Carol Kaye started as a jazz solo guitarist, working the club scene of 1950s LA, when she was asked to work on some studio tracks for Sam Cooke. Though she loved the bebop jazz scene, Carol was a single mother with three kids and so to the studios she went, eventually switching to bass. She ultimately changed the very sound and role of that instrument in pop music as a member of what drummer Hal Blaine dubbed The Wrecking Crew (but which Carol has called The Clique). By any name, these were the session musicians who shaped some of the biggest hits of the 1960s, after which she went back to playing live gigs and working in movies and television, writing and teaching, which she is still doing in her 80s. Michael Shelley talks with the amazing Carol Kaye for PKM.
Carol Kaye’s beginnings were modest. Her parents were both musicians. She describes her father as “a rogue” and her mother was “like the Church Lady.”
“When they didn’t fight, they sat down and played music,” she said.
Young Carol picked up that music bug quickly. After her parents divorced, money was tight and at age fourteen she went to work, eventually in Los Angeles’ nightclubs, playing jazz guitar. At the same time, the music business, once centered on New York, started transitioning west. Eventually she was plucked from a nightclub gig and started working her way up the ranks of L.A. session guitarists. Then fate intervened when she was moved to the bass to sub for a no-show bass player. Kaye immediately found a natural connection with the instrument and quickly became the first-call bassist in a studio scene that was growing exponentially.
Eventually, she became a member of a solidifying group of musicians who became known for their ability to work efficiently and make everything they touched sound good. The more hits they had, the more in demand they became, and as the youth culture explosion of the mid to late ‘60s took hold, this prolific group of musicians produced a body of work with a size and reach never before imagined, and never again equaled.
I wasn’t planning to do studio work, I was getting well known as a jazz guitar solo player and I did not want to do studio work because the ones who went into studio work never came back to take their place in jazz again.
PKM: Let’s start in the middle. Tell me a bit about the busiest time of your career. What would a typical busy day look like for you?
Carol Kaye: It was ‘65, ‘66, ‘67, ‘68. I look at my logs and I think “How did I do that?” You just kept going and going, but I’m not alone, everybody did it. There were about 300 people and we all worked with each other, even the string players. Sometimes they’d keep the string players waiting in another room so that when we were done with the tracking, they would bring them in next. So it was a business, it was a solid business and we kind of liked it that way. It ran like a clock but, boy, it was busy.
PKM: So how many sessions would you work in a day?
Carol Kaye: Two to four a day. Two is only about six hours, and that’s plenty right there, but sometimes they ran overtime, and you worked very hard. It was intense work because you’re working song by song, we’re talking about three to five songs for a three-hour date. And sometimes you’d have to make up your own parts, which is easier for jazz players, because you do that every night of the week. At first the parts weren’t written, just chord charts, maybe, and in ‘63 or ‘64 the arrangers started coming in and it saved a lot of time. They brought in chord charts, and an idea of a line maybe, but it’s kind of funny because the arrangers would be there with the chord charts, but by that time we all knew what we were doing, so we’d invent the lines and sometimes you’d see the arrangers quickly write down what line we were making up. So that was funny.
PKM: Just to make it clear, session musicians would walk into a studio and record songs they had never heard before.
Carol Kaye: Never heard in my life and never would hear again, because you don’t play what you work on, you have to keep your mind fresh to keep inventing new things. The majority of us were from big bands and the jazz world, so we had the wherewithal to know what to do, to invent and back up the singer, and make them sound good too. A lot of time the singers weren’t that great, but we’d support them and put the foundation down, and that made them want to sing and made them sing better. When Cher first sang, she wasn’t that good, of course Sonny couldn’t sing it all, but he knew it and he’d kid himself about it all the time. You didn’t need a great voice in rock and pop, but you needed that framework around you to make it all sound good and that’s where we all fit in. Some of the jazz players couldn’t bend down that far in their music to do it, but the money was great. If you had kids, you worked in studios.
PKM: So what percent of sessions had a singer singing live while you were playing?
