Carol Kaye Is the Greatest Bass Player You Probably Never Heard Of

Carol Kaye outside her home in the Antelope Valley
Carol Kaye outside her home in the Antelope Valley
Sally Stewart

Quick. Name a woman who has done more for rock & roll than Carol Kaye.

Bet you can’t. The bass on “These Boots Are Made for Walkin',” “California Girls,” “The Beat Goes On,” themes to Mission Impossible and Batman — are all gifts from Kaye, who spent the greater part of the 1960s at the top of the Los Angeles studio musician scene.

She was there in the golden, heady days of rock & roll when Phil Spector created the Wall of Sound. She was there when Brian Wilson was recording the seminal Pet Sounds. She was there backing up the likes of Joe Cocker, Ritchie Valens, Sam Cooke, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkees — you name it.

Although most people don’t know who she is, Kaye’s bass riffs have seared musical moments into billions of memories.

Today’s audiences might recognize Kaye for being featured in the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about a group of Los Angeles studio session players who created much of the foundation of the early rock sound.

But for Kaye, the subject is touchy, to put it mildly. She now regrets agreeing to participate in the film because, she says, it wrongly exaggerates Tommy Tedesco’s influence (it was produced and directed by Tedesco's son, Denny) and minimizes the contributions of others.

“I was opposed to appearing in this film, but got sold on it by Denny Tedesco, because I felt sorry for his loss of his dad,” says the 80-year-old bassist, who also played guitar in many studio sessions. “He kept saying it's about ‘you studio musicians, and do it for your buddies, the ones who died.’ We wound up being background for what he intended in the first place.”

See also: 8 Classic Songs Featuring Carol Kaye

What Kaye intended for her own life, back in 1950s Long Beach, was to play jazz. When Kaye was 13, her mother scraped together $10 to buy a steel guitar from a traveling salesman. Just one year later, Kaye was so good she played her first professional gig. At 22, she was working with Cooke, playing on his cover of “Summertime.”

She had been playing bebop jazz with Teddy Edwards at Beverly Caverns when top producer Bumps Blackwell heard her working. Blackwell told Kaye he would pay her the going musician’s union rate of $42 for a three-hour studio session. It was more than she made at her day job as a technical typist of rocket manuals, so Kaye signed on.

Still, she had second thoughts. If a player broke away from the jazz scene, they stood to lose their place in that world, especially if someone ventured outside to play “the simple rock-pop-soul stuff.” But there were other considerations. As a divorced mother of three, there were mouths to feed.

And Kaye wasn’t the only jazz cat to slum it in rock & roll. In rock’s early days, producers tended to hire jazz players because they could actually read music and could maneuver through all styles. If something studio musicians recorded became a hit, “they’d hire a band to play the music we created,” Kaye says.

“Jazz musicians invented rock lines. We could cut rock & roll real fast. We invented lines every night. Rockers weren’t good enough to play their own music. They had poor technique and the sound and feeling were wrong. They were stars, not musicians.

“We made people into stars. Strange in a way to be getting the attention now. I’m not interested. Stardom is created and it can be taken away. You don’t need talent to be a star. You only need to capture the imagination. Being a musician means they can never take that away, and good musicians were always respected.”

By 1964, Kaye was the No. 1 call player. She demanded twice union scale and got it.

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“I knew my worth. Bass was very important to rock & roll. I got the same pay as men plus my cartage fee, which meant I paid a kid $200 a week to cart my four amps around, because I sometimes had three record dates or film calls in one day.”

When it came to drugs, “I was one of the freaks who never did them. I tried pot once but my heart was racing. It gave me anxiety. In the 1950s it was stupid to do drugs. By the 1960s it was hip. I was around it and half the band was into drugs, but I had three kids to take care of.”

She never saw drugs in the studio. Any whiff of a problem and a session player would be out on their ear. “People were there to work.”

That all changed in the '70s, but by then she had left the scene. A dozen years later, Kaye was burned out on studio work. “I was sick of rock & roll. We called them ditch-digger dates because it was like digging a ditch. It was the same thing over and over and over.”

After leaving session work, she launched her business, Gwyn Publishing, to produce electric bass tutorials. She’s written more than 50 books and taught her methods to hundreds of musicians around the world, mostly via Skype from her Antelope Valley home.

“I teach how to read music, then how to create it by moving chords around,” she says. “If you keep the time steady, then it’s all about the groove. Your timing has to be right to be able to groove. When you’re playing jazz, you’re talking to each other. It’s about statement and answer, call and response.”

Ike Turner tried call and response with Kaye — one time. She was young and gorgeous and Ike had rep as a ladies’ man. He had no idea she was a musician. Ike was working his Danelectro six-string guitar “and I was staring at his different style of playing and he sauntered over and started flirting with me.

“I picked up a guitar and played a whole lot of bebop and Ike had a look on his face like he had gotten shot. He respected me after that.

“Ike kept his money in a black bag. He would pay us in cash, usually a stack of $5 bills. I was married a second time and called my husband one night and told him I wouldn’t be home ‘til 2 a.m., ‘cause we were still recording with Ike. He hung up on me. When I got home, I woke my husband up by throwing all those $5 bills on him. He wasn’t mad anymore.”

When asked about today's music scene, Kaye is almost incredulous.

“What music scene? It’s all rap crap and 'kill the cops.' What’s that about? It’s low-life music. We have dumbed down so far in music that it’s gone.

"After 9/11, jazz and big band made a comeback, because it was music that made you feel good. People needed to feel good. There was great music during the Depression, great music during the war years [of World War II], and there was great music during the Vietnam War. Your parents thought rock was no good because they didn’t understand the subtleties of rock. Now there is no subtlety. It’s just low-life, where everyone cusses and shows off like low-lifes.

"For all of us [in the jazz scene], it was about artistic integrity. We had to like what we were doing. We had to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, 'I did a good job.'”

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