Kaye, Carol (b. 1935)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/25/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20800

A native of Everett, Washington, Carol Kaye (b. 1935) hailed from a musically talented family and went on to become one of Hollywood's so-called "Wrecking Crew" -- a stable of the finest recording-studio musicians in America. Starting with a lap-steel guitar at age 13, she progressed to Spanish-style guitar at 14, and eventually to her signature instrument, the electric bass. Discovered in 1957 while gigging with ace Los Angeles be-bop jazzers, Kaye was recruited to participate in her first of an estimated 10,000-plus recording sessions -- backing pop/soul pioneer Sam Cooke, and soon thereafter, Chicano rocker Richie Valens. In the prime of her career, Kaye contributed to everything from the Phil Spector girl-group era to surfer rock to numerous music icons (Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bobby Darin, Quincy Jones, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand). She played on the theme songs and scores for many TV shows and Hollywood movies. Countless famous bassists have praised Kaye's formidable skills, and her legacy was sealed with the release of documentary films: 2004's The First Lady of the Bass, and 2008's The Wrecking Crew.

Everett Beginnings

Married in 1914, a couple of Everett, Washington-based professional musicians, Clyde George Smith (1888-?) and Emma Dorothy "Dot" (nee James) Smith (1895-1981), were blessed with the birth of three daughters, the last being Carol Louise Smith, who was born there on March 24, 1935. Clyde -- a member of the prominent Smith family of Bothell, Washington -- had joined the Everett Musicians Union AFM Local-184 on September 10, 1917, as Dot did on December 17, 1927.

Clyde's music career had included touring the country with the vaudeville-era star, Eddie "The King of the Banjo" Peabody (1902-1970) throughout the 1920s, spending years in the pit bands of Seattle's theaters, and with the Everett Elks Club Band (B.P.O.E. 479). But the Great Depression hit hard and the Smiths struggled. By 1932, when they were living in a modest home at 4504 S 3rd Avenue in Everett's Lowell neighborhood, Clyde had to take on a regular job as a millworker at the Everett Pulp and Paper Company in Lowell. In 1935, when they had moved to 1424 Wetmore Avenue, he worked security at the local New England Manufacturing Co.

Later Clyde began working as a night watchman at the Port of Everett marina, a job that came with a two-story bayside residence on Pier 2 at the foot of Hewitt Avenue. "I can remember growing up on the edge of a dock there," Carol would later recall. "There was a house at the end of the dock" (Kaye, EMP). In her autobiography she wrote that "I remember the smell of the salmon off the main pier, and remember traipsing around the low-lying docks where the private boats tied up. There were dozens of boats there, it was a very active fishing village. But there weren't many children around, except at an imposing granite building of a grade school" (Kaye, manuscript). Her first school was the circa 1911 Longfellow Elementary School at 3715 Oakes Avenue.

At Home with Music

The Smith family's lives revolved around music. "My dad was a really fine trombone player and my mother was a really fine piano player. She had played the piano for the silent movie houses, and he was on the road with big bands" (Kaye, EMP). "My mom would daily practice her classical Chopin, Czerny, and pop tunes of the 1930s as well as her Rags ... Her piano playing created a happy atmosphere at home, and gave me joy as a little kid ... The earliest memory was of him picking up that horn and playing duets with my mother at her Chickering piano at our old house in Everett" (Kaye, manuscript). "I ... just sort of grew up around music; we were poor, but when music was played, you had a sparkle in your life" (Kaye, "A note from ...").

Besides his marina job, Clyde was a member of a Dixieland band. "My dad, one time took me with him to a big-band rehearsal but made me sit in his car to wait for him outside the Elks club hall [at 2731 Rucker Avenue] on a side street in Everett," Kaye recalled. "The music moved me so much, it made the hair on my arms stand up, something that always happened later in studio work when we were cutting hit-takes, I always knew the take that would [become] a 'hit.'" Then there were the community summer concerts the Smiths attended: "It was magical hearing music at the outdoor Sunday bandshell concerts, hearing my Dad play -- the horns were beautiful, the whole band and the gorgeous music. A little piece of happiness to spend Sundays with outdoor concerts, free music for the whole town" (Kaye, manuscript). Everett's first city park, Clark Park at 2400 Lombard Avenue in the Bayside neighborhood, boasted a bandstand from 1921 to 1979 and was the site of many concerts.

Off to California

After the outbreak of World War II in December 1941, "We had a Christmas (of sorts) and then packed all we could in his car and came to Long Beach. Then he got his job as Foreman at the shipyards at Wilmington -- but he continued playing gigs down here" (Kaye, email). In prepping for that move south, Clyde sold Dot's beloved piano; she would not own another until Carol bought her one 17 long years later.