Carol Kaye: Here’s the deal, the union rules for tracking, meaning a date with just the musicians and no singer, tracking dates paid twice as much, so what the record companies did is, they would have a singer singing, they’d pretend to add their voice when we were recording, but of course they would take their voice off and add a great vocal later, taking their time. So they got around it. Most of the time the singer was there, but not really putting their voice on.
PKM: Was it a custom for the studio musicians to hear a playback after a take?
Carol Kaye: Oh yes! You always listened to the playback to make sure that your part was in sync and that you sounded good and that you were in tune and all that jazz. The whole band would listen to see if there was anything they needed to do a little bit better for another take. It was a business and you made sure that the music came out good. It wasn’t a personal thing, you weren’t there to show off a lick or anything, you were there to make the whole thing sound good. It was your job to make sure that what you played was the right thing for the benefit of the whole record.
When Cher first sang, she wasn’t that good, of course Sonny couldn’t sing it all, but he knew it and he’d kid himself about it all the time. You didn’t need a great voice in rock and pop, but you needed that framework around you to make it all sound good and that’s where we all fit in.
PKM: You started your music career playing in clubs. How did you adjust to studio work?
Carol Kaye: I never really wanted to record. I was quite happy playing bebop guitar in the fine jazz clubs of the ‘50s. Back then Los Angeles was thriving and had the aerospace industry where World War II vets worked, white and black together, and everybody had money and they’d go out to the jazz clubs dressed in suits and ties to hear bebop jazz. These were beautiful clubs and they were all over Los Angeles, so you had a lot of work. It didn’t pay well, but it was sure fun. Then I went to work in the studios on guitar, just playing little fill parts on Sam Cooke dates and Ritchie Valens and all those people, and it was easy work and it was kind of fun. And it was an interesting time because the technical end was growing like crazy.
PKM: The fact that you started on guitar is interesting because you’re so well known, and so strongly identified with the bass. Tell me about those early guitar sessions. I just listened to “La Bamba” and it sounds amazing, that’s you on guitar, right?
Carol Kaye: I’m playing electric guitar rhythm. The guy who’s doing the riff (Carol hums the famous “La Bamba” riff) is René Hall on the Dano (baritone guitar). Hall used to play guitar with Sam Cooke and he and producer Bumps Blackwell had a falling-out and that’s when Bumps Blackwell went around to the jazz clubs looking for a guitar player. He walked into The Beverly Caverns, where I was playing bebop guitar with Teddy Edwards, and he asked me to do a Sam Cooke record date. I didn’t know who Sam Cooke was, because I was strictly jazz. So I went to the record date and it was fun. He asked me to come up with some feels, and about the second or third thing I came up with he liked. As far as playing in the studio goes, it’s a craft that you learn. The first date I didn’t know what I was doing, by the second and third dates you kind of get a feel for it. And the feels that I came up with accidentally, they seem to like, so then it was money. Later, I married a second time and had another child, but that marriage didn’t last long, so I wound up with three children, a mother and I had to hire a live-in to come help me with the kids so I had six people I had to pay for… so yeah I’m going to work day and night to support the whole family and that happened to work out with the studio work.
PKM: Was it tough to leave the jazz world?
Carol Kaye: You have to understand, when I went into the studios, I went there to make some extra bucks. I wasn’t planning to do studio work, I was getting well known as a jazz guitar solo player and I did not want to do studio work because the ones who went into studio work never came back to take their place in jazz again. But in 1957, the year I started studio work, some of the hundred or so jazz clubs started to close down, and some of them reopened as rock clubs, so we saw the writing on the wall. The business was changing fast and I had little kids and my mother to take care of, and I didn’t get any child support, so I figured if I make the money in the studios, I won’t have to work days. Back then to support a family on jazz the wife had to work, but I wasn’t married, so I had to have a day job as well as play my night gigs.
So I thought if I do the studio work I can quit my day job, so that’s what happened. I was making a good living after about three years. I wasn’t the top dog on guitar, I was about fourth call and I was playing twelve-string guitar and Dano. But as soon as I got on bass, accidentally, when the bass player didn’t show up, after five years of studio work on guitar, I thought “This is a lot more fun than playing rock and roll on guitar.” I really felt the power and I could invent really some great lines on bass because they were just doing boom-dee-boom stuff on bass, and I was hearing (Carol hums a groovy melodic, syncopated bass line) and nobody was playing what I was hearing in my head, and I just knew this was the instrument for me. Within a year or so I was first call on bass and I never saw so much money in my life. It was wild.
