Carol Kaye’s Skype lessons offered through her website are prefaced with a few requests and instructions. There is also a message, “No Punk or Heavy Metal players and no Gift Lessons. Lessons only to experienced musicians, no beginners, thank-you.” Buckle up, you’re about to be schooled by one of the most recorded bass players ever.
Kaye has worked with everyone from Quincy Jones to Frank Zappa and was an early contributor to the “wall of sound” production technique of a 24-year-old Phil Spector. The Wrecking Crew, as the stable of session players in Los Angeles in the ‘60s and ‘70s was called, had a deep roster, including Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, bassist Ray Pohlman, composer-producer Jack Nitzsche, and drummer Hal Blaine, to name a few. Blaine’s imprint on recorded music deserves another article entirely and he will be sorely missed after his passing earlier this month.
With about ten-thousand recordings to her name, Kaye plays the guitar, banjo, and has even contributed backing vocals on a few sessions—but its her bass-playing for which she is best known. Quick to cite her passion for band camaraderie, especially with jazz drummer Earl Palmer, Kaye was in her element when she played in larger ensembles.
Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds sessions are some of Carol Kaye’s most prominent credits. The success of the beloved record and the mystique of its conception and recording are often discussed. “Sloop John B," which Kaye really shines on, was not originally meant to make the record, but as luck and legend would have it, it became a lead single for the album.
When asked about working with Wilson around that time, Carol says, “Brian was always a fine guy to work for. Sure, he was sort of intensive in his work, but we liked that. He'd come in and play piano to give us the feel for the tune. ... [Brian] would then give us instructions from the booth, where he'd experiment with sounds. I never knew Brian was a bass player until much later—he never played bass in front of me. We knew he was special. He had the bass parts all written out (except for one lick I got in on ‘California Girls’ that was mine, the rest of the notes were his).”
The notes may have been pre-arranged but the execution of songs like Pet Sounds' “Here Today,” is plainly Carol’s.
She was much sought-after in the mid-’60s, contributing to Zappa’s Freak Out!, The Righteous Brothers' “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “Ebb Tide”, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and Ike & Tina Turner's River Deep, Mountain High. But while those are just a few of the most popular records to feature her playing, below we take a look at seven you may not know she was on.
Carol started session work in 1957 after recording a rendition of “Summertime” with Sam Cooke and eventually, through a connection at Gold Star Studios, began working for Spector and Wilson. The session was prompted after being seen playing guitar in a California jazz club. She recalls, “I played the guitar on [“Summertime”]. Bumps Blackwell had come into a club and saw me playing bebop jazz and he asked me to play on a record he was producing. I really didn’t want to do it because I liked the clubs, but I needed the money. It wasn’t long till I realized there was more money in making records.”
Riding high after the success of “You Send Me” and its B-side, “Summertime,” Cooke was just starting his secular music career. Both sides of that single also appeared on his debut album Songs by Sam Cooke—the beginning of both Kaye’s and Cooke’s new career paths.
Carol and Glen Campbell worked together closely, right next to one another during some Wrecking Crew sessions. Written by Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell’s "Wichita Lineman" was recorded in 1968. Following 1965’s "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," Campbell was looking to hit again with another "geographical" song.
With swelling strings and existential lyrics, "Wichita Lineman" is a moving composition and one that helped bring country music further into introspective territory. Kaye’s bass work, including the stellar opening line, is featured on this track alongside Campbell’s solo—where he used Carol’s Danelectro six-string bass guitar. “At one point, Jimmy Webb stopped me and had me do some fills. Then it was decided that I should start off the song. So, that’s what you hear: me on my bass, playing this little bouncy part that introduces the number,” Kaye says.
For a time in the early ’70s, Kaye was focusing on playing with Joe Pass and Hampton Hawes exclusively. She was looking to get out of the studio grind and conduct music seminars and teach. After a car accident in 1976, she took some needed time off from music. However, she would occasionally pick up gigs and appeared on J.J. Cale's 1981 album Shades.
Recorded in 1980 in studios from Old Hickory, Tennessee to Hollywood, this is an example of how the decade was going to transform music. There are a few more flourishes of synth (i.e. “Wish I Had Not Said That“) but, generally, the record is in line with Cale’s hot-handed guitar playing, road house blues, and stoic vocal delivery. Kaye played bass on a number of Shades' tracks, where she was in legendary company alongside pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and guitarist James Burton.
Cameo was a collective effort between Dusty Springfield and producer-songwriters Steve Barri, Dennis Lambert, and Brian Potter during their time at ABC-Dunhill. Springfield arrived in Los Angeles and cut this, her eighth studio album, in 1973 with a who’s who of session players.
Though a commercial dud (the album didn’t chart in England or the U.S.), fans of solid songcraft and the classic rhythm section of Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye can appreciate the deep cuts like the forlorn and longing “Learn To Say Goodbye,” a cover of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” or the Willie (“The Mack”) Hutchison–penned "Who Could Be Loving You Other Than Me.”
Originally aired on ABC TV in 1971, The Point! is an animated feature directed by Fred Wolf with a soundtrack written by whimsical genius Harry Nilsson. The album features Nilsson providing the character voices as well as the narration, where the broadcast features Dustin Hoffman, Alan Barzman, Ringo Starr, and Alan Thicke for different releases. Nilsson has noted the perhaps specious origins for the album concept, “I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it.'”
Songs on The Point! could have been found on a regular Nilsson studio album and are meant to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. All of the tracks share similar instrumentation, drums, strings, bass, piano, and flutes, which create the setting for this unlikely collection of pop songs.
Song of Innocence is a heady, meticulously orchestrated and arranged concept record that should be paired with the 1969 album Songs of Experience. After working with band leaders like Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls—and on The Electric Prunes album Mass in F Minor—Axelrod interpreted William Blake's poems with music to astounding effect.
The “rock orchestra” featured Earl Palmer and Kaye as the rhythm section, which sets tracks like “Urizen” on fire. The bass was also mixed prominently, giving listeners a front row seat to Kaye’s rich tone, creativity, and precision. Keyboardist and conductor Don Randi and guitarist Al Casey, also members of the Wrecking Crew, were brought in to round out the ambitious score. Widely lauded as an innovative and classic album, Song of Innocence is an early example of the flourishing and experimental genre of jazz fusion.