Carol Kaye

Studio bass legend tells FBPO her whole story in this exclusive one-on-one conversation

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 21, 2014

Originally a jazz guitarist, Carol Kaye began recording with the electric bass in the early ’60s. With over 10,000 record dates and film calls (including over 40,000 songs and movie/TV cues) from 1964 through approximately 1973, Carol Kaye is, arguably, the most recorded bassist in music history. Carol’s bass work can be heard on countless hits by the Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, Richie Valens, the Grass Roots, Barbra Streisand, Glen Campbell, Mel Tormé, Sonny & Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Righteous Brothers, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Simon & Garfunkel, Herb Alpert, Ray Charles and many others.

Carol also supplied the bass tracks to numerous TV shows, including Mission: Impossible, Kojak, M*A*S*H, Ironside, Room 222, Hawaii 5-0, The Brady Bunch, Cannon, Bonanza, Green Acres, The Addams Family, The Lucy Show, Hogan’s Heroes, Soap, Wonder Woman, Lost in Space, Barnaby Jones, Marcus Welby, Get Smart, Green Acres and more.

Among the hundreds of movie scores for which Carol played bass are The Thomas Crown Affair, Airport, Plaza Suite, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, In the Heat of the Night, Shaft, The Paper Chase, Top Gun, Ghost, In Cold Blood, Goodfellas, Escape from the Planet of the Apes and The Poseidon Adventure.

A passionate educator, Carol has written, produced and published over thirty educational bass and guitar books and courses. Over the years, she has conducted over five hundred seminars and was a staff Bass & Jazz Educator at UCLA’s prestigious Henry Mancini institute for seven years, as well as in-residence educator at Pepperdine University and Cerritos College. Kaye was a columnist for Bassics magazine for fifteen years, in addition to having written numerous articles for various other publications.

Carol Kaye is the recipient of two Lifetime Achievement Awards, as well as Touchstone Pioneer and American Society of Music Arrangers & Composers (ASMAC) awards. She raised three children and is the proud grandmother of three girls.

FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?

CK: Well, it wasn’t an upbringing, for one thing. Back in the days of the Depression, when I was born, people were struggling just to get the barest essentials for their families. Life in the ’30s had nothing to do with life today. It was entirely a struggle.  There was no upbringing, but you heard music all the time. My mother would practice the piano, so I heard Chopin. I heard her play and she was great. I didn’t know how good she was at the time, but she could really play that stuff and she could play the ragtime, too. She was 42 when she had me, so it was very, very different. I heard my dad play the trombone, but by that time he worked as a night watchman on the docks of Everett, Washington. My dad used to play in the theaters, but I don’t know anything about that because I’m a late-in-life child. Everybody heard music on the radio back then. The whole country was addicted to hearing the big bands and jazz and all that stuff on the radio.

FBPO: How did you become involved with music?

CK: The 1930s was a very tough time and so were the wartime 1940s. Family violence by fathers was common and my Dad was beginning to get worse with his abuse, especially to my mother. I begged my Mom to get a divorce. I told her, “We can make it. Kick him out.” I was beginning to work, cleaning apartments, babysitting, etc. That was our chance at freedom from him.

It took about three or four years and she saved up about ten bucks. Then a steel guitar salesman came along at the projects where we lived in Wilmington, California. For ten bucks you could get some lessons and buy a little steel guitar. So she did it for me because, somehow, I think she knew I was musical. I took some lessons and I was good at it. And then one of my girlfriends at school was taking guitar lessons from a teacher in Long Beach, so I tagged along. He liked me and he asked me to play. He knew I was poor, so he said, “Listen, you come work for me and I’ll pay you some money and teach you how to play the guitar.” I took lessons for about three or four months that I worked for him and then he got me gigs on guitar. I could play standard tunes and I could play a little bit of jazz on guitar and I started working. When you make money to put food on the table, that’s the biggest self-esteem that you could ever have. You grow up fast when you’re poor.

FBPO: Everybody certainly knows that you’re a bass player, and I think most people probably know you’re a guitar player, too. But I bet people wouldn’t think of you as a hardcore jazz player, having played with people like Joe Pass and Hampton Hawes and Sweets Edison.

