Carol Kaye is the quintessential studio musician. Brian Wilson even called her the “greatest damn bass player in the world.” When it comes to the tracks of the 1960’s, there is a good chance that Kaye is laying down the bass. Her discography includes the Beach Boys, The Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand, Simon & Garfunkel — the list goes on. That classic sound of a pick on flatwounds? That’s Carol Kaye.
Kaye was one of the first musicians to ever demo the StingRay bass when it first released. Take a listen to her first ever demos on the Ernie Ball Music Man staple down below.
Her and her crew of studio musicians were called “The Clique.” If you needed to make a hit, that is who you called. Though they might be better known as “The Wrecking Crew,” Kaye was there to live through it, and her perspective on the story is a little different. To set the record straight, Kaye took the time to chat with us about her time as the world’s most dependable bassist and tell us the real story.
Q&A WITH CAROL KAYE
EBMM: What are you playing nowadays?
Carol Kaye: Mostly jazz stuff. I teach jazz bass as well as jazz guitar on Skype worldwide. Before I ever did studio work, I was quite well known in Hollywood, Los Angeles, and South LA playing in all of the jazz clubs in the ‘50s. At that time, I wasn’t interested in doing rock and roll. But no one knew how to write for rock and roll in the late ‘50s. So they came and got us to do studio work. Most of the players on the rock records of the ‘60s were done by big bands and jazz musicians. There are hardly any rockers on those records, it’s mostly jazz players.
EBMM: Well, it definitely worked out for you. You invented a lot of really interesting sounds as a studio player.
CK: The inventing comes from playing jazz because you’re inventing every note that you play at all times. I played guitar for about five years and started playing bass almost accidentally. I never wanted to play bass, but the bass player didn’t show up at capitol records until 1963. They hired me and I thought, ‘You know, it’s more fun to play rock and roll bass than it was guitar.’ Every style of music can be played on bass and so that’s what i started doing. So people started copying what I was doing! I had three kids, a mother, and a live in all to take care of, so I worked hard in the studios. It was never what I wanted to do in the first place but it was good. You know, some of it was fun.
EBMM: Out of all the parts that were good, what do you think your favorite part about working as a studio player was other than supporting your family?
CK: The money, the respect, and it was a union. If we didn’t have a union, there wouldn’t have been no ‘60s. Because, I mean, no rocker was good enough to cut their own records back then. It was a union that backed us up and provided stable, good pay and respect. It’s all about respect. Musicians down through the centuries have been the slaves of kings and barons and all of that stuff. We were slaves. We weren’t even first class citizens. Here I was in the studio making as much as a doctor and being treated like a doctor, too. I mean, really respected. That’s big, you know? You see these rockers get up on stage and ruin it for themselves with their drugs and their harsh talk and all that. Fun is fun, but there comes a time when you gotta straighten up if you want to make money. You have to be a professional and that’s what I’m all about.
EBMM: That’s really awesome, and obviously you had the ability to do that. You know, play stuff on site and be a one-take studio musician.
CK: I have been playing as a professional musician since 1949. My family was poor, we were living in a housing project. By age nine I started working odd jobs to add some money so that we could eat. At 13, I started playing gigs as well as teaching jazz guitar. It was fun and the music was great. We’re talking about a time when everybody was playing music. I mean if you took the computers away and all the internet away from everybody today and made them play an instrument, that’s all anyone would be doing. That’s how serious it was back then in the late 40s and early 50s. It was fun, because you forgot about the tough times with music.
EBMM: Yeah, that is amazing. And in the 60s, you were definitely an essential component in a lot of band sounds. The list goes on, but it includes the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Frank Sinatra. I wanted to ask you who who do you think was your favorite to be in the studio with recording for what did you have the most fun, the songs that you recorded with
CK: I think one of my favorites is “Feeling Alright” with Joe Cocker. I love a lot of the things I did with Gray Trail (?) and some of the Beach Boys things were nice, too. But Brian Wilson worked us to death on one tune for three hours. We were used to going in on a three hour date and cutting four or five tunes, so it was different. Also, Earl Palmer. He could really play. I didn’t have to watch his time for him. It was interesting to see the role of the bass be so crucial to a hit record. I didn’t really realize it until i got on a Sonia Sarah date. It’s interesting to see how bass lines can put a framework around the whole song and the singer — the whole band really. I think that’s why the electric bass became so important in the history of music.
EBMM: You did some work with Hal Blaine — he was the one who dubbed the musicians you worked with as “The Wrecking Crew.” But, you’ve spoken out against that name.
