Carol Kaye

Many of you probably know about Carol Kaye by now. If you didn’t know her name before, you’ve certainly heard her music. Some called her “first lady of the bass.” She was the first call bassist for “record companies, movie & TV film people, commercials, and industrial films” in the 1960s as part of an extremely talented group of LA studio musicians know at the time as “the clique.” [1] It’s estimated that she played on around 10,000 recordings during her 50-year career. She played guitar, as well as wrote and recorded bass lines for some of the top hits of the last 60 years and worked with the likes of Joe Pass, Sam Cooke, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Barbara Streisand, Glenn Campbell, Lou Rawls, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and many, many others. [2]

Before she got into studio work, though, Carol Kaye was a rising star as a guitarist in the be-bob jazz community. Raised by musical parents, she started gigging as a guitarist at age 14. She got into studio work by accident, doing a session with Sam Cooke in 1957 and only added bass to her repertoire after the bassist didn’t show up for a session was she asked to step in. Bass became her primary instrument at that point because she enjoyed the intricacy of the moving lines she could create in the studio as a bassist more than the strumming rhythmic role of the guitarist in those early rock ’n’ roll recordings. She was often given a blank chart and just told to fill in the bass part in her own way. The producers and musicians trusted her fully to improvise a part that would make them hit song after hit song. She says often times, she and the rhythm section would play a track first, and then the arrangers would use the riffs and parts they improvised to create the rest of the arrangement. So, in addition to being a studio musician, Carol’s creative contribution to pop, rock, soul, and R&B music of the 20th century was massive. [3]

Even though most of Carol’s recordings are outside of the jazz genre, she is a jazzwoman through and through. I believe it is her jazz background and advanced understanding of harmony that allowed her to effortlessly invent such creative lines. She says “it was easy, it was fun.” But that was her genius. Here’s a playlist of some of my favorites, but its just a fraction of her work. And here’s just one example of her funky, funky bass playing:

In the late 60s, she started focusing more on teaching and began writing bass and guitar method books which are widely in use today as well as instructional videos. She currently offers Skype lessons via her website. She’s 83, but you’d never know it. Additionally, she’s given many excellent interviews in which she’s incredibly generous with her wealth of knowledge and experience, not to mention her fiery spirit. I’ve transcribed some of my favorite excerpts from her interviews below (these interviews can be found in the playlist above) as well as a wonderful note which she includes on her website.

Also, Here’s an article in which she lists her top 10 recording sessions of all time and tells a little story about each one. I’ve included each of these tunes in the playlist above.

A note from Carol… (from her website)

There were around 350 really great studio musicians who played together, created lines together (especially the rhythm sections), and had the right attitude to constantly work some round-the-clock hours almost every day of the year to help create and perform in the studios. My fellow studio musicians and I had no idea this music would live on so well, but it’s awfully nice to be driving in the car and know: ‘oh there’s Earl’s fine fills, there’s Hal’s great tomtoms, ah nice piano Larry, beautiful trumpet Ollie, good violins you all, great percussion Gene and Victor, perfect time Don’ and on and on.

I was raised by musician-parents and just sort of grew up around music, we were poor, but when music was played, you had a sparkle in your life. And the sparkle is still there years later after all the recording we did, for when you turn on the radio, there are all my fellow musicians. I grew fond of so many, we were all in it together, pulling together for a hit, and loved to groove together. The looks, the feel of the music, the inside quick joke, it was a warm feeling.

The coffee and vending machines got a work out too as sometimes we had to eat out of cans (no time to eat), sleep on our 5-minute break on the floor (get 8 hours sleep a night, are you kidding?), run to the next date. People used to ask how you got in the studios, we’d all say: ‘learn how to grab a parking place, don’t be late, and carry a pencil, don’t be egotistical, oh and yes, know how to create, read music and play your — off’.

I almost feel embarrassed about all the credits but these tunes represent the work of *everybody*, not just me, not just the star, or the tune, but of mostly family-oriented musicians who were respected, in-demand, no-nonsense coffee-driven (yes) and there were some pretty funny moments too, plenty of one-liners at times.

Excerpts from interviews:

Carol Kaye on working with chord tones/arpeggios rather than scales:

Its non-chordal today, its ‘note-scales,’ see? ‘Note-scales’ don’t get it because they will ruin your ear and your fingers get used to playing scales so you can’t find those notes. So its important to practice your chordal notes… You need to hear the intervals of the chordal notes that you can use, including the substitute chordal notes. Chords are formed by every other note of the scale. Nobody back in the ’50’s played ‘note-scales.’ ‘Note-scales’ are traveling notes, but mostly in jazz, you’re going to use chromatics. [She demonstrates several ways of making patterns off of chord tones with diatonic and chromatic passing tones, then goes on] “you don’t get that from ’note-scales.’ Used to be we’d play be-bop every night — if you weren’t working every night, you’d go out and jam somewhere, you know, in the 50’s. And occasionally, I’d be playing with a group and someone would ask to sit in and [someone would say] ‘oh don’t let him sit in, he plays scales!’ And we all knew, you can’t find those jazz patterns… [demonstrates a chord-tone pattern] that’s not a scale pattern, see? … its a shame that they’re teaching all these ‘note-scales’ as the way of learning jazz and that’s not the way to do it.

On gender issues, confidence:

I get a lot of e-mails from people who think I really started something — I probably did in the studio work, but back in the 40s and 50s, there were a million women out their playing jazz with the men. So the men back then knew that the women could play. I mean, they just weren’t visible. It was more important to be married than it was to have a career. So if they got married, they just stopped playing. So I knew I was one of several, and I still like the men who played the be-bop the best… I had so much self-confidence in my playing… I’d played in the black jazz clubs for crying out loud, being the only white in the crowd sometimes. So it wasn’t like I [came to the studio] like “oh gee, I hope they accept me,” no in fact, I’m the opposite. I could out-swear the guys if they wanted to swear, ‘well, screw you, too,’ you know that kinda thing. So I’d feed it back if someone ever said something, but they didn’t. The minute you start playing, they know that you’re an accomplished musician, and the professionalism spoke for itself. But we were all in it together, and as far as the guys go, I was one of the guys. I never thought of myself as a woman. I was a guitar player and I was a bass player and I knew by the time I got on bass that they had to have me. That’s a powerful feeling whether you’re a man or a woman. To know that it’s your bass lines that they’re hiring so that the record companies can get hits and make a lot of money. So we were all in the same pot together…Yes, I’m the first woman to do all the studio work I did, and it was damn lucky that I was a guitar player at the time when they needed the rock ’n’ roll. Had I been a clarinet player or even a drummer, no I couldn’t have gotten in the studios then because there was a prejudice against women, yes.

(Re)sources

[1] “Carol Kaye.” carolkaye.com. (http://www.carolkaye.com/index.htm).

[2] Joe Bosso. “Meet Carol Kaye, the genius musician behind the world’s favourite basslines.” Louder. February 8, 2018. (https://www.loudersound.com/features/meet-carol-kaye-the-genius-musician-behind-the-worlds-favourite-basslines).

[3] “Biography.” carolkaye.com (http://www.carolkaye.com/www/biography/index.htm).

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