CK: You’re speaking about the ’70s. I’ve been a professional guitar player since 1949. I’ve also helped my teacher teach. My teacher happened to be the finest guy on the West Coast to teach all the finest guitar players, like Howard Roberts and Jimmy Wyble, so I knew them all. I knew the Gibson representative who would come over. I even met Les Paul through my teacher. I met Barney Kessel, too, when I was about 15, 16.

That’s not what got me work. What got me work was my own playing because I would work a lot of gigs each week and then I was called for big band stuff. I got married and I traveled with a big band in 1954, ’55, on guitar. Then I divorced him because I had the two kids by then, so I went to work days and I played jazz guitar at night. I would just show up and start playing with them. They liked the way I played.

Within a few months I was playing with the finest jazz musicians in Los Angeles. I was playing with Teddy Edwards and Red Mitchell and all those guys. I knew them all. It wasn’t strange for a woman in jazz to play with men. There were many women who worked with the men in jazz since the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. You don’t know about that history, but it’s there. The women didn’t just play with other women. They’ve been working with the men since the 1910s. The history’s just not that well known.

FBPO: You mean not just as singers, but as instrumentalists as well?

CK: Of course, of course! The best players. You’re sitting alongside the men. You’re not thinking about sex or anything. You think about the music.

FBPO: How did you become a bass player?

CK: I started doing studio work on guitar when a producer came in a jazz club in 1957 and asked me to do a record date. I didn’t want to do it at first, but I did. It was playing fills and backup for Sam Cooke and other people like that. I did the record dates for five years, only on guitar. I played on a lot of big hits on guitar, 12-string guitar, bass guitar, and people knew that I played the bass guitar on big hits like “The In Crowd” with Dobie Gray. So when a bass player didn’t show up at Capitol Records in 1963, they put me on bass and that was the very first time I ever played that Fender bass.

You have to understand, back in those days, they were doing dum-dum, dum-dum-dum, dum and I kept hearing the bass line, thinking it should be different. Had that not happened, I don’t think I would’ve been the bass player that I did become. I was a guitar player and I thought, “God, that’s kind of a simple bass line.” I thought the bass could be moving around more and the music would sound better.

Well, when I had my chance to play bass, I thought I didn’t have to carry in six or seven guitars any more, I would just carry in a bass. It only had four strings. I mean, easy enough! And I started to create my own parts and they liked it. I got the right sound. Just about everybody played with a pick on the bass back then. Flatwound strings. That was the sound of the ’60s.

Within a few months I became the first-call on bass. Before that, I was probably hired because I was number three or fourth call on guitar, so I started working day and night. It was just as well because I got a second divorce at that time and I had three kids and a mother and a live-in to take care of, so I had six mouths to feed. So yeah, I played that bass! [Laughs]

FBPO: You are a pioneer, in a sense, because nobody had really done what you did in that setting before you. Still, did you have any influences on the bass?

CK: Not really, no. The influences I had were Red Mitchell, Curtis Counce, all the fine bass players in jazz that I played with. The role of the bass is the same in jazz as it is in rock n’ roll. It’s important. But the theory is much, much different in the rock and the soul than it is in jazz, so you just automatically heard what you should have been doing anyway and you did it. That was the purpose of hiring a lot of jazz players to do those early rock hits because they could make up the lines real quickly. It was easy work and great money for not working too hard. The thrill for me was that I wasn’t a rock n’ roller and I didn’t really listen to rock n’ roll, but you automatically knew what to do because music is music.

FBPO: How would you describe the art, or even the science, of turning a lead sheet or a song into a hit?

CK: First of all, we never had lead sheets. There was never a lead sheet or any music given to us. We heard the song—I’m thinking about the late ’50s, early ’60s. We had chord charts only. We’d hear the singer sing the song or we listened to a demo. We got the idea for the track then. We’d occasionally write down a little break line or a little riff or something, but we never wrote music. We could hear it and then jot down here and there what to do really quick.