Hopes were high when Clyde's aging Model A sedan rolled into in Wilmington, but the war years created a lot of stress and the Smith marriage didn't survive. Clyde was abusive to Dot and young Carol, and Carol helped persuade her mother to leave him in 1945. The twosome got on the welfare rolls and moved into a housing project. "We were so poor after their divorce, but by working after school, first scrubbing floors and cleaning apartments in our Project in Wilmington, I could help put food on the table for Mom and me" (Kaye, email). "So mom and I had some pretty tough times. I stuttered. I had buck teeth. I did well in school, but I just couldn't find myself at all." Then around 1948, "I started to play guitar. I was just a dumb stupid little kid, you know, but this guitar salesman came around, and for ten bucks you could learn to play the steel guitar. So my mom, god bless her, she managed to pull the money together and I took lessons for about two or three times. And, you know: I kind of excelled at playing the steel guitar" (Kaye, EMP).

The Jazz Scene

In time, the young music buff began to settle into life in California: "I had a girlfriend who was taking guitar lessons from a man by the name of Horace Hatchet (1901-?) in Long Beach," Kaye recalled. Little did the young steeler know that Hatchett was a total pro who had gigged with the like of Jimmy Dorsey (1904-1957) and Nat King Cole (1919-1965). "So I rode with her to the lesson and I kind of liked it. And we managed to get a couple lessons and he put me to work to help him teach. He said, 'Listen I know that you can't afford to take lessons. I'd like to hire you to help me teach. And that way you can keep on learning.' So I started to help him teach. And then, pretty soon (within about three or four months of lessons), it was into jazz -- the Charlie Christian, the Benny Goodman sextet -- and he taught me how to write the parts down from the records" (Kaye, EMP).

At 14, "I started to play gigs around Long Beach. I mean we were hungry, so you know when you don't have anything else to do, and you can find something that you can do that you just loved -- then you go for it. And that's what happened" (Kaye, EMP).

Before long she met up with a skilled bassist named Al Kaye (1915-1998), who'd played with Hollywood Collegians back in the 1930s and then with the Stan Kenton Trio, and in time the two married. Their first child, Peggy Kaye (1951-2003), came along, as did a second, Peter Kaye, in 1955. It was in 1954 that Al and Carol Kaye both passed an open audition in Hollywood with a big-band orchestra -- as led by Henry Busse (1894-1955), the 1920s trumpet star with Paul Whiteman's famous dance band -- and were soon out touring together. "That was a great experience you know, to see the country. Didn't make much money, but it was a real good band. It had some really great, great players" (Kaye, EMP). It was an exciting period, but the showbiz life and tedious nature of the road caused marital strife and the Kayes divorced.

Recording Debut

Now divorced, Kaye began picking up nightclub dates around Los Angeles, playing guitar with the Bob Neal group, and even some beatnik/jazz dates with trumpeter Jack Sheldon backing the controversial stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966). In December 1957 Kaye was gigging at the Beverly Cavern club in Hollywood along with Teddy Edward's be-bop combo when a stranger named Bumps Blackwell (1918-1985) showed up.

Robert A. "Bumps" Blackwell was a Seattle legend -- an African American music-business figure who'd nurtured the early careers of young Northwest musicians including Ray Charles (1930-2004), Quincy Jones (b. 1933), and Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016). Then, after relocating to Hollywood, Blackwell furthered his reputation by working with the rock 'n' roll demigod Little Richard (b. 1932). Now he was hustling to produce a single that would turn a gospel singer, Sam Cooke (1931-1964), into a pop star and pioneer of soul music.

So, Blackwell walked in and said, as Kaye recalled: "'You want to do a record date?' And I looked at him and I thought 'Oh, this is some jive or something.' But the guys in the band seemed to know him, and I says, 'Okay, well who's it for?' And he said, 'With Sam Cooke.' I never heard of Sam Cooke, [but] I went down to do a studio call, and I took my guitar. [But] I thought 'Well, I've always heard that ... if you played a lot of be-bop jazz and you went to work in studios you can kiss your career good-bye you know, that you were never going to play jazz again ... But, it felt pretty nice at that time. You're playing with good people and it was a good clean life. And, I liked Sam Cooke, the way he sung and everything" (Kaye, EMP).

