A prolific bassist, funny as hell and the most legendary musician you’ve never heard of: Liz Buckley talks Carol Kaye.
Carol Kaye is a musician you will no doubt have heard, but not necessarily one you have heard of.
The only female session musician in LA’s now-infamous Wrecking Crew, alongside more well-known names like Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell and Barney Kessel, she’s a musician, teacher, composer, author, and publisher who describes herself as “an educator of famous bass players”.
And while Kaye can also add ‘incredibly funny’ to her already impressive CV, being an educator of famous bass players is no bold or fanciful claim. If anything, it’s an understatement.
Now in her 80s and having begun playing as a teen, it’s estimated that to date she’s performed on a breathtaking 10,000 recordings.
Without Kaye, there would be no Good Vibrations, La Bamba, The Beat Goes On, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, I’m a Believer, Something’ Stupid, Wichita Lineman, Scarborough Fair… Actually, maybe I won’t list all 10,000, but you start to get the merest hint.
Saying she was indispensable to the productions and arrangements of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Sonny & Cher, The Righteous Brothers, Sam Cooke, The Doors, The Monkees, Joe Cocker, Ike & Tina Turner, Lalo Schifrin, Buffalo Springfield, The Supremes, Love, Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, well… doesn’t even pin it down to a near manageable list.
The young Kaye must have taken to the guitar like Piers Morgan to a being a dick, as after picking up the instrument once, her prospective music teacher offered to coach her thereon in for free and a grand total of just two months later, she was playing jazz on the professional circuit.
All this by the ripe old age of 14. Which was handy, because if you’re going to play on thousands of classic tracks, it’s best to start early so you can have the occasional hour to yourself. The Wrecking Crew as a band speak of rarely getting more than five hours’ sleep a night, such was the demand for their work.
Kaye initially only picked up a bass because a session musician didn’t show up and she figured she’d fill in the part “for fun”. And it was fun – playing the bass not only meant she didn’t have to lug five different guitars around when pregnant, it also freed her up to invent her own lines and this is where she truly excelled.
By 1964, she was the number one sought-after bass player by US studios, which is no mean feat in an industry almost completely devoid of females in the studio (for context, Decca in the UK didn’t even hire female engineers, simply because of their gender).
“Without Kaye, there would be no Good Vibrations, La Bamba, The Beat Goes On, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, I’m a Believer, Something’ Stupid, Wichita Lineman, Scarborough Fair… Actually, maybe I won’t list all 10,000, but you start to get the merest hint.”
By way of massive understatement, Kaye could clearly handle herself among the men and the madmen. She describes someone I would call the violent lunatic visionary Phil Spector as “an oddball”, “a genius” and someone who could “fuck off”. She noted she was popular to have around the studio during Spector recordings as being pregnant, as she often was, meant he made the unusual concession of letting the musicians actually go to the toilet.
She describes Brian Wilson as “nice” with “a lot of talent”, “simple”, but who “got better”. “Although” she adds, “it got boring to work on one tune for three hours.” Kaye did not fuck about. In The Wrecking Crew documentary, she tells the most Carol Kaye of stories – that she has an endless supply of plectrums which she gives away to Beach Boys fans, telling them it was the one she used on Pet Sounds. Kaye is no mug. In fact she probably gives away mugs purporting to be from the Pet Sounds sessions too, now I think about it.
At the time of recording, The Wrecking Crew (or The Clique as Kaye refers to them) often performed anonymously, had no uniting name and more usually than not went uncredited for their composition input as well as their performances. In fact, until Hal Blaine’s memoir in 1990, they weren’t even referred to as The Wrecking Crew – Hal had picked that up by way of reclaiming a less than complimentary phrase he’d heard used in reference to them.
That’s not to say they were financially cheated; Kaye once commented, “I was making more money than the President”. (NB: I am now fully expecting Donald Trump to announce he makes twice the money Carol Kaye makes.)
What is essential, however, is that their input is not forgotten and Kaye describes this best: “A lot of our group has died without being recognised by the public. It’s not that we want the recognition but let’s get the truth out. I think the kids ought to know about us. I think it’s important they know… what it took.”
Damn straight, sister. I want the kids to know about you too.4884 Views
Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.