Later on, arrangers who came in and wrote the chord charts would add some lines and it got to be more and more arranged. In fact, in the mid-’60s, Glen Campbell, who used to sit next to me all the time—funny guy, he was hysterical with his humor, a good man, good person and he could really play, but he couldn’t sight read. So after a while, he disappeared because he couldn’t read. He’d ask me, “Carol, how does this line go?” and I’d sing it for him real quick and he’d get it real fast, but he was embarrassed about the fact that he couldn’t sight read. It was the same thing with Leon Russell and the next thing you knew, we were working for them!

FBPO: I ran into Glen Campbell at a NAMM show about two or three years ago. He looked pretty good.

CK: Yeah, I thought he was doing fairly well. That’s a terrible thing, what he’s going through. But you know something, as far as his playing, it kind of came back. I could see that, but you have to understand he had a zillion amount of chops back then, just all over that guitar! He was something else, a very fine natural talent.

FBPO: I’ve heard you talk about “Wichita Lineman” as one of your favorite songs, your favorite sessions that you did. Why is that?

CK: Well it’s a great song, for one. Jimmy Webb was there, playing the keyboard and the way that Glen sang it was so great. It’s just a good song and when you have a really good song to work with, it makes your job easier. Things pop out real quick. You get the right lines real quick and all that stuff. It was just a nice date, too. You had Jim Gordon on drums. Jim in those days was a very sweet and nice young man. He got that groove on the drums. Then Glen grabbed my bass guitar. I had a Dano there, too, because I used to bring it along with the Fender bass. He grabbed that and he did his solo on that. It was just a good date, just an overall good date, great song. It was amazing to create a nice bass line for it, but everybody makes out that that lick that I played was so good. They asked me to play a lick, so I played a lick. A lot of people don’t know it, but I played the wrong notes! [Laughs]

FBPO: I didn’t know!

CK: I kept thinking I was going into the B flat chord, so I’ll play a B flat major 7, which I did, and, at the last minute, I went – whoops! – down to F. [Laughs] So, that’s the story of that. But it turned out okay, you know.

FBPO: Were you pretty much using the Dano and the Fender throughout those years, or did you have anything else as your main instrument?

CK: Well, not the Dano. As soon as I started playing the Fender bass, there were cases, like with Sonny & Cher, I still played the electric 12-string guitar because it was part of their sound, you know, the fills and stuff that I was doing, the paradiddle fills. So I did do some guitar dates. I don’t think I did another Dano date, maybe one or two because I am playing Dano on one of the Beach Boy dates.

Every guitar player had a Dano in the trunk of their car because you never knew what you needed. In my appointment books, I have more of the instruments written down, what I used on all those dates. In my log book, I don’t have that. I just have the names, the times, the dates and the payment information. But the appointment books, I’ve got a lot more information in them and I still have most of them.

FBPO: When did you start using the Fender?

CK: 1963. That’s the date when somebody didn’t show up at Capitol Records. They put the Fender bass in my lap and that’s when I started playing. It was Earl Palmer on drums. I can remember that. I don’t know what tune it was, but it was a big hit. But that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to do a good job and then the rest is up to everybody else. I mean, musically, you do the best you can in the studios and as soon as I popped up and started playing the bass, I felt the role that it had, number one, and number two, it represented freedom for me to play some good lines. I was getting sick of playing the dinky guitar lines. I was starting to get tired of playing rock guitar. Five and-a-half years of that is plenty. So as soon as I got on bass, it opened up a whole new field for me and I liked it.

FBPO: Have you always played with a pick? Did you ever play with your fingers?

CK: Never was required to play with fingers. About ninety percent of the records cut in Hollywood, whether it was me or anybody else on bass, was cut with a pick, on flatwound strings. That was the sound and that’s what everybody wanted. If they couldn’t get me, then they’d get somebody else and they’d say, “Make sure you have the Carol Kaye sound on your bass.” So, yeah, everybody played with a pick back then.

FBPO: Did you ever slap, Carol?

CK: Hell no! [Laughs] Never had to slap. Slapping’s okay for its style. It was fun for a while, I’m sure, for most. But if you’re slapping, you’re just another drummer.

