Although largely unknown by the public, within the confines of the industry, Carol Kaye has become known as one of rock music’s most prolific session musicians. Kaye has amassed an unbelievable track record, one that includes credits on songs from The Beach Boys to Ike and Tina Turner to Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Today, on her 86th birthday, we’re taking a look at her incredible life and how, with her immense talent and drive, she defied conventions and became a name worth remembering.
Born on March 24 in Everett, Washington, to musician parents Clyde and Dot Smith, Kaye caught the music bug very early on. Her mother was a professional piano player who accompanied silent movie houses, and her father was a trombone player who played in mostly Dixieland bands; Kaye once remembered, “If they didn’t fight, they played music.” But it was her family’s musical spirit and listening to artists like Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, and Miles Davis, to name a few, that secured her destiny.
“My mom and I were living in this housing project, but my mom saved up her pennies. And there was a steel guitar salesman that came around with about three or four lessons for ten bucks, so she opted for that when I was about thirteen,” recalled Kaye. “And about that time, I started playing gigs on guitar.”
At age 18, Kaye began playing at jazz clubs around town and quickly made a name for herself due to her effortless talent and ability to keep up in the improvisational environment. Being a woman musician in the 1950s was a rough career path, but Kaye never felt discouraged because of the societal disadvantages. “There were a lot of women around that played jazz and were in pop bands of their own, so it wasn’t that unusual,” Kaye remembered. “But most women back in those days, in the ’50s, would play until they got married. It was more important to have a Mrs. in front of your name than it was to have a career.”
Although she wasn’t looking to play in recording sessions due to her growing image in the jazz clubs, in 1957, producer Bumps Blackwell approached her and asked if she’d play the guitar on a song called ‘Summertime’ by up-and-coming artist Sam Cooke. After this session, she realised that she could make more money in three hours of this type of work than she could in a whole week’s worth of her day job.
By 1963, she was an established session guitarist, but when the opportunity came for her to play a different instrument, things truly clicked into place. “I was playing a session at Capitol Records, and the bass player didn’t show up,” she explained. “So, they put me on a Fender bass – easy as that. I started creating lines that I always heard in my head, things that I thought bass players should play. I just provided what the music needed.”
During her peak ’60s session years, her discography included the likes of Buffalo Springfield, Nancy Sinatra, The Righteous Brothers, The Crystals, The Monkees, and so many more of the hottest bands of the time. It’s even been said that Paul McCartney’s bass playing on The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was inspired by her work on Pet Sounds. She soon became a highly requested bassist, along with a group of Los Angeles-based musicians that often played together in the sessions and have since become known as “The Wrecking Crew.” But when 1969 came around, Kaye had become exhausted, saying that the songs she was playing on “started to sound like cardboard.”
Kaye remembered, “It was during the late ’60s and early ’70s. The music started to change and the way it was being recorded did, too. The bands were self-contained, and they didn’t need so many outside players. I saw it starting to happen and I got out. Tommy Tedesco thought I was crazy. He said, ‘You’re at the top of the heap, Carol. Why are you quitting?’ But I couldn’t stand the cardboard music we were being asked to create.”
She also added, “To me, once the Charles Manson murders started happening in the Hollywood Hills, and then you had people getting mugged on the way to the studio, all of that changed the scene. Things weren’t fun anymore. Hollywood wasn’t safe. That was the end of that for me.”
With newer rock bands getting rid of session players altogether, Kaye decided to make a change, something she was more than familiar with by that point. By the end of 1969, she transitioned over to movie soundtrack work as well as writing and creating bass tutorial books. Her first book, “How To Play The Electric Bass”, effectively changed the name of Fender Bass to Electric Bass, and taught hundreds of students the secrets of her expertise.
Through the decades, she continued to do a bit more session and soundtrack work here and there, and today, her legacy continues to inspire. The hit Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel paid homage to Kaye and her career with the character of Carol Keen, and in 2020, Rolling Stone magazine placed Kaye at number five in its 50 greatest bassists of all-time list, a well-deserved feat.