Carol Kaye is the most influential bass player you’ve probably never heard of.
She recorded with artists like Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and The Supremes.
And she’s been called the “First Lady of Bass.” So why do we know so little about her?
Let’s find out!
The Story of Carol Kaye
Carol was born in 1935 to Clyde and Dot Smith, both professional musicians. She picked up a steel-string guitar at age 13 and never set it down. One year later, she was playing with bands all over Los Angeles during the Jazz heydays of the 50s.
In 1957, producer Bumps Blackwell asked Kaye to play on a recording session for an up-and-coming artist named Sam Cook. The track was Summertime. Kaye quickly realized the life of a session musician was much more stable and profitable than that of a club performer. She ditched the lure of the limelight and established herself as a session guitar player.
Opportunity knocked in 1963 when a bass player at Capitol Records flaked. Kaye stepped in and stepped up. Her talent on bass guitar was unmatched, and she quickly became one of the most wanted bass players in town.
For the next six years, Kaye and her fellow session musicians played with hundreds of well-known artists, ranging from The Righteous Brothers to The Monkees. In fact, she would sometimes play three or four sessions per day, cranking out ten songs within six hours.
For Kaye, music was a business to take seriously. The fun happened within the chemistry caused by hours of hard work.
By 1969, the times were changing. Kaye grew leary of the Los Angeles music scene, overshadowed by social unrest and the Charles Manson Murders. She didn’t want to get mugged on the way to a night session. Kaye switched to movie soundtrack work and began teaching and writing bass tutorials.
Carol Kaye played on some of your favorite TV and movie theme songs, including Shaft, Hawaii Five-0, Mission Impossible, and The Brady Bunch.
Who Was The Wrecking Crew?
The Wrecking Crew was a moniker for a loose collective of L.A. session musicians of the 60s and 70s. In those days, music producers often needed standby musicians who could play a variety of styles at a moment’s notice. They had no time, nor budget, for the drug-induced antics of the youth of the day. They needed highly trained, reliable talent who would show up on time.
Much of the work of The Wrecking Crew went uncredited, mainly to keep the illusion of the shiny rock stars. Carol Kaye was a vital member of the crew. In fact, she was one of the few female session musicians of the time. Kaye played regularly with drummer Hal Blaine and guitarist Tommy Tedesco, two other stalwarts in high demand. The trio made up the dominant members of The Crew.
Other notable names in The Wrecking Crew were drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Al Casey, and Keyboardist Leon Russell. Saxophonists Steve Douglas and Plas John played with everyone from The Ramones to B.B. King.
The entire Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007. If they were a band, they would have been the most productive collaborators of all time!
Carol Kaye’s Best Known Songs
Picking just a few of Kaye’s best-known songs is tough! There are so many!
For this article, we’re limiting our list to pop music sessions. Sorry, Batman!
These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ by Nancy Sinatra
This was one of Carol’s personal favorites. She played electric bass alongside Chuck Berghofer on double bass. Listen carefully, and you can hear her clever right clicks between the notes.
Feelin’ Alright by Joe Cocker
The band Traffic originally wrote Feelin’ Alright. But Joe Cocker’s cover put it on the music map. Joe sang inside the studio with his session musicians for this one. And the chemistry was electric. “We played our hearts out on that song,” says Kaye, “and we nailed a great take.”
The Beat Goes on by Sonny & Cher
This Billboard Hot 100 song hit the top ten in 1967. Kaye wrote a syncopated bass line that took the piece to a new level.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys
It’s hard to list just one Beach Boys song covering Carol Kaye’s work. She played on Help Me Rhonda, and I Get Around. Apparently, although she recorded several sessions for Good Vibrations, the final version credits Lyle Ritz. As she played on the entire Pet Sounds LP, we had to give it up to the hit single Wouldn’t It Be Nice.
Is Carol Kaye in the Series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a 50s housewife who becomes a stand-up comic. Season three takes viewers into the 60s, surrounding main character Maisel with beatniks and other creatives. She hits the road as an opening comedy act for musicians.
Technically, Carol Kaye is not in the series. But the character “Carole Keen,” played by Liza Weil, is widely assumed to be based on her. Maisel meets Keen while on tour with singer Shy Baldwin. Keen is the only woman in Shy’s band. Keen, a talented, cutting bass player and single mom, gives Maisel some pointers on mastering life on the road.
Kaye was also a single mom in an industry dominated by men. But she never toured.
Unfortunately, the real-life Carol Kaye slammed the Amazon Studio’s homage to her. “I am not a cartoon — and my life is not a joke,” says Kaye. We’re not surprised. Kaye is opinionated.
She didn’t even like the 2008 documentary called “The Wrecking Crew!”, which celebrated the work of her and fellow peers of the era. She never appreciated that nickname anyway and felt it diminished what they did.
If you’re a lover of all things pop, you might be slightly disappointed in Kaye’s dismissal of The Marvelous Miss Maisel. But we get it. In the television series, Carol Keen’s character is quoted as saying “To someone with tits to talk to,” as she clinks a glass with Maisel.
Carol Kaye uses language a little differently: “A note doesn’t have sex to it – you either play it good or you don’t play it good. Except some people can’t handle that, especially some men… but when you hear somebody with balls, that’s me.”
Where is Carol Kaye Today?
Carol Kay is 86 and lives a relatively quiet life near Bakersfield, California. That is when she’s not playing bass. Or writing. She offers private guitar and bass lessons via Skype. Her website offers a robust catalog of resources, from links to playing tips to a forum for her dedicated fans.
If you want to find out more, we suggest adding her as a friend on Facebook!
Was Carol Kaye the Most Influential Bassist of the 60s?
We think so. Carol Kaye had over 10,000 record dates as a session musician for bands, film, and television. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys called her the “greatest damn bass player in the world.” She gave Gene Simmons of Kiss a bass lesson just a few years ago. Her craftsmanship remains a force many seek out to this day.
But in the 60s, when so few women played music beyond marriage, Carol Kaye was Queen. She was a single mom dedicated to her craft. And supporting herself and her family was the driving force behind that dedication.
Which Carol Kaye song is your favorite? Do you hear that bass line differently now?