Bum. Bum bum bum. Bum. Bum bum bum. Bum. Bum bum bum. Bum.
What do you think of when you read this line? The State Farm jingle? Red Robin? It’s really just gibberish, but to me, this series of “bums” is the thumping beginning of The Beach Boys’ innovative classic “Good Vibrations.” The electric bass carries that song through all of its crazy twists and turns right from the beginning. This is true to much of American pop music, and although the bass may be hidden under other rhythm parts, it is instrumental to the groove of a genuine hit. Imagine “Good Vibrations” without bass, or the “M.A.S.H.” theme, or Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” or Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”— it’s nearly impossible. The women behind all of these songs fell into bass as an accident, but made a permanent mark on American pop music forever. Without Carol Kaye, those iconic lines and many, many more simply wouldn’t exist.
Though she is relatively unknown to people outside of music, Kaye is arguably one of, if not the most prolific studio musician in pop history. She boasts an estimated 10,000 studio credits on both guitar and bass, and her professional career lasted almost half a century. Now a grandmother settled in Antelope Valley, Calif., Kaye is not who you expect to be nearly the most recorded bassist of the last five decades. A petite blonde without frills, the musician is frank and straightforward in interviews. She wears sunglasses inside, and always has. She doesn’t use a decked-out, custom instrument, and instead plays a Fender Precision Bass, with a pick. In fact, Kaye didn’t even start out as a bassist, but rather a jazz guitarist, giving lessons and playing in clubs to make cash for her mother at 14 years old.
I was almost embarrassed to find out about Carol Kaye for the first time a few months ago. I mean, how can someone so incredibly prolific and instrumental to popular music fly so under the radar? But that’s the beauty of her talent — she was never in the studio for the fame, sex, rock ‘n’ roll and least of all, drugs. Instead, it was for a steady paycheck to feed her three children and mother at home. Her genius did not lie in charisma, but pure inventiveness. At 13, Kaye’s mother bought her a steel-string guitar and she began taking lessons on her own dime, taking odd jobs to gain extra income and support her single parent. Her teacher saw a special talent in the young girl, and soon, Kaye was playing jazz gigs in Los Angeles nightclubs.
But she had a baby at 16, and had to keep up several day jobs to support her family. In 1957, Kaye was playing guitar at the Beverly Cavern in Hollywood when a producer asked for someone to play on Sam Cooke’s arrangement of “Summertime.” Going from live work to studio session playing, called “record dates” at the time, was a big decision — often, jazz musicians never returned from the studio in those days. Kaye had mouths to feed, though, so she took the job, and soon she was in demand. By then, she had married and had another child, so the meager sums of club life would not cut it. In the studio, she found a crew of similar musicians that had made the transition from jazz to the pop and rock hits of the time. Though it may have seemed like the Monkees and groups like them were playing their own instruments on each hit record, it was likely Kaye and her contemporaries, skillfully boiling down years of jazz performance into the catchy notes of a pop hook. In an interview with For Bass Players Only, she claims she never felt alienated as the only woman in the studio during most of her career, but Kaye was trailblazing a path for other female musicians with every move she made.
One fateful day in 1963, the electric bassist on a Capitol Records studio date didn’t show up, and Kaye was called in to replace him. She had done some bass guitar work on hits like “The In Crowd” by Dobie Gray, but was by and far a guitarist first before that moment. The second she laid her hands on a Fender P-Bass for the first time, music history changed. It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s the truth — Kaye soon rose to “first call” status as a session bassist and worked for days on end, sometimes sleeping on her instrument case in between takes. She was the rhythm behind much of The Beach Boys’ legendary 1966 album Pet Sounds, and both Brian Wilson and Quincy Jones have called her the greatest electric bassist of all time. Paul McCartney has even said that Kaye’s work influenced his contributions to The Beatles’ classic record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Her talent was pure, unabashed and obvious to anyone who heard it. Her lines weren’t too complicated or basic or poppy or rock ‘n’ roll, but rather perfect elaborations on the simple rhythms put in front of her. She created a smooth and precise sound so famous that producers would ask other bassists to replicate on the rare occasion she couldn’t make it to a date. Most of all, Kaye was a master of the groove, following whatever her training and hands told her to do.
In addition to her musical talent, Kaye was always a staunch advocate for herself and her ideas. Without this, she would have never left two unhappy marriages, hired a live-in nanny and provided for her entire family on her own for years. Her genius both allowed her to pave her own path in music history and be self-sufficient enough to prove any critic wrong about a woman’s place in the studio. Even beyond her years as a session musician, the bassist published instructional books to teach the next generation of players. She still gives lessons via Skype at the age of 83. Kaye would not deem herself a feminist hero, and neither would I — that’s never what she wanted to represent, and never set out to be anything other than a guitar player. But she certainly is a hero of some sort, especially to women in music. Such a prolific career on such iconic albums and with such legendary bands is an accomplishment that can’t even be fully understood by anyone but her. That number, 10,000 songs, is almost impossible to truly fathom, but for Kaye, it’s the reality of her life’s purpose. Anyone who has listened to the radio since 1958 has heard her play at one time or another, and I hope that one day they know her name.