You may not have heard her name, but you’ve definitely heard her play. Carol Kaye is THE studio musician behind some of the most iconic riffs and basslines in music. Long before the days of Ableton Live and Pro Tools, Carol played behind legends like Sam Cooke, Nancy Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brother, Ike and Tina Turner, Nancy Wilson, Barbra Streisand, and Ray Charles- to name a few. Her talent transcended gender and genre to provide what has become the soundtrack to many lives, many times over. Mine included. The bass was an extension of her soul, and you felt her heart in each pluck of the strings.
To be clear, Carol never did it for the fame. “When you’re a musician, you’re a working professional. You’re not a star. You try to make stars out of people. That’s what you do.” And that’s exactly what she did. Perhaps one of the most prolific studio musicians to come out of her era, Carol’s basslines helped turn songs into hits and singers into legends.
I interviewed Carol over the phone during late August’s heatwave that nearly killed me. It was around 8 pm and still 105 degrees. My apartment felt like an oven, and I was sitting in a pool of my own sweat. Yet I hung onto every word she said. It’s one thing to know about Carol Kaye; it’s an entirely different thing to hear her speak about her experiences being a part of the music that defined me.
My mind still struggles to wrap itself around the magnitude of Carol’s decades-long career. And at 82 years old, she can still jam on the bass like no other. Despite everything she’s accomplished, Carol remained humble as she talked about her life, her career, and her love of music.
What was life like growing up? How did you get your start in music?
We were very, very poor. My mom and dad split up because my dad was pretty rough and he was just mean and I told my mom, “Don’t stay together for us. Kick him out!” So they got a divorce and then at the age of 9, I started to work to bring more money in so that we could eat. I worked part-time jobs. I cleaned apartments, or I babysat, or I fixed things. I did anything I could as a little kid to bring in food. And I didn’t feel bad about it because when you’re a kid and you’re able to earn money to help pay for food, that’s an important thing in your life.
My mom saved some pennies up, and for ten dollars you could buy a steel guitar with a few lessons. So she bought the little steel guitar when I was about 13 years old, and I started playing it and I got so good. I went with a friend of mine who was taking guitar lessons from this teacher in Long Beach, which wasn’t too far away. I took my little steel, and he had me play the steel for him. And he said, “Look, I need someone to help me here. I’ll hire you after school, and I’ll teach you how to play guitar.”
So he started to teach me how to play guitar, and I did work for extra money. And then he taught me how to teach. It all happened in about three or four months. And then he would loan me a guitar, and I’d practice on it. In about four or five months, I was able to go out and do jobs on guitar. And I was 14 by then. It did happen very fast, but it’s not that I’m a genius at music. I’m not a genius, but there was a lot of music back then. When you heard good music all the time, your ear was tuned up anyway.
And he was a great teacher. He taught me how to play songs, standard songs, and a little bit of jazz, I mean the Benny Goodman kind of jazz, you know. So I started playing gigs at the age of 14, and I could do it. And it was so much fun to make the money just playing music.
How did you go from jazz clubs to studio sessions?
I took care of my mom and my two kids. And I worked jobs. I had to type manuals in a publishing company, and that’s what I did in the daytime. And then I could play jazz gigs at night. And I got so good that I was playing with all the bebop jazz players, the finest around Hollywood. I was in a nightclub playing a bebop jazz gig with a very famous sax player and then a producer walked in and he said, “Well, I need somebody to play guitar in back of Sam Cooke.” And I said, “Who’s Sam Cooke?”
He asked me to do the record. I didn’t wanna do it. He seemed kinda slick, ya know. But I looked at the guys in the band, and they all knew him. So I said, “Ok, I’ll go to work.” He needed me to create some lines in back of Sam Cooke, and he liked my playing. And I liked the money, and the studio was nice. I mean you worked with jazz players anyway. Jazz players are playing in soul music and rock music like that. Sam Cooke was a great singer, and so it was kinda fun. I made more money that one night than I did the whole week of typing. So I said, “Ok, I’ll go to work in the studio then.” And that’s how I got started in 1957.
