s amazing tale in the BBC Radio 2 documentary The Carol Kaye Story, broadcast in June and presented by veteran DJ Johnnie Walker. Born in 1935 in Everett, Washington, to musician parents, Carol began playing guitar at 13, gigging at 14, and was on the road with a big band at 18. “My husband was the bass player and I was the guitar player,” she says. “We travelled and played in the nicest places throughout the country. I was young, but back then, at 18, you grew up fast. When you were born in the Depression years, there were no entitlements. If you wanted to eat, you got out and worked, and that’s what I did.”
Kaye began working at age 9 to support her mother; at 15, prior to going on the road, she was a working musician, playing jazz and bebop guitar in Los Angeles clubs, and also worked as a technical typist. “I was cleared for top secret because I was typing manuals for the missiles they were building back then,” she says. “I had a family to support, and while I worked with the finest musicians and earned just about as much as they did, it wasn’t enough to raise a family, so I had to get day jobs.” She raised three children — two from her first marriage and one from her second marriage — and supported a household of six, including her mother and a live-in housekeeper/nanny, while doing studio work.
Her illustrious career as a studio musician began in 1957 at the offer of producer Bumps Blackwell, and it was a life-changing move. Her first session was with Sam Cooke. Kaye’s musical chops, as well as her ability to play well with others – both literally and figuratively – opened the door to steady recording dates and her ascent to being a first-call session player, award-winning musician, educator, and respected author of instructional books, beginning with 1969’s self-published How To Play The Electric Bass.
Kaye’s transition to playing bass happened in 1963, when she filled in for a musician who didn’t show up for a session. The Fender Precision, she once said in retrospect, “was not a great instrument, but it got a certain sound that no other instruments got.” That certain sound, she says, came from using flatwound strings, playing with a pick, and sometimes raising the strings or muting. “It wasn’t a jazz instrument, but it was exceptional for that day and time,” she says. “It got a great sound in the studio for rock’n’roll and pop music. I knew that eventually other instrument companies would make a better bass. For me, it was like a board with strings. But back then there weren’t choices like there are now. Back in the late 1950s, I had a great jazz bass and an acoustic guitar that I used for playing jazz. The Fender instruments came on strong with a nice, clean sound to record in the studio. It was a hot sound; they had great pickups.”
Today, her instrument of choice is the Ibanez SRX700 with Thomastik-Infeld strings. “I switched in 2001 because the Ibanez gave me the jazz sound that I wanted,” she says. “If I went in to do a rock date right now, I could get the same sound that I got in the 1960s on this bass. You want an instrument that gets all the sounds, not just rock and pop. As a studio musician, you don’t collect instruments. I have one bass and one spare. I may have had three or four at the same time. You’re a musician, and your instruments are your tools.”
The art of making hit records and creating lines was fun, she says, and it was indeed an art, “something not everyone knows how to do.” But the days and nights were long, 12 to 15 hours a day, three or four records a day, thousands of records and thousands of songs. “The money was great,” she says, “but it was a lot of work. We stayed awake by drinking coffee, and the guys would smoke. I pushed myself. I worked too hard. But I had three kids. I had someone to take care of them, which was a blessing. I paid her well and she lived in our house. Your days as a studio musician are numbered and we knew that some day it would all stop, so you take everything. You can’t afford to say no. But you also can’t afford to lose sleep and slave like that and drink so much coffee just to stay awake and stay alert. You eventually burn out. It got to a point, at the end of the ‘60s, where you saw people on drugs in the streets in Hollywood and it wasn’t safe to go to the studios. And the music got boring. So I quit because I was tired.”
She stepped away from full-time session work, committing herself to select recording and touring projects until a car accident in the late 1970s put her career on hold. She had surgery in 1994, which allowed her to pick up her instrument again and resume recording, performing and teaching. Her position as a stateswoman in the music industry, and a career spanning some five decades, gives her a unique perspective about the origins and development of popular music.
“When I grew up in the late ‘30s and the ‘40s, it seemed like music was necessary to express yourself,” she says. “In the war years, they used to say, ‘Loose lips sink ships’. People did not talk. They worked in the aircraft factories and in the shipyards, things like that. They couldn’t talk about it, but they could go out and dance and sing songs. Music was a way of life for everybody, and has been since the Depression.
As tastes changed, so did music, with each generation wanting something other than what their parents listened to. By the time Carol was ready to step back from the gruelling studio hours, rock’n’roll was in full force. “The singers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were great,” she says. “They could sing in tune. Onward into the ‘60s, it started sounding like cardboard to me. Some of the music from the rock groups was not really that good.” Still, much of it stands the test of time, as the music from previous decades finds a new, young audience. “I think that every generation romanticises the past,” she says, “but the music has gone downhill so badly these days that more and more they’re digging into the past because that music sounded real good compared to what’s going on today. We were a bunch of experienced jazz musicians who cared about the music. We took pride in creating good product. We did not think that that music would last more than 20 years, but that’s what happened, especially as music has gotten worse and worse.”
Early on in her teaching career, she gave private lessons and worked with beginners. She now works exclusively with professional musicians, students who “don’t need a lot of lessons to get going”. Decades later, however, her instruction methods have not changed. “I teach the way people taught music in the 50s: chordally,” she says. “Everybody who taught music then had to get people out to play standards and jazz, because that was the music that everybody played. It wasn’t simple rock‘n’roll back then. But it’s not hard to teach, and it’s fun to show people how to do it in three or four months. You don’t have to go to school for four or five years to learn how to play music. I teach on Skype worldwide and it’s fun to show them how to really play, how to comp, how to solo, how to do all that. There’s a joke that people love to sleep during the bass solo. Well, they won’t sleep during the stuff I teach.”
While Carol’s educational techniques and methodology remain tried and true, what’s different is the way in which information is absorbed and processed by students. “I do see changes in the way their brains work today because of social media,” she says. “You have to teach from a different angle to get through to the inner self that you need to reach in order to teach them the feeling and how music works. Music doesn’t work with words. It works with sound. And sound comes from the right brain, not the left brain, so I notice the difference in the teaching I have to do. Back in the 1950s, students didn’t need to know why they had to learn things. They came in for a lesson, I saw what they needed, I gave it to them, and within three or four months they were out there playing gigs. Today, a lot of time is spent explaining why they need to practise this, and why they need to learn this, because they don’t understand. If they don’t know why it’s important, then they won’t practise. But the students I have practise, and they have to practise more than an hour a day to learn anything great, too.”
Social media has not only made it possible for her to teach students in other countries; it allows her to communicate with fans via email and a forum page on her website. Kaye responds to queries and even handles her own PR. Interview requests go directly to her inbox and she responds – no manager, no publicist. “I take care of my own thing. I can’t trust anybody else. Are you kidding?” she laughs. Still, given the scope of her fanbase and the legacy…
“None of us have ever been stars,” she says of the studio musicians with whom she worked for so many years. “I don’t think about that. You go in, you cut the record, and you go out the door on to the next record. My book has educated a lot of bass players who turned out to be fine teachers themselves and are still playing, people like John Clayton, and that’s good, because I’m interested in spreading the music. I’m not interested in personal fame. I make fun of that. I think it’s crazy to think about stardom and fame. We were part of the process that turned people into stars, and at the time we all said, ‘I don’t want to be a star’. We saw what that process was like and all the stuff you’ve got to go through. A star can be taken down real quick, too. If the public doesn’t like you, you’re gone. But when a musician plays his instrument, he’s in it for life. George Benson said it best when he sang, ‘I can play this here guitar.’ He’s right. You’re a musician, and nobody can take that away from you.”