"He was an exceptional singer, and he knew how to pick the best material. Because this was my first session, I was a little reserved at first, but Bumps told me, 'Play some of that stuff you did in the club,' so I did some fills. Pretty soon, I had it down." (Bosso). It did not escape her notice that "I made more money on that night than I did the whole week at my day job!" (Kaye, EMP). And that record, "You Send Me"/"Summertime," became a national hit.

Studios vs. Nightclubs

Kaye did a few sessions with Cooke and it was an eye-opener for her. Unlike the endless hassles of nightclub work, studio sessions were a pleasure. And Blackwell was so impressed with her professionalism, he implored her to stop gigging and become a studio player. "Blackwell kept saying, 'Oh quit your day job -- I can put you to work.' And so I decided then that I was going to do it, you know because it was pleasant. I mean there was no jive about it, there was no bull, it was just, uh, you were there doin' a good job and you're gettin' paid so well for it. So, I quit my day job. But [that] was a mistake ...  I got a few dates but not enough to support my family" (Kaye, EMP).

Kaye, a divorced single mother, was shouldering the responsibilities of raising a family and also supporting her own mother. So when those recording sessions didn't provide steady work, Kaye was stuck taking on another regular club gig and squeezing in recording sessions in her off-hours for the following few years. Meanwhile, she'd remarried to David Fireman, had a daughter, Gwyn, gotten divorced again, and most momentously for her career, took up playing a Fender Precision electric bass guitar.

Rockin' Teen Idols

In 1958 Kaye was called to a session for Bob Keane's (1922-2009) Del-Fi Records at Hollywood's soon-to be-famous Gold Star studios. The gig saw her playing rhythm guitar for a promising young singer named Richie Valens (1941-1959) on "Donna" and "La Bamba" -- two tunes that would launch East L.A.'s Chicano Rock movement and become big (Billboard No. 2 and No. 22) national radio hits. "[I]t was such a pleasure to work for people like that, and to do that kind of music which is like Latin music. And let's face it: it was brand new. It was so much fun to do" (Kaye, EMP).

But only months later, on February 3, 1959, a plane crash famously took the life of Valens and two other pioneering rock 'n' roll stars: Buddy Holly (1936-1959), and The Big Bopper (1930-1959). In response, a radio DJ named Tommy Dee (d. 2007) wrote a maudlin quickie tribute single, "Three Stars," and cut it with Kaye, crediting the musicians as "Carol Kay and the Teen-Aires." It was rush-released by Crest Records on April 5, 1959. 

The Clique

It was around 1960 when a loose collective of elite musicians, initially known as "The Clique" but later redubbed the "Wrecking Crew," began coalescing at Gold Star. Kaye was the lone female joining other revered players including guitarist Glen Campbell (1936-2017), keyboardist Leon Russell (1942-2016), and drummers Hal Blaine (1929-2019) and Earl Palmer (1924-2008). This crew began cutting records as hired guns working for demanding producers such as Phil Spector (b. 1939) and Quincy Jones.

"See at first it wasn't that much fun, and then it got to be more fun because it was a real challenge to make a hit record," Kaye said. "You know that you could do a little somethin', play a lick here, and play a lick there ... see ... when you hear that the little licks that you create kind of made the record happen, then you're hooked. You're really hooked about the hit records. You want to do something to make the hit records happen, and that's what we were all doing then" (Kaye, EMP).

It should be noted that Kaye has long objected to the usage of the name "The Wrecking Crew" -- insisting that it was never used back in the day and instead is a modern construct invented by Hal Blaine. 

In 1962 the GNP Crescendo label issued a surf single credited to Kaye herself: "Anitra's Twist"/"Ice Cream Rock." Kaye's guitar work can also be heard on Chris Montez's 1962 No. 4 hit "Let's Dance"; Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans' 1962 Top-10 hit, "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah"; the Crystals' 1963 No. 3 hit, "Da Doo Ron Ron" and their 1964 No. 6 hit, "Then He Kissed Me"; the Ronettes' 1964 hit "Do I Love You?"; and the Righteous Brothers' 1964 No. 1 smash "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and 1965's No. 4 hit "Unchained Melody."

All About the Bass

In 1963 Kaye received a call to fill in for a no-show bassist at a Capitol Records studio session -- and from that day she quickly worked her way to status as Hollywood's first-call bassist. Kaye worked at other fabled studios including Western Recorders, Radio Recorders, CBS Studios, and RCA Victor Studios. Along the way she helped record catchy television ad jingles for such products as Alka Seltzer, Maxwell House coffee, and Wrigley's gum, along with Disneyland's 1964 earworm theme "It's A Small World (After All)."

