Whether they knew it or not, every boomer who ever listened to the radio has heard Carol Kaye play. Carol was a studio musician in the 1960s and ’70s, and played on some of the biggest hits of era. Since March is Women’s History Month, Mister Boomer felt it fitting to shine a light on Carol Kaye, especially since her work went uncredited on the hundreds if not thousands of recordings she made.
Carol began her professional career playing guitar as a jazz musician in the late 1940s. In 1957, she was asked to play in a recording session of Sam Cooke’s, Summertime (the flip side of You Send Me). Once Carol realized she could make a lot more money as a session player than playing in jazz groups, she worked practically non-stop. By 1963, she was among the 30 to 60 session musicians known as the “first-call group,” namely, the first people you call.
In the early days of rock & roll, many of the bands and singers were in their teens, and some were hardly experienced in playing their instruments. Yet even those bands with accomplished musicians were subject to the whims of record companies, eager for hits by hedging their bets with professional studio musicians to play in the recordings. It was common for bands and performers from top to bottom, regardless of their musicianship.
As a result, Carol became part of the on-call group of studio musicians she said was often called “The Clique;” she said it was fellow session player Hal Blaine who coined the term, “The Wrecking Crew.” According to Carol, Hal made up a history of the group name which he claimed was supposedly because they were “wrecking” the music business by playing for other musicians. Carol said that story was made up for self-aggrandizement and is why she does not like the term.
When bass player Ray Pohlman left session work to become musical director on the TV show, Shindig! (1966), Carol focused her session work on the electric bass. Among the musicians who played with Carol in this top-level group of session musicians were Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, Lyle Ritz, Ray Pohlman, Tommy Tedesco and Leon Russel, among others. She was the sole woman in a sea of male session musicians. Carol contributed to a massive array of hits during the boomer era, including, but not limited to:
La Bamba, Ritchie Valens (1958)
Be My Baby, The Ronettes (1963)
… and various other recordings of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound
Viva Las Vegas, Elvis (1964)
California Girls, The Beach Boys (1965)
Help Me Rhonda, The Beach Boys (1965)
You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, The Righteous Brothers (1965)
Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds (1965)
These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, Nancy Sinatra (1966)
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Simon & Garfunkel (1966)
The Beat Goes On, Sonny & Cher (1967)
Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel (1968)
Wichita Lineman, Glenn Campbell (1968)
The Way We Were, Barbra Streisand (1973)
In addition, Carol played — uncredited — on recordings by The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, and more. By the 1970s, Carol’s session work shifted mainly to soundtracks for TV and movies. In that capacity, she contributed memorable musical lines to Shaft (1971), M.A.S.H. (1970), Mission: Impossible (1966) Bullit (1968), and others.
She went on to become a music educator and wrote several books on playing instruments, especially the bass guitar.
Boomers heard her work, but probably never knew the name behind this monumental figure, let alone she was a woman (oh my)! Rolling Stone magazine named her number five among the 50 Greatest Bass Players of All Time.
Did you know the legend of Carol Kaye in your boomer years, or did you learn about her from recent books and movies like The Wrecking Crew, boomers?