CK: That’s a phony name. We used to kid him about it. He invented the name for the title of his book in 1998. He was not my favorite drummer. I used to help him keep his time together because time sense was not good. He got his experience playing in strip clubs. The other drummers got experience in big bands and jazz clubs which are more advanced. You don’t get your sense of time by looking at some girls butt. We used to laugh at his term, “The Wrecking Crew.” “Ha ha ha, that’s funny.” The film was never supposed to be named that, then he wheeled and dealed and got his name on it. We were like, “What the hell is going on?” Nobody else liked it either, except the ones that ingested some, some of their money in it. I think there’s a few that invest money and there’s always a few that want to be famous. I never wanted that at all. Now, I’m a teacher, and I’m a player and you don’t live on fame. Fame is phony. It’s like a prison. You know, that one star that called it that, she was right, it is a prison. You have to be careful about that. That’s my take on it. We’ve always been known as studio musicians and the 50 or 60 of us were called “The Clique.” Once in a while, they’d say, let’s call “The Clique,” let’s get them booked.
EBMM: That’s a great name!
CK: It’s the truth!
EBMM: You were one of the first musicians to demo the Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass. Talk to us about the sound of the StingRay — in what situations would you pick up this bass in the studio?
CK: It was a great clean sound. It faithfully reproduced the sound that you wanted. It was always a commercial bass, but I thought, “Yeah, that’s a great bass.” I always knew that somebody would make a better bass than the standard Precision. Now, I used to take the neck off the Fender P-bass to make it playable. With the Fender P, I always played extremely hard. I had the strings extremely high to get the sound that I wanted. You still have to mute everything, it was so hard to get the sound that you wanted — but I did get them. But here was a bass that I didn’t have to pump hard to get the beautiful sounds. It was a great sounding bass. The neck was super, too. It was a super bass. The only thing that I had against it was the weight, but back in those days, we always thought that you had to have a lot of weight for it to sound good.
EBMM: Earlier, you mentioned the idea of respect. Brian Wilson once said that you were the “greatest damn bass player in the world.”
CK: Isn’t that beautiful? He said that!
EBMM: He did! And Bass Player Magazine said that your playing has made its way into the DNA of bass players. How have you seen your influence in modern music?
CK: I think the electric bass has a tough time being recognized in certain fields, jazz and classical especially. That is wrong, because if you’re skilled enough and know how to play it right, it is fine. Commercials? It’s no problem. But, let’s face it, how has music changed today? We have some tough times out there, but there are a ton of private gigs out there. It’s not in the record sales or TV sales anymore. It’s in the private gigs. There’s a lot of bands working hard all across the USA. I’m in touch with the musicians and the teachers in Europe and all over the world. In the far East, there is a guy from Turkey that ordered all my books and he’s teaching them the boogaloo bass over there in Turkey. In Israel, the electric bass is big! You have to be skilled. You can’t play the first five frets and call yourself a professional. You’ve got to learn the whole neck. It’s up to the player.
EBMM: Speaking of the player, some of your performances are known all over the world. “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” “Pet Sounds,” and even the Batman theme. You’ve played on a lot of really popular songs — what do you think are some of your underrated performances?
CK: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think like that. I’m a strictly commercial bassist, but I would say, look at the sound of the electric bass on the film. There’s a beautiful sound of electric bass on film that they don’t even know is there. But I’m not complaining. I just think it’s important to notice the sound with the rest of the orchestra. I mean, the film composers knew that. Quincy Jones said “Carol, I won’t do a movie without you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, you get the sounds and you can invent lines if I need you to do that.” When I taught bass, most players came to me to do the filmwork because I took their jobs from them. I was glad to teach them! I taught them the right skills. Most people don’t know that about 98% of things cut in Hollywood in the 60s were done with a pick on flatwound strings. There are bass players who rip people to death for playing with a pick. I say, hey, they don’t know the history. Most of those records that came out in the 60s were done with a pick on flatwounds. That was the sound. There was a piece of felt muting on there, too, to kill the natural overtones and undertones that could hurt your sound. They just don’t know the history. And it’s still a good sound. If you turn the knob, you’ve got Motown on one end and Boots on the other end. You have to play it right: up on the upbeat, down on the downbeat, and play close to the neck. Never near the bridge.
EBMM: That’s great advice. By the way, March 24th is your birthday!
CK: Can you believe that? I’m glad I can still play. That’s the wild thing. I can still play and teach.
EBMM: Do you have any big plans?
CK: No, no. I’m just glad to go to bed and wake up. Just teaching and playing bass. That’s the fun now. I’ve got my fun. It’s fun to pass along what you’ve got, because I know what it’s going to do for them. It’s going to make them happy. We’re the ones who make others happy. What could be better than that?
EBMM: Is anything else you’d like to say to sum it up?
CK: You’ve got to put music in your life. Force yourself to listen to music and to cool out. Get out and hear some musical groups and notice the real feelings that come into your life. We’re all trying to pretend that things don’t hurt or don’t matter. We’re trying to pretend and put a good face on. That pretend stuff gets to you after a while. It’s phony. Music is not phony. When you play music, you’re expressing your inner being in a way that you’re going to touch someone else’s inner soul, too. It’s something deeper than anything you’ll ever do. Keep in touch with music because it will take good care of you. That’s my advice.