PKM: I just think you changed the role of the bass player on pop records.
Carol Kaye: Isn’t that something, and it was all by accident. I never thought in my life I would play bass. My goodness, I was a guitar player!
PKM: Do you remember what the pay was when you started?
Carol Kaye: The pay in the late ‘50s at a jazz gig was about thirty-five bucks maximum, sometimes you might even get fifteen or twenty five, but as soon as I did that first Sam Cooke date, for three hours work I got forty-two dollars and I said “Oh boy!” And you weren’t fighting off the drunks and the stuff in nightclubs. Sometimes the band in nightclubs was doing drugs in the back room, which is okay, I’m not a judgmental person, I stick with my orange juice out front and chat with the people a little bit, but the pay was a lot more and as soon as we started cutting some hit records it went up to sixty-three dollars, then a hundred-and-four, and pretty soon we were making as much as a doctor, but we had to work night and day for it. Where else could a musician work and get that much money?
PKM: Some of the studios were pretty small. I assume everyone had to get along with each other. Were there players who did not make it because they could play but they couldn’t get along?
Carol Kaye: It was usually the ones who couldn’t play who didn’t make it. Sometimes the rockers would come in, but we’d give everybody a chance and we’d encourage everybody. We all got along well because you had to, to make money, to make music, to have a hit record. Where else could you get paid so much money for music? So everybody got along because the system kind of dictated that.
PKM: I would guess on 99.5 per-cent of the sessions you were at the only female in the room.
Carol Kaye: People say “Oh you must have had a lot of stuff thrown your way because of you being the only woman,” and I say “No, it was great.” Later on, a couple of guys started to get on my nerves, and I’d have to cuss back at them or something like that. You stop it immediately. If there was anything going on, I just stopped it. But we all liked each other, and we cared about each other. It was the first time in history where musicians were making a great living and we all appreciated the money and the fact it didn’t take much out of us.
PKM: How did you get through the long days?
Carol Kaye: We just kept going on coffee. A lot of people don’t know that, they associate the musician with drugs, but you never saw drugs in the studios of the ‘60s, never. It was always coffee. Everybody drank coffee to stay awake because it got boring at times, waiting for the engineer and the people in the booth to decide what to do, and you can’t let yourself get cooled off, you’ve got to be really hot, so that when you make a performance for the record, it’s hot. So you have to stay alert.
As soon as I got on bass, accidentally, .. I thought “This is a lot more fun than playing rock and roll on guitar.” I really felt the power and I could invent really some great lines on bass because they were just doing boom-dee-boom stuff on bass, ….. and nobody was playing what I was hearing in my head, and I just knew this was the instrument for me.
PKM: How important was the union to the system of session players?
Carol Kaye: The Musicians Union does not help get you work, but they take care of your pension, your royalties, and you get a little bit of pay later when they reuse it for the movies, and they dictated the rules of the three hour dates. You had to have a break every hour to go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee. And the person who was late to the date was liable to pay for any overtime, so nobody was late. Because you’re talking about thousands of dollars. We obeyed the rules.
PKM: When you would walk into the studio for a session, for example “Wichita Lineman,” how would the song be presented to you? Would the producer or the composer run down the song on a piano or guitar, or would they just set the charts in front of you?
Carol Kaye: Most of the time they’d play a demo to you or they would have the singer sing a little bit of it while playing piano or something. With “Wichita Lineman,” we kind of knew this was going to be a special date because Glen himself was there and of course the writer, Jimmy Webb, was there, and he plays piano on that date by the way. It was a beautiful song, you could tell right away. Jim Gordon is on drums, a very fine drummer, a very good groove drummer, and it just kind of clicked together, and the way Glen sang it was gorgeous. So it was just one of those dates when you know almost immediately that this thing is going to be a hit, you could just feel that.