FBPO: I asked Jaco one time if he’d ever slapped and he held up his thumbs, which kind of curved around. He very strangely-shaped thumbs. He just looked me in the eye and said, “Never done it!”

CK: Right, right. I mean, Jaco was a real musician. I think a lot of them get into just lick playing because bass is an easy instrument. Anyone can pick up a bass and play two notes and that’s all you need to play a lot of different songs, just two notes.

FBPO: I thought it was three.

CK: [Laughs] Well, maybe if you’re playing blues it’s three. But I mean Jaco went to school and not only that, he was reared on jazz, so he knew music. He told me he learned to play a lot of licks from my books because he studied my books at the university down in Florida, where he went. I don’t know if he was just saying that or not, but he seemed very sincere about it.

FBPO: Carol, I’m trying to visualize the situation when you were running from one long session to another with very little or sometimes no time in between. What about things like changing your strings between sessions? It seems like there wasn’t much time for that or anything else. How did you manage that?

CK: Well, you know, when you cut a record, you have to forget the creativity you did on that record, so as soon as you walk out that door, it’s, “Good bye,” and then you’re on to the next one. You don’t have much time between dates. I used to run down once every two years to a music store. I’d call ahead and they knew what I wanted, a certain Fender bass and stuff. I’d run in and exchange basses just to get the new strings, so that’s what I did. And a lot of times, if I’d get to the date about five minutes early, then I’d check it out to make sure it played well. If it didn’t, I still had five minutes to take the neck off and put a little shim in there, which I could do too. So that was easy, but to change strings, I never wanted to do that on bass. I mean it’s tough enough on guitar! It’s just a mess to have to do that.

FBPO: Well, I guess everything was different in those days. I mean, you were playing with a pick and you were playing with flatwound strings and it was a different era and a different sound.

CK: You had to have a mute. Recording-wise, everybody had mutes. Guitar players had them installed in the back of their bridges. Drums had mutes. Piano players had mutes too, to a certain extent. Everybody had a mute. And you learned how to mute to get your sound, so that was part of it too.

FBPO: You’ve spoken a lot about Quincy Jones. I sense that he’s very special to you. What can you tell me about Quincy Jones and your experiences with him?

CK: He came up with music that was different, in films. I was doing films about the time he started to hire me. He came up with different ideas, more along the jazz lines that I was used to. See, jazz and soul are very, very close to each other, and some funk, too. Funk is only double-time soul. He was in tune with all that, being a jazz player himself. I understand he wasn’t the great artist he wanted to be on trumpet, but he had the ears and he wrote some great lines for the films. And he was one of us. In other words, he was never the “high and mighty” type of guy that a few tended to be, back then especially, because they were symphonic types of composers. But Quincy had the personality of being one of the guys and having that kind of music. It was ideal for people like me who was stuck in the da-da da-da da-da da da every day, you know, the “ditch digger” dates. As soon as you got on a Quincy Jones music date, it was real stuff! And it was great music, so I enjoyed working for him. And he treated us well too, and he had humor. He was a very nice person to work for.

FBPO: You’ve played so many TV show themes, too. Was it a handful of the same composers that were doing those or was it a whole great big long list.

CK: Oh, quite a few. There’s a whole list. Everybody was doing TV and movies. It was funny because it all kind of hit at the same time in the ’60s. I mean the rock dates got big, the soul dates got big. Until that time, the movie studios were on the edge of bankruptcy because TV just about put them all out of business. Then they discovered that if they hired the rock players and the soul players of the record dates and hired the best of the composers, like Quincy Jones and Michel Legrand, and they put out some hard-action movies, that they were back in business. And they made movies to show on TV, too. And the TV shows got into that too. So all of the sudden, the music exploded, see, with the kind of music that we played. Quincy loved when I’d add some notes to the part, you know, because half the time, he wanted me to invent some lines on top of the music he wrote. But it was easy for me and it was fun!

FBPO: I loved the theme of the old Bill Cosby show in the ’60s, where he played a gym teacher, Chet Kincaid! The theme song was “Hikky Burr.”

