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The Lady at the Bottom of the Groove

Carol Kaye’s earliest musical memory is of sitting alone in her father’s Model-A Ford outside of the Elks Club in Everett, Washington, listening to the strains of his Dixieland band inside. “The hair raised on my arms,” she recalls in her low, jazz-hipster voice. “I thought, ‘Ahhhhh, listen to that music! The power!’ That’s the same feeling I’d get later on a hit take.”

From her first session for Sam Cooke in 1957 to her last in 1969 for singer-composer Dorie Previn, Kaye’s arm hair had quite a workout. She is arguably the most recorded bassist in pop history, male or female, having played on over 10,000 dates (an estimated 40,000 songs). Her Latin-jazz style of hard-picked bass propped up songs of countless artists, from the Beach Boys (including the near-mythical Pet Sounds and Smile sessions) to Ike and Tina Turner, Phil Spector, the Monkees, the Ventures, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme, as well as such revered film composers as Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, Alfred and Lionel Newman, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Quincy Jones and Johnny Mandel.

Kaye started her career at age 15, playing guitar in mostly black L.A. nightclubs with greats like Teddy Edwards, Billy Higgins, Curtis Counce, Red Mitchell and Jack Sheldon. She was famous for her wit and her ability to piss with the bully boys of L.A. session work — many of whom were accomplished jazz players who came from hardscrabble Depression-era beginnings. This accounted for their ability to absorb the punishing schedules of the recording studio. (They called surf-rock dates “ditch diggers” because the music was so physically demanding; the Spector dates would involve 25 consecutive takes sans bathroom breaks.) “We’d drink 10, 12 cups of coffee a day,” Kaye says. “When I had my third baby, I was getting about two to three hours of sleep per night. I could literally sleep [in the studio] with my eyes open.”

 

L.A. Weekly: What were the studios like back then?

Carol Kaye: They weren’t the cleanest environments. Studios like United and Western had tile flooring. They were filled with all the cords and amps and microphones and gear, so the floor gets dirty, and sometimes your earphones got on the floor. You have five minutes to run to the bathroom, to get a candy bar, cigarettes, to go to the phones to get your next recording gig. You have about 40 people trying to do this at once. You’re in a hurry to get back, you forget that the earphones are down on the dirty floor, and you’d put ’em back on and you’d get one heck of an ear infection.

 

You were always photographed wearing sunglasses in the studio. Was that your style?

You do that because it’s so bright in the studio and you need sunglasses to read the music. They even wrote the music on green paper to avoid the glare of those neon lights. And you wore sweaters, because they kept the air-conditioning real cold. It didn’t matter what you looked like clotheswise. We all wore jeans, mostly. I remember we were on a lunch break from a Beach Boys gig . . . Leon [Russell] had been out in his new Cadillac with that long beard of his, and his robes and cowboy hat — even back in the ’60s he dressed pretty out-there. The cops stopped him and thought that he’d stolen the car. He’d left his wallet at the studio, so the cops followed him back. After Leon showed them his license, one cop looks at all of us: “Why the hell don’t y’all get a real job? You guys can’t be makin’ more than 20 bucks!” Everybody was real quiet, and as soon as they left, we all started laughing, ’cause we were making about $400!

 

How are cutting film and TV scores different from rock dates?

You had to read every note perfect, ’cause they didn’t roll that film back for anyone. You had to play while the film was going on, and you’re cutting the music in pieces. You’re recording with a click track going click click click in your headphones all the time. You also couldn’t fool around as much as you do on the record dates, it was very quiet and serious. When the conductor raised his baton, you were tuned up and ready to go. It was like being in the Army. Nelson Riddle would stand up on the podium with his baton and that ol’ stone face, except for he had this one eyebrow he’d raise. I used to like to make him raise it by doing something extra on the bass. I always had a tendency to be a little late, because I had instruments to lug around. Once I accidentally left my car in Alfred Hitchcock’s parking spot. Bad move. After that, the musicians were banned from the parking lot. The guys didn’t like me there for a while.

 

Your generation of session players helped the Musicians Union become stronger — but why did you work for Motown if it was non-union?

We liked the music. They had to hold me back on other dates, because they didn’t want the bass part to be too busy, but [Motown] was a place where I could play what I heard. We did a lot of those dates, even though they had the signs that they were not the legal demos that they said that they were. We did that for about two or three years, and then somebody snitched to the union — and I know who it was; Earl Palmer thought it was me, and I thought it was Earl for a while, too. Earl called me up and says, “Hey, listen to ‘Bernadette’! Those are our tracks!” I always thought that “My Girl” was done in Detroit, and yet the Hollywood Horns get credit on that, so go figure that one out. I’d say about 50 percent of the Motown hits were recorded out here in L.A. since around ’62. I don’t think they’ll ever get that straightened out, because Motown didn’t keep records.

 

Why is there still controversy over album credits?

Well, according to the Musicians Union records, the stuff we did from the ’60s are still the hottest-selling records in terms of numbers across the world. Many of those groups, like the surf groups or the Monkees, didn’t even do their own music. I think it’s right that people know the truth, but there’s a danger there, because the record companies are still enjoying the sales. Then someone comes along and says, “We’re the ones who created those parts” — would the record still sell? There’s a lot at stake there, and I don’t think it’s a popular notion among record companies to admit they used us. It hurt me to stick to my credits all these years, because people have attacked me for it. They can’t believe a blond gal with blue eyes could play. Listen to Mission: Impossible — you think I can’t play like a man, for crying out loud? I mean, there’s no bigger balls on a bass part than that!”


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