“I got tired of playing that dinky rock n roll. Then they put a bass in my lap and, well…..”
And off she went. One of the most prolific sessions musicians of all time, Carol Kaye has very for contenders for the Queen of Bass title, with extra points awarded for the cool granny cardigans she regularly rocked throughout her studio session reign in the 60s and 70s.
An instinctual guitar player, she learned on a 10-dollar steel that her mother bought with the extra money she made cleaning houses. She went on to teach herself how to play bass during a session where the bassist didn’t show up and the Fender Precision got popped in her lap. She thought, “I can do this. It’s just like playing along to the drum beat”.
Over 10,000 sessions later, she now gets the ring for bass jobs more often than guitar.
“I enjoyed being at the bottom of the band. It was my own little spot. I knew what to do and I was free to invent”.
Case in point, she played on Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”. The tonal range sounded flat so she brought the bass up a little higher while using a thick pick, cooking up a much heavier groove that essentially made the song. But she was still a guitar player at heart and continued to play with a pick, which contributed a “sharp and crisp sound” that you can hear on “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and other trippy-lite classics of the day.
Oh, and the bass on Pet Sounds? All Carole. Brian Wilson was enamored with her playing and made sure she got on all the important Beach Boys albums. She also worked her magic on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme”. “There was nothing to follow so I created the bass line” she says of this track with a matter-of-fact modesty that’s breathtaking when you think of the gravity of the statement.
You can also hear her bass work on TV shows such as The Brady Bunch, Hawaii Five O, Mission Impossible, Hogan’s Hero’s, and The Adams Family. Plus, the melancholy theme heard on MASH‘s heady lead-credit song is none other than Ms. Kaye’s.
As one of the few women session players, Carol never had any complaints about the sesh musician life.
“We looked like we just got off a battle ship. We went in to work and didn’t go in it for the fame. The money was good. I could support my kids and my mom.” She went on to clarify, “It wasn’t ‘Me Me Me’. It was ‘Us Us Us'”. She thought the music business was doing the right thing by putting up the musicians with the larger personalities up front, those who truly wanted it, and allowing the session players to do their thing in the shadows.
Speaking with Carol you just know she is genuinely appreciative for being behind some great scenes and not jealous in the least. She finally walked away from the music industry in the mid 70s and went on to write a few books on the bass. She also gave lessons later transitioning to teaching over Skype. Gene Simmons even got a lesson from The Master which can be witnessed in a must-see Youtube clip.
“Music is a business. Most musicians (in her heyday) thought of it that way. If more musicians thought that way now we’d have a damn fine business.”
She was an integral part of the documentary Wrecking Crew (a must see) Although Carol didn’t appreciate the title of the Doc, hers segments shine with a true sense of appreciation and pride.
In the doc, she states that her favorites to work with were:
Mel Tormé . (Ol’ Mel was thrilled to have a woman playing with him)
Another interview shows her attempting to get into the studio where she worked for many years. The gatekeepers don’t grant give her access, assuming that a woman could not possible be a session musican. She walks away visibly pissed, but gets in a great burn:
“Whoever is in there is probably cutting something that will never sell anyway.”
Never underestimate the bass player. Never.