CK: I played on the “Hickey Burr” theme and it was a big hit. I went on the date at Warner Bros., where we first cut the theme for the TV show. The band had had music, but I didn’t have any parts, just a blank page. I said, “Well, what do you want me to play, Q?” And he said, “Just play anything you want.” So I just started playing and those were the first notes of the show. Then we redid it afterwards. I was writing my books about that time and I was up to book number two and I put the transcribed parts that I did on the hit record in my book. About a month or two after we cut it, he got the idea to overdub some of my bass lines back east, in New York, and he had the horns playing the same notes that I played. It sounds arranged that way to begin with, but it wasn’t. He took the transcribed lines that were in my Electric Bass Lines No. 2 and added the horns later.

There’s a tune called “Mexico” that I wrote. Q had been down in Mexico. He heard that I was down there and I told him about the “Hickey Burr” line too. I said, “Well, I’ve got that in the book.” And he was so thrilled to get the book because he didn’t have to transcribe it! He took it back to New York and then he cut the trombones and the horn players playing those bass lines with me on the record. Then he put it out in one of his albums and it really took off to be a big hit.

FBPO: That must have made you feel good.

CK: Oh, yeah! Well, you know, everybody else started doing that too. Dave Axelrod was hiring me for some of his things, including the Electric Prunes, and he’d just give us chord charts and tell us to jam. And we jammed and he wrote his arrangement off of the stuff that we’d come up with. By that time, they started to split off the horns from us. It was tracking dates, with the rhythm section, which wasn’t as hard as it sounds because we had played so much with the horns that we kind of knew what they were going to put on top of it. It saved time and it saved energy and they always knew that the rhythm section had the creativeness to create under the song. You heard the song and you did it according to the way it sounded.

FBPO: You did The Brady Bunch too, didn’t you?

CK: Yeah, that’s me on the The Brady Bunch. Everybody loved the rhythmic stuff that I put in it, you know. They usually just said, “Play something!” I did all the shows. I don’t remember what I played because I never listened to myself. I never heard those shows or anything. I didn’t have time. I was busy working.

FBPO: What about Barney Miller? Is that you?

CK: No, that’s not me. That’s Chuck Berghofer, the same bass player that did the thing on “Boots” (sings descending line) the slide on the string bass. I’m playing on “Boots” with him, but I didn’t do the slide. That’s Chuck Berghofer, a very, very fine jazz bass player. He asked me shortly before that, “How do I play with a pick, Carol?” because he was trying to get his act together on the Fender bass. I showed him how to hold the pick. That’s Chuck Berghofer, then, a little later on, Jim Hughart, one of my former students on the Fender bass – he himself one of the greats on jazz bass, by the way – did it too. But that was Chuck’s line.

FBPO: I wouldn’t have guessed that. I always thought of Chuck as an upright player. I remember seeing him play with Supersax, the Condoli brothers and those types of settings.

CK: Yes, Chuck was a fine string bass player. Back in those days, there were a lot of very, very fine string bass players. Buddy Clark was one of them. Ray Brown came into to town about ’65. I worked the very first record date with him. He came to town and did a whole bunch of films and stuff. So you had some great string bass players in those days.

FBPO: Did you eventually get tired of the grind?

CK: Yes. In fact, I started quitting in the ’70s. I probably quit about four or five times because I was burned out from recording. Then I went into playing jazz and I felt like I liked music again. If you recorded, toward the end of the ’60s, some of that music was not good that we had to record and your spirit starts to die if you don’t play good music. When I quit, I never wanted to touch the instrument again for the rest of my life! [Laughs] And then working with Joe Pass made me want to play again.

FBPO: What would you like to share about that period, those ten years or so? Is there anything that stands out that’s particularly memorable or special?

CK: I think working with all the singers who could sing well helped a lot. These days, it doesn’t seem like they’re aiming to be good like they used to. All the singers, all the players back then knew if you were good, you would make the money, but that doesn’t seem to be the thing today. I’m sorry to talk about how bad things are today, but it seems like the technology kind of changed things. It changed people’s ambitions. Now, they think that if you have connections, you have to be a star. Back then, if you were good, they’d hire you.