So you get the idea a little bit at first from a demo or somebody singing it, but you’re hired to do your own thing to the tune and put the framework around it to make it into a hit record. For many of them it was fun, but most of the time you were getting more bored by the year because it was but we called “ditch digger dates.” (Carol hums a simple repetitive riff) It was pure energy, that’s all. It was simple stuff, but after a while you get tired of all that, so the good songs made a difference. “Feelin’ Alright” is another one that I liked. We all just had a good feeling and Joe Cocker, the singer, was there and he was a great guy, we instantly liked him, and he sang like Ray Charles, so you couldn’t miss.
PKM: When producers, like Brian Wilson with “Good Vibrations,” would do a single song in parts over many sessions was that frustrating or fun for you?
Carol Kaye: You know Brian was a nice young kid. We worked for a lot of those young guys back then and Brian had something special about him, and he grew with every date. You saw his talent getting better and better and better. He’d only do one song for a three-hour date and that does get boring after a while, but he would come in and he’d give you this handwritten, kind of funny sheet music with stems on the wrong side of the notes and sharps and flats everywhere. He would sit down at the piano and play the song, to kind of give us a feel for it, and then he’d go in the booth and take charge from there. I never knew he played bass until a lot later because he never told me he played bass, I thought he was a piano player. But he wrote the bass parts out because he had certain parts that he wanted to jibe together and he heard these sounds. I think it was because of his fascination with The Four Freshmen. Brian heard music in a different way. He was a nice young man who had a sense of humor and everything he touched was a hit. And the Beach Boys were never there. They’d come in and say hello for five minutes and then walk back out, but Brian was in charge of it all, so he was a sharp young guy.
PKM: So the job as you’re describing it was to make the song happen whether it was inventing your part or cold reading notes or somewhere in between, and bass is interesting because some non-musicians don’t even know the bass does, they can’t even identify it, but it can really affect a song.
Carol Kaye: The bass is the foundation, and with the drummer you create the beat. Whatever you play puts a framework around the rest of the music, and Brian Wilson was bass conscious. Sometimes he’d have a string bass playing along with me, mixed so that you never heard it too much, but you felt it there. Another date with the string bass was “Boots” by Nancy Sinatra. That was kind of a throwaway tune, the last tune of the three-hour date. Lee Hazlewood in the booth said to Chuck Berghofer, the string bass player, to play a line like (Carol hums a slow descending bass line), so that’s what Chuck did. Lee stopped him and said “No, no. Make them closer together.” So that’s what you hear when you hear that bass go (Carole hums the famous bass intro to “These Boots Were Made For Walking”), and then I’m joining in at the bottom. We went to the next date and didn’t think a thing about it, and that darn thing was a big hit.
PKM: There are so many recordings that you play on where the bass supplies the hook, or one of the hooks. Did producers show their appreciation for helping make the song work?
Carol Kaye: They didn’t want to spoil you. They were paying you good money as it is.
PKM: Tell me about playing with a pick.
Carol Kaye: All the players of the ‘60s played with a pick. I don’t care who it was, everybody had to play with a pick on flat-wound strings. That’s what got the sound. The first bass players were Ray Pullman, Arthur Wright and René Hall, and they were all guitar players like me, so everybody played with a pick. You don’t hear the pick if you turn down your high-end on the instrument and the amp, and the amp was always mic’d, by the way. We always had a microphone on my amp, not ever direct, maybe later on a little bit, but not much, because they loved the sounds that I got from my amp. And there are certain things you do, you’d mute the strings a little bit. The drums, the guitars, everybody muted because that’s how you got the sounds that were really great for recording, because you didn’t want things ringing all over because it ruins the sound of other instruments. So we all muted, and I played with the pick.
PKM: You were all such pros, and concentrating so hard, but were there still moments that were spine-tingling?
Carol Kaye: There’s one thing I did with Barbra Streisand. We did about thirty-two takes of “The Way We Were” and the strings the horns were all live and she was there in the booth singing and we did thirty-two straight takes and I was told just to keep playing a simple bass part, not to spread out like I usually did. So I kept it “boom-de-boom.” But about the thirty-third take, I said “Oh, the hell with it. I’m going to go for it.” So I started going all over the place (Carol hums some of the bass runs from “The Way We Were”), but I stayed out of the way of the singer, and the drummer, Paul Humphrey, looked at me and started smiling. So we’re making it really sparkle and everything kind of came alive, and that’s the hit that you hear. That was one of those moments where you tingle.
