The Industry

Music Legends – Carol Kaye

4th March 2019

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Carol Kaye is one of the most prolific session musicians of the last sixty years and has recorded with the likes of the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, Phil Spector, the Monkees, Sonny & Cher and Frank Zappa to name just a handful. She is estimated to have performed on no less than 10,000 studio recordings, which makes her one of the most recorded women in the history of pop and rock music.

Having originally studied guitar as a teenager, Kaye started out in the music industry as a jazz guitarist, performing on the L.A night club circuit in the mid-to-late fifties. After gaining notoriety within the scene, a chance meeting with producer Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell saw Carol being invited to record a session with Sam Cooke, where she performed the main rhythm guitar part of his cover version of the classic Gershwin’s Jazz-standard ‘Summertime’ in 1957.

Less than a year later, as Carol’s career as a session musician began to pick up, she found herself in the studio with Richie Valens, performing rhythm guitar on his classic rock ‘n’ roll hit ‘La Bamba’.

Little did Kaye know that a happy accident during a session at Capitol Records would soon change the course of her professional life forever. When the bass player for the recording failed to show up, Carol offered to take up the instrument and quickly realised she had a natural flair for it. More-over, she found it much more fun to play!

As part of the now notorious clique of session musicians known collectively as ‘The Wrecking Crew’, Carol went on to perform bass duties on iconic tracks like Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ and the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’. Around the same time, Kaye started getting involved in the developing sounds of LA’s surf rock scene, performing on recording sessions with various up and coming surf bands of the era, including the Beach Boys.

Striking up a brilliant working relationship with the Beach Boys’ leader and producer Brian Wilson, Kaye continued to work with him on many occasions, her bass lines playing a key role within the compositions. A great example of this was on the classic hit ‘Good Vibrations’, which featured an instantly recognisable bass guitar melody and a unique use of the plectrum; a technique which other bassists of the day had yet to embrace.

Carol’s work ethic has since become legendary. At the height of her career, she was one of the only female session musicians to work in a largely male-dominated field. It’s also claimed that she was averaging three-to-four recording sessions per-day whilst raising her children, single-handedly.

Towards the end of the sixties, Carol began reducing the amount of sessions she was involved in and began to focus on producing tuitional material for other bass players, including a series of instructional books and videos.

She continued to perform and record somewhat sporadically throughout the seventies, recording bass tracks on famous original theme songs for hit television shows such as M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible and Hawaii Five O.

An unfortunate car accident in 1976 was a deciding factor in Carol’s decision to semi-retire from music, the resulting injuries causing her too much pain and discomfort whilst playing her instrument. In the mid-nineties, having undergone surgery to correct these injuries, Carol returned to music, collaborating with Black Francis of Pixies fame and even working with Fender guitars to produce a lighter version of the Precision bass; which had been her main instrument throughout most of her career.

Alison Richtor, writer for Bass Guitar magazine, once called Kaye the “First Lady” of bass playing, adding “her style and influence are in your musical DNA.” And the great Quincy Jones said in his 2001 autobiography ‘Q’ that “… women like… Fender bass player Carol Kaye… could do anything and leave men in the dust.”

Now, at age 83, Carol Kaye can rest easy with a musical legacy containing some of the most influential songs and iconic recordings in popular history.