Even though you started out playing the guitar, the bass is what you’ve become so well known for.
I started bass when somebody didn’t show up, and they had to have a bass player. So 1963 at Capitol Records, somebody put a bass in my lap, and I started playing that and I thought, “Well, if I played bass, then I’d only have to carry one instrument instead of six guitars.”
When I played bass and could invent basslines, that was fun. And I knew with the three kids that I had by that time, I had to make money cause I had a live-in taking care of my kids and my house. I thought, “Well, I’ve got to do studio work.” And I thought, “If I play bass, that’s more fun than it is on guitar.”
So that’s what I started doing. I started inventing nice lines for the music. And all of a sudden, everything I played on was a hit record. So they had to have me on bass. Plus in 1963, they were hiring three bassists. But I come along on the Fender bass, and got the sound of all three on one bass. I didn’t do it just to put people out of work. But just so happened that way. Then I became number one call with practically everybody.
The bassline you created for Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” made that song.
It did, didn’t it! And I don’t say that with an ego. But it surprised me, it surprised everybody. It was a one-chord tune, and I came up with that [singing], “Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam…” And all of a sudden the whole tune came alive, and Sonny said, “That’s it! That’s the line!” And he told Bob on Fender bass to play it with me, and so that’s what you hear on the record. And it came alive! We were like, “Wow! One little bassline did that!”
It was a shock. But it was also instructive because then I learned how to build a bassline around the singer and around the entire music. And that’s what you do. You do it in statement and answer patterns. I started creating better bass lines that way. You have to stay out of the way of the singer too. You can’t play a lot of notes, just to be playing notes, you know. It has to be crafted to the sound of the song and the way that the singer is singing it. And that’s what I was able to do! I was so shocked by that, and it was fun too.
What was it like working with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys?
I liked to do the Beach Boys bass. That’s the only time that somebody wrote the basslines. Usually, I had to invent the basslines. I worked for Brian Wilson, and I’m playing on most of their hits: “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Sloop John B,” the Pet Sounds album, and most of the Smile album, and all that stuff. He wrote those basslines, and they were good. And he was a young kid. He didn’t know exactly what he was doing, but he did it great
You also worked with the Righteous Brothers on classics like “Soul and Inspiration.”
Oh yeah! I’m playing bass on that one! Weren’t they good? And they’re such nice guys. Especially the tall fella. I loved him. They were such great, great singers. “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”- I’m just playing guitar there. I kinda helped get the groove set because with that tune, Phil Spector had dumped a lot of echo in the earphones, and it made it hard to groove together. The echo would kinda hurt the sense of time, so I kinda bored down on the guitar, kept the beat going cause it’s a slow tune. And then the bass on “Soul and Inspiration,” that was so much fun there. I just love those guys. They’re great people.
What do you want people to know about you?
Well, that I did what I could to take care of my children. That’s the number one thing. I took care of my children.
And that I loved to play with my fellow musicians. When you got that love in between there, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man, woman, zebra or whatever. Whatever you are, it’s the other person too that you’re playing music with, and there’s a connection there. And I miss that too. I miss talking to them. I miss seeing them. Many have died. But when I hear the records that we’re playing on, they’re alive then. I feel like I can almost talk to them because they’re there on the record. And it’s the music thing that is alive, and it was alive when we played it too. It’s important to find the music part of your life.
You have such a powerful connection to music.
When you play music, you feel better. It does something to the mind, it does something to your heart. You’re in touch with something other than yourself. You’re in touch with the world or the stars. Everything. Cause there’s music everywhere, out in the planets. The planets make sounds too. So there’s something about music that’s very, very deep, and it’s very important to go with the music. Stop with the ego. Go with the music.
Visit Carol Kaye’s official website www.carolkaye.com