As her reputation grew, she was brought into sessions with many premier artists, including the blues giant Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976); jazzers Cannonball Adderley (1928-1975), Gene Ammons (1925-1974), Count Basie (1904-1984), Joe Pass (1929-1994), Howard Roberts (1929-1992), Tom Scott (b. 1948), Bud Shank (1926-2009), and Joe Williams (1918-1999); country singers Eddie Arnold (1918-2008), Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991), Roger Miller (1936-1992), and Marty Robbins (1925-1982); early rockers the Coasters, the Isley Brothers, and Little Richard; and folkies Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. Kaye also recorded with a number of hit-making acts with ties to the Pacific Northwest, including Bing Crosby (1903-1977), Johnny Ray (1927-1990), Bonnie Guitar (1923-2019), Paul Revere & the Raiders, the T-Bones, and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.

Kaye played bass on a wide range of memorable tunes: Dobie Gray's 1965 hit "The In Crowd"; Nancy Sinatra's 1966 No. 1 smash "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'"; Simon & Garfunkel's 1966 No. 5 hit "Homeward Bound" and 1968 hit "Scarborough Fair"; Ike & Tina Turner's 1966 classic "River Deep, Mountain High"; the Marketts' 1965 Top-20 hit, "Batman Theme"; the Tijuana Brass' 1965 hit "Whipped Cream"; Jewel Akens's 1965 No. 3 hit "The Birds And The Bees"; and the Monkees' 1966 No. 1 smash "I'm A Believer."

The Beach Boys frequently wanted Kaye, and she cut numerous songs (including "California Girls," "Help Me, Rhonda," and "Heroes and Villains") on various albums including Pet Sounds and Smile. The Beatles bassist Paul McCartney (b. 1942) stated that the contrapuntal bass lines on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds directly inspired his playing on the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's albums. McCartney assumed that the bassist was bandleader Brian Wilson, unaware it was actually Kaye who had played those admirable bass figures.

Kaye also played on Frank Zappa and the Mothers' 1966 debut album, Freak Out!; various Sonny & Cher hits including the 1967 No. 6 hit "The Beat Goes On"; Nancy and Frank Sinatra's 1967 No. 1 smash "Somethin' Stupid"; the Lettermen's 1967 Top-10 hit "Going Out of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You"; the Doors' 1967 No. 1 hit "Light My Fire"; Joe Cocker's 1969 hit "Feeling Alright"; and Lou Rawls' 1971 Top-20 hit, "A Natural Man." In addition, Kaye wrote the catchy intro lick to Glen Campbell's 1968 No. 3 hit "Wichita Lineman."

In addition Kaye recorded with soul singers (Jerry Butler, Mel Carter, Sam & Dave); surf rockers (Dick Dale, Hondells, Jan & Dean, Ripchords); girl singers (Jackie DeShannon, Petula Clark, Leslie Gore, Dusty Springfield); British Invaders (the Animals, Chad & Jeremy, Hollies, Liverpool 5, Peter & Gordon); rock bands (The Association, Beau Brummels, Buffalo Springfield, Electric Prunes, Love); singer/songwriters (Neil Diamond, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Neil Young); Motown superstars (the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Temptations, Stevie Wonder); and pop icons (Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Johnny Mathis). Among the finest tunes Kaye ever contributed to were Ray Charles' immortal 1972 version of "America the Beautiful," and Barbra Streisand's 1973 No. 1 smash "The Way We Were."

TV & Movies

By the mid-1960s Kaye was involved in a lucrative aspect of the music biz: recording the theme songs to numerous television shows. Among those she contributed to were: 1964's The Addams Family; 1965's Green Acres and Hogan's Heroes; 1966's Mission: Impossible; 1967's Mannix and Ironsides; 1968's Hawaii 5-0 and It Takes a Thief; 1969's The Brady Bunch, Love American Style, and The Bill Cosby Show; and 1973's Barnaby Jones and Kojak.

Simultaneously Kaye contributed to various movie soundtracks, such as: 1965's The Pawnbroker, 1967's In Cold Blood, In The Heat of the Night, Valley of the Dolls, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; 1968's Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair; 1969's True Grit and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid; 1970's M*A*S*H and Airport; 1971's Shaft, Le Mans, Plaza Suite, and On Any Sunday; and 1972's Across 110th Street.