Some Phil Spector dates, like “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” I’m only playing guitar on that. Just “chugga chugga chugga,” just keeping the groove going, and you had that echo going so loud in the earphones, we didn’t have controls then, so you’re sitting there with one of your earphones off and one on, so you can hear the band in the room too, and the Righteous Brothers were there singing and that really was a great moment. You felt it in the room, you really did.
PKM: At a certain point you started doing less pop and rock sessions and more soundtrack and live dates. Was that by choice?
Carol Kaye: You’re working so hard, and so tired, and everybody was testy back then and the coffee didn’t cut it anymore. You’re just tired out, and the music was changing. You can’t make a good record out of a bad piece of music, and it really got bad toward the end of the ‘60s. The singers who couldn’t sing and the bad songs just got tiresome. We just get tired of playing dumb music. People started quitting one by one. I had been doing TV and movie work since 1964, ‘65, so I just stopped everything in 1970. I just decided I wasn’t going to work for anybody. But after a few months of writing my books, and getting my educational company going, then I went back to work. You know, I heard “Wichita Lineman” in a drugstore and I went back to work, working for Ray Charles and Mancini and the people I loved to work for. I refused to work anymore rock dates like The Monkees and all that stuff. Some of their things are alright, but you really got tired of that, so I turned down most work for record dates and kept going with the movies and TV shows. When you’re doing film work you’re working with the finest composers in the world every day and there was so much enjoyment to play great music, but film work is exacting too, if you make a mistake you can kiss your career goodbye.
Eventually I got tired of that and I wanted to go play real jazz, but in the ‘70s it was very different audiences than it was in the ‘50s. In the ‘50s, you had the audience that moved it up, in the ‘70s they were kind of on drugs, which is all right, I don’t judge people, what they do with their lives, but it was a different audience and it was just a different time. You weren’t playing the bebop you were in the 50s. It was different.
PKM: I know you’re still teaching and your instructional books are still selling. What else keeps you busy these days?
Carol Kaye: My books have sold through the roof. For the past twenty years, I’ve concentrated on jazz. Jazz is back. The people who play rock and roll want to play jazz. Most of the private gigs out there are standards and jazz, so the real live music business is really in the private gigs. You have bands everywhere that play standards and jazz, so that’s what I love to teach. So I’m back teaching the jazz and bebop that I left, so that’s kind of fun for me. It really makes me happy to see young people into it. I really love trying to pass along the music and the education to the younger generation. I really enjoy that.
PKM: What is the secret to good bass playing?
Carol Kaye: A good sense of time. Your time has to be perfect, and you practice your time like (Carol hums an amazing syncopated and funky bass line), so you keep the metronome on the back beats, the two and four. So you practice your sense of time that way, never metronome on one-two-three-four, always on two and four. And learn your whole neck. You have bass players that play the same thing year after year and say “Oh, I’ve been playing for forty years,” and they’ve never gotten past the fourth fret on their neck. They play the same four frets. Learning your chord notes all over the neck makes you a good bass player. Stay away from those scales. Former rock players turned teachers trying to teach note scales, it doesn’t work. You need to learn the chordal tones and get your sense of time together and learn your whole neck. They try to teach note scales and to play the scale over a chord and you never do that, you play the chord notes, you form your patterns from chord notes.
PKM: Are you happy these days? Are you content? Do you like your life?
Carol Kaye: Listen, I’m an old lady. I’ve been married, I’ve had boyfriends, I’ve had kids, all that kind of stuff. I love to pass along what I know, so at my age as long as I don’t get the flu and I’m feeling good, I love teaching and that’s my fun. I really enjoy that.
PKM: You must hear yourself on the radio or in TV and movies, or in the supermarket, every day of your life.
Carol Kaye: I wish. You go to the supermarket today and you hear (Carol hums a repetitive dull melody), you know, two or three note tunes. It’s like Holy Moses, where did the music go?
When I hear one of those old records I stop and think “Yeah. That really sounds good. It’s not bad what we did.”