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Pioneering Bassist and Guitarist Carol Kaye Surveys Her Career in Music, Including Her Time in Jazz Clubs

Carol Kaye and Doug Doyle on Skype
Doug Doyle/Skype
Carol Kaye chats with WBGO's Doug Doyle on Skype

Legendary composer Quincy Jones is quoted as saying "Carol Kaye is the best bassist I've ever heard" and wrote in his book Q that "Some women jazz musicians were so great, they would leave the men in the dust with their playing."

One of those women is bassist and guitarist Carol Kaye who recorded more than 10-thousand record dates and film calls and was the top call on electric bass from 1964 to at least 1973.

Carol Kaye.jpg
Carol Kaye is a pioneering bassist and guitarist who started in the West Coast jazz clubs

Kaye is a pioneer in creating bass style and is recognized and endorsed as a lead in bass teaching for decades. She's still teaching on Skype as well as writing, producing, and publishing educational bass and guitars books and courses.

While there were as many as 400 working studio musicians in LA in the 1960's, Kaye was the only woman that was part of an elite group of 50-60 musicians that played on hit after hit on various music charts.

In interview with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle, Kaye stressed she was never intimidated by the men around her.

"I never thought of myself a women at all. I knew I was a woman because of the way men looked at me, but not as a guitar player. The guitar was my voice, so I used my guitar to play and make money with. I was born in '35 and my parents were not extremely poor, but there were times that we didn't have enough to eat. When you work on that basis it changes everything."

Carol Kaye on bass.png
Carol Kaye
Carol Kaye was the only woman in an elite group of studio musicians making hit after hit in LA

Working day and night became routine for the talented musician. The long list of hit records Kaye played on included The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, Barbra Streisand's The Way We Were, Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman, Simon & Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair, Joe Cocker's Feelin' Alright, the Grass Roots' Midnight Confessions, and many more.

Kaye made her mark playing guitar in the jazz clubs on the West Coast. She started when she was 14.

"The genesis of real great music is in the black clubs. You had white clubs too, but the blacks came out to play with the whites and the whites went down to play with the blacks. It was all mixed up you know. So you can label it black or white. In the black parts of town, they had some nice clubs. People dressed up in suits and ties and beautiful dresses, hats and coats and all that stuff to go hear jazz. I carried my guitar in and they'd help with with my amp sometimes but they didn't have to, I could hold my own. Sometimes when I first worked in the clubs, they looked at me like 'oh, who is she, a cowgirl or something, or worse a folk singer?' As soon as I played some Bepop and some blues licks, then they knew that I could play when you get this (hand clapping), you now you're in. In the black parts of town, people never applauded you if you weren't good enough."

In 1957, while Kaye was playing in the clubs with the Teddy Edwards group, Little Richard's manager, "Bumps" Blackwell was impressed and offered her a studio gig playing with legendary singer Sam Cooke. Hoping to provide for her family, Kaye decided to take the record date which also featured Lou Rawls as the backup singer.

Bassist Carol Kaye used a pick to play her instrument
Carol Kaye
Famous for creating bass styles, Carol Kaye became the top call in for studio work

Eventually, Kaye moved to bass in 1963 when another studio musician failed to show up for session. Before you knew it, Kay would become the number one call for electric bass. By using a pick, she was able to create and invent bass lines that brought smiles to those in charges of the recordings.

"Everybody played bass with a pick. Nobody played with fingers back then. It was easy. I always played with a hard pick. The technique I used was a flat wrist technique. The minute you raise your wrist like that with the bass, you've lost your power. It's just something that I could automatically do. Then they would hire me and they didn't need three bass players. I knew I had something they needed. I was the top dog back then."

Never losing her love for jazz, Kaye recalled how she really enjoyed working with Marian McPartland and Melba Liston at the 1979 Women's jazz Festival. Kaye's admiration for today's female jazz players was obvious. She likes performers like Terri Lynne Carrington, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Esperanza Spalding.

"They're taking the integrity of the early days. They've got that integrity to them. They're not buying into the ego of things. The ego thing started happening with the stage bands of the '70's because the magazines made stars out of everybody. Musicians were not known as stars. We were respected yes, but we weren't stars. You had movie stars crafted to be stars."

Kaye is also a recognized and endorsed leader in bass teaching.jpg
John Meza
Carol Kaye is also a recognized leader in bass and guitar teaching

Carole Kaye's enormous list of TV and film credits is impressive. Some of the television shows she recorded on were the 1st Bill Cosby Show, Kojak, MASH, Ironside, Room 222, Hawaii Five-0, Mission Impossible, Brady Bunch, Cannon, Streets of San Francisco, Hogan's Heroes, Soap, Wonder Woman, Lost in Space, Barnaby Jones, Green Acres and Get Smart.

Her hundreds of movie scores included Airport, On Any Sunday, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, In The Heat of The Night, Top Gun, Ghost, In Cold Blood, Goodfellas, Downhill Racer, Duel, Bullitt and Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

"In movie work you could almost fall asleep the music was so easy to play and read. There was one sax player Bud Shank, great, great sax player. He used to read the Sailboat Magazine at the same time he was record a sax part. Most of the time in movies, you just look at the cue and record it. In other words you never rehearse it."

Kaye did enjoy working with some of the finest composers like Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Michel Legrande and Lalo Schifrin.

"You felt like you were finally doing what you wanted to do."

Carol Kaye's autobiography
Carol Kaye's autobiography came out in 2017

Carol Kaye's autobiography came out in 2017. It titled Studio Musician: Carol Kaye, 60's No.1 Bassist, Guitarist". You can find out more about her career at www.carolkaye.com.

A bonus "Women's History Month" feature based on Doug's interview with Carol Kaye can be heard here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.