Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #1 Carol Kaye



There are a handful of bass players, unknown to the majority of the general public, who were hugely influential in the world of pop, rock, blues and soul. They played on literally thousands of hit records from the 1950’s onwards.

This is the first in a series of blogs where I aim to shed some light on some of these players and show some examples of their top notch work.

I thought that the best place to start would be with one of the most prolific session musicians of the past fifty years, Carol Kaye.

Born in 1935 in Everett, Washington USA, Kaye was born into a family of musicians. When her parents divorced, Kaye and her mother relocated to California. Her mother bought her a guitar aged 11, and by the age of 14 she was playing jazz gigs semi-professionally and helping her guitar tutor teach some of his other students. She continued to learn her trade playing guitar in the California jazz clubs throughout the 1950’s and got her first studio session backing Sam Cooke in 1957.
Many of the top record producers of the time frequented the jazz clubs in order to recruit session musicians. “Jazz musicians invented rock lines”, says Kaye. “We could cut rock and roll real fast. Rockers weren’t good enough to play their own music. They had poor technique and the sound and feeling were wrong. They were stars, not musicians. We made people into stars ”

Over the next few years she played guitar on a number of hits like ‘La Bamba’ by Richie Valens, and various classics for the maverick producer Phil Spector, including ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals and ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ by The Righteous Brothers.
The switch to bass in 1963 actually happened by accident, rather than design. She showed up as usual to a session at Capitol Studios where the bass player failed to show. “They put me on bass, and I found that I liked it immediately. I saw the potential for it, because I realised then that a lot of the hit records depended upon the role of the bass. And it was much more fun to invent on bass than the rinky-dink guitar stuff that I had to do. It just felt comfortable”

By 1964 she was the ‘go to’ session bassist on the West Coast and subsequently played on thousands of songs and hundreds of hit records. There were also themes and soundtracks to numerous films and tv shows (Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Mission:Impossible’ to name just two). She played a part in developing Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, she played on The Beach Boys seminal ‘Pet Sounds’ album (influencing one Paul McCartney in his bass playing in the process) and she came up with, and played, the intro to arguably one of the best songs of all time ‘Witchita Lineman’.

So here are just three picks from the fantastic Carol Kaye (all, coincidentally, from 1966).

River Deep Mountain High – Ike and Tina Turner

First of all, you can see why Phil Spector’s productions were dubbed as the ‘Wall of Sound’. The sheer number of musicians involved (allegedly over 30 on this track) doubling and sometimes tripling parts, all smothered in reverb, created a unique sonic landscape. The song starts with Kaye’s descending electric bass figure doubled by James E Bond’s upright acoustic bass in order to give an attacking sound with some huge bottom end. They stop dead to allow Turner’s vocals to set the scene with the bass(es) playing a persistent fifth-root figure which bounces the verse along. The whole thing builds towards the chorus where the strings and myriad of backing vocals push towards the stratosphere. A great use of dynamics sees the wall of sound come to a halt at the end of the chorus where the descending bass figure leads us into verse two. After the second chorus there’s a great bridge with a repeated line underpinned by some manic bongos which steadily builds until Turner can’t take it any more, and lets rip with a primal scream into the final chorus.

God Only Knows – The Beach Boys

This Brian Wilson classic from ‘Pet Sounds’ started life from a prayer session in the studio and it’s another interesting arrangement with snare drum, sleigh bells, accordion, strings and horns creating the celestial mood. Kaye’s bass maps out the chords, loping through the song like a muscular Ghurka; never letting the listener stray from the mountain path of the melodic journey. The stars of the track though are The Beach Boys’ vocals: Carl Wilson’s beautiful, delicate lead vocal and the carefully woven intertwining lines of the rest of the band towards the end of the song.

I’m a Believer – The Monkees

This Neil Diamond song, covered by The Monkees (they sang on it while session musicians backed them), is driven by a tight bubbly bassline which perfectly compliments the upbeat nature of the track.

Carol Kaye continues to teach bass to this day (she recently turned 80) to musicians of all abilities (even spending time with talentless no-hopers like Gene Simmons from Kiss…). So let’s hear it for our unsung hero of the bass guitar.


Leon Wilson


10 thoughts on “Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #1 Carol Kaye

  1. Very interesting post, not someone I knew anything about. I know a couple of female bass players who also tend to choose ‘River Deep Mountain High’ when they do karaoke so I have passed onto them as I suspect they will also be interested. Have shared on my blog’s Facebook page too!

  2. Reblogged this on Ugly Bass Face and commented:
    Here’s a great piece on Carol Kaye from “Cut me a notch at 125Hz”. It gives a brief history and some highlights of her long-running career. I’m looking forward to more in this series of unsung bass heroes. 😉

      • I’m exited to read them. I like seeing which bass players leave an impression on people. Carol, in particular, has really changed the face of music.

      • Totally. The vast majority of people have no idea who she is and how influential her playing is/was. Mind you, the majority of people have very little idea of what we do as bass players anyway!

      • I know exactly what you mean. To this day, my wife confuses her with Carol King. 😉

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