It was a different world back then and I think some of the people in recording need to return to the days where there were horns and a rhythm section playing at the same time. They need to go back and recapture a little bit of that. I don’t think they need to go back to the analog, no. With the digital, you just have to know how the instrument sounds and then go for it. A lot of engineers today don’t have that experience of working with big bands, so they don’t know how trumpets should really sound and like that. And drums, even, because they go for the boom-boom-boom, but they don’t seem to aim for great sound, like we used to do.

So I feel like today that musicians can be better than ever, but they need to go back in the engineering and go back and get the big band sound. I think once they start to aim for that, they can have another music explosion. Let’s face it: There is not much good music today. We need more music today. It would sure help with the world’s condition! [Laughs]

FBPO: It wouldn’t hurt!

CK: It wouldn’t hurt, yeah! It’s not all sports, you know!

FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?

CK: Well, I’ve got my publishing company with a whole new line of products that’s going to come out soon. I’m also teaching on Skype. That is fun! My students are learning bebop jazz from me on Skype. It’s just amazing to be able to impart that information directly from the ’50s into the creators of today. And it works on jazz guitar as well as bass, so teaching on Skype is a lot of fun for me. I’m thinking, at the age of 79, of going out and playing a little jazz again, too. So we’ll see.

FBPO: Anything you can tell us about the upcoming products you’re going to publish?

CK: No, not yet. There are a lot of people that want to know, but I’m not letting it out until it’s out. And of course, I’m into my book, too. Actually, the book will come out next year.

FBPO: Your autobiography?

CK: Oh, yeah. Well, I’ve got stacks of writing, but mostly I’m just going to compile it. I’ve got a lot of writing already done, so it’s just a matter of putting it together, too.

FBPO: You’re going to publish it through your own company, I assume, right?

CK: I can’t talk about it yet.

FBPO: What about this documentary I keep hearing about? What’s happening with that?

CK: There’s a documentary from Finland that I think is going to get out soon. And it’s a good one. Pekka (Rautionmaa, Finnish filmmaker) wasn’t in love with the “star-itis” type of stuff. He really wanted to make a good film and he’s done it. He really did a good job on that. So that’s the film from Finland that I think will come out. It’s called First Lady of Bass. The film is actually done. I just don’t know when it’s going to be released again. It was released in Europe and it was shown in Europe and boy, they loved it. So, we’ll see what’s going to happen here.

FBPO: What about that “other” documentary? I won’t even mention the name. Is there any point in watching it, or is it all just fabricated?

CK: I’ll say this: The Howard Roberts tribute documentary is the one to watch because that has our interviews in it and it has the prestige of the real life of the studio musician. People can make films that appeal to the rockers, but not true to the life of the studio musician. We all got lied to on one film and there are a lot of other bad things that are happening that I really don’t care to discuss.

FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player? Something outside of music.

CK: I have no idea! Music has always been my life, so I have no idea. I like to bowl, I like to fish, I like to run. I like to do a lot of things that I can’t do any more! [Laughs] I used to race go-carts with my son. But when you get older, you just can’t do those kinds of things any more.

Comments on Carol Kaye

  1. Will Wood says:

    Jon thank you so much for publishing this interview with Carol Kaye.I think she is a living legend!I don’t think she gets the respect that she is due.
    You did a great job of covering her career.
    It’s interesting to me that it almost sounds like she started playing bass because somebody stuck one in her hand.She sounded like she wasn’t really interested in playing bass, but guitar.
    I loved it when she said she didn’t have time to change her strings. She even unscrewed the neck and put a shim in to get the action she wanted! I love that.
    Thanks again for a great interview.

  2. Greg Englert says:

    Great interview, thanks. Carol is my teacher and mentor. She is a wonderful musician and just as wonderful teacher. I owe her a lot! Greg Englert – Sydney Australia

  3. Vince says:

    Thank you for the interview Carol!!
    What an amazing life you’ve lived as a pioneer really! God blessed you, little lady..
    & yes! Go play!


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