Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #1 Carol Kaye

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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”

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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

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God Only Knows: Sweet Vocal Harmonies

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Vocal harmonies. I just love them. I love hearing them and I love singing them in the various bands I’ve been in over the years. They can give you a big beaming smile, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, or bring a tear to the eye.

So, let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of the history of vocal harmonies through the decades, up to the present day and hopefully introduce you to some new, and old, favourites along the way.

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The origins of layering voices to make a pleasing sound started in European post-renaissance churches with sung Masses and classical choral music. In the late 19th century Barbershop quartets becomes popular in the US, which then underwent a revival in the 1940’s. This was followed by the rise of doo-wop in the 1950’s

image‘Whispering Grass’ by The Ink Spots was a popular early doo-wop hit

It was doo-wop and barbershop (along with jazz vocal groups such as The Four Freshman) which were to be the main influences on a young Brian Wilson in the late 1950’s. He formed a group with his brothers and some friends which would, in time, become one of the most influential vocal harmony groups ever: The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys – Sloop John B

This clip is an outtake from one of the sessions for their masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’, and with the vocals isolated from the instruments you can really hear the full depth and breadth of the performances. There were lots of different types of voices in The Beach Boys and they all blended together perfectly to create their unique sound.

On the other side of the Atlantic The Beatles were honing their close harmony skills (heavily influenced by the work of The Everly Brothers) in the bars and clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg in the early 1960’s. The combination of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s voices continued to be an integral part of The Beatles sound all the way through their career together.

The Beatles – Paperback Writer

‘Paperback Writer’ from 1966 was directly influenced by The Beach Boys. ‘Sloop John B’ has just hit the British charts and The Beatles had managed to get their hands on an advance copy of ‘Pet Sounds’. It has an awesome a cappella start before a killer guitar riff and Macca’s whooping bass kick in. There’s also some great textures created by the vocals under the later verses.

The so-called ‘British Invasion’ of the US in early 1964 was a catalyst for many groups on both sides of the pond using vocal harmonies in the next few years. Out if the ashes of some of these came a group which just about rewrote the book in 1969 with their eponymous album: Crosby Stills and Nash.

imageDavid Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash joined forces in 1968 from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies respectively. The album ‘CS&N’ was, at times, very stripped down, with minimal instrumentation; something which allowed the rich sound of their exquisite vocal harmonies to shine through (such as the atmospheric ‘Guinnevere’).

Crosby, Stills and Nash – Carry On

The example here, ‘Carry On’, is taken from their next album ‘Deja Vu’, which featured the addition of Neil Young to the band (but not on this particular track). The breakdown section in the middle is exquisite with Nash’s top vocal part cascading down as the other harmonies hold firm.

In the 1970’s the mantle was taken up by bands such as The Eagles (whose songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey were directly influenced by CS&N). They modified the West Coast sound, giving it more of a Country flavour.

The Eagles – Seven Bridges Road

This track was a live favourite which started out as a dressing room warm-up song and ended up as a set opener, featuring all five members harmonising.

With the advent of electronic music, vocal harmonies became a lot less prominent in the mix of records in the 1980’s. An exception to this would be a mini doo-wop revival by Huey Lewis and the News and their hit ‘If This Is It’

Huey Lewis and the News – If This Is It

If you try and ignore the goofy 80’s video there’s some good old blue eyed soul in there backed up on the choruses by some rather nice doo-wop harmonies

The dawn of the 1990’s gave rise to the girl/boy bands, and with it, a resurgence of groups relying on close vocal harmonies. The pick of the boys in this respect was probably Boyz II Men (how 90’s is the name of that band?!) who had a massive hit with ‘End Of The Road’

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 Those Boyz certainly knew how to rock the suit/jeans combo…

The pick of the girls was En Vogue (whom I had a massive crush on in my university years. There, I said it).

En Vogue – My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)

A looped James Brown guitar sample threads it’s way throughout the song whilst the girls (Dawn, if you’re asking…) hit some great harmonies including the obligatory a cappella breakdown.

In the mid to late 2000’s a band formed in Seattle with a mutual admiration for Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. The sound of Fleet Foxes is a throwback to the late 1960’s West Coast pop sound with some reverb-drenched harmonies worthy of note. ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and Mykanos off their first album are fine examples of this.

Fleet Foxes – Mykanos 

So, that brings us up to the present day. Are there any bands out there still pushing the envelope and kicking out some killer harmonies in 2014? Well, the whole inspiration for this particular blog is from a band I’ve just become obsessed with over the past month called The Staves.

The Staves are three sisters with beautiful, pure voices who create the sort of harmonies to make you melt. There’s something otherworldly about sibling harmonies (or ‘blood harmonies’, as they are sometimes known). The same voice overdubbed with harmonies has a pleasing sound to the ear. Get the right mix of people and the experience gets to a new level. Do the same with siblings and it’s a whole new ball game.  There’s enough similarities and differences between the vocals to make the whole thing gel together and create a lush, layered sound with an almost instinctive feel for how the parts work together.

The Staves – Wisely and Slow

This song, the opener off their last album Dead Born and Grown, with it’s sliding, swooping parts is perfection. There’s just the right amount of suspended tension in some of the sections which give way to glorious resolution. They have just released an EP, ‘Blood I Bled’, after recording sessions in a snowy wilderness with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

I urge you to buy it.

The Staves – Blood I Bled

 

Leon Wilson