By 1969 -- with an estimated 10,000 sessions and perhaps 40,000 recordings under her belt -- Kaye was getting burned out on the business. She'd married once again, to a drummer named Spider Webb (b. 1944). (They cofounded a jazz/funk group Spider's Webb, which went on to record I Don't Know What's on Your Mind, a danceable album for Fantasy Records, in 1976.) It was also in 1969 that Kaye formed Gwyn Publishing Company, writing and marketing How To Play The Electric Bass, her first of more than 30 tutorial books, one of which superstar bassist Sting (b. 1951) has credited as a foundational inspiration to his artistry.

The success of this new enterprise allowed her the financial freedom to back away from recording: "The day I quit in 1969 for some months," Kaye recalled, "I stopped all recording, and it was fun to finally say no to all contractors, movies, record dates, and TV-show films ... and when I went back later on, I refused all rock dates and all work for Motown too ... and took only the dates I wanted to work: the great music of the movie scores, the TV-film shows and hand-selected record dates with [Henry] Mancini, Glen Campbell, and Ray Charles, etc. ... that was fun" ("Carol Kaye Talks ...").

A car wreck in 1976 led to a longer retirement from recording music, although she did record with J. J. Cale (1938-2013) for his 1981 album, Shades, and with the New Wave Era girl group, the Go-Go's. Corrective surgery in 1994 allowed her to begin playing again. In 2006 Frank Black (b. 1965), leader of the alt-rock Pixies, recruited Kaye to play on his Fast Man Raider Man album.

The First Lady of the Bass

Along the way, Kaye also worked as a music instructor, teaching guitar, bass, and jazz at various universities, including an eight-year stint at UCLA's Henry Mancini Institute. She produced various instructional DVDs and penned a column for Bassics magazine for 15 years. Kaye made presentations at more than 500 bass seminars and guitar shows, and provided private lessons to students via Skype.

In 1998 Kaye participated in an Oral History video interview for Seattle's music museum, the Experience Music Project (MoPop), and provided bass instrument recordings for its seminal Quest for Volume guitar-history exhibit [as curated by this writer]. In 2004 a Finnish broadcast company, YLE, produced a documentary, The First Lady of the Bass, for airing in Europe. In 2008 Bass Player magazine awarded Kaye its Lifetime Achievement award, and that same year saw the release of The Wrecking Crew, a surprise hit documentary movie, which won many awards including the Seattle International Film Festival's Audience Award.

In 2014 the Love & Mercy film, a biopic of the life of Beach Boys leader, Brian Wilson, was released. During recording studio scenes Kaye is accurately portrayed (by the actress Teresa Cowles) as a feisty "foxy blonde in cat's-eye sunglasses" who knows her stuff (Reilly). In 2017 Kaye published her autobiography Studio Musician and on April 24 of that year, her local Musicians Union, AFM-47, presented her with a Lifetime Achievement award while the City of Los Angeles offered up a Certificate of Recognition for Kaye's contributions to making the city "a better place to live."


Carol Kaye, emails to Peter Blecha, May 13-June 3, 2019, copies in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Carol Kaye interview for EMP oral history, February 10, 1998, transcript in possession of Experience Music Project / MoPop, Seattle;  Carol Kaye, manuscript excerpt, emailed to Peter Blecha on May 13, 2019, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle;  Peter Blecha mails with Leslie Meyer, MLIS (genealogy research consultant), May 28-29, 2019, notes in possession of Peter Blecha; Carol Kaye, Studio Musician: Carol Kaye, 60's No.1 Hit Bassist, Guitarist (Rosamond, CA: Carol Kaye, 2017); Carol Kaye, "A note from Caro l... ," carolkaye.com website accessed May 8, 2019 (https://www.carolkaye.com/www/biography/index.htm); Joe Bosso, "Carol Kaye: My 10 Greatest Recordings of all Time," musicradar.com website accessed May 11, 2019 (https://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/carol-kaye-my-10-greatest-recordings-of-all-time-508956); David Hadju, "A Smile for Carol Kaye," newrepublic.com website accessed May 10, 2019 (https://newrepublic.com/article/97590/carol-kaye);  Carol Kaye Talks About Her Life in Music...," horizonvumusic.com website accessed May 13, 2019 (http://blog.horizonvumusic.com/?p=12687); Kent Hartman, The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2013) pp. 9-10; Phoebe Reilly, "The Beach Girl Behind the Beach Boys," vulture.com website accessed May 15, 2019 (https://www.vulture.com/2016/04/carol-kaye-sets-record-straight.html); "Spider's Webb -- I Don't Know What's on Your Mind," Discogs website accessed June 20, 2019 (discogs.com/Spiders-Webb-I-Dont-Know-Whats-On-Your-Mind/master/535888); Scott R. Benarde, Stars of David: Rock'n'roll's Jewish Stories (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2003).

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