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March 27, 2024

The First Lady of Bass Guitar: Portraits of Carol Kaye From the 1960s and 1970s

Meet the woman who Brian Wilson and Quincy Jones called “the greatest bassist in the world“. The woman with appearances on an estimated 10,000 recordings, who worked on some of the greatest albums of all time. Meet Carol Kaye: the greatest session player you’ve never heard of.

Carol Kaye (nee. Smith) begun her music career on a $10 steel-string guitar in 1940s Los Angeles. At age 13, she was teaching guitar lessons and playing gigs in various nightclubs around LA. Kaye made a name for herself in the LA bebop scene and in 1957, she was approached by Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell — an early associate of Ray Charles.

Blackwell recruited her to play a session with Sam Cooke on “Summertime,” though Kaye was hesitant to accept, it was this decision that launched her career. From there, she became a regular guitarist on all sorts of rock ‘n’ roll, R ‘n’ B and soul records, and worked closely with star producer, Phil Spector. One of her most iconic guitar sessions? She featured on Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” aged just 23.

These sessions brought her to Capitol Records, where a happy accident shifted her career into new territory. In 1963, when a bass player failed to show up for a session, Kaye volunteered for the role and completely fell in love with the instrument. 

Carol Kaye’s genius did not lie in her charisma or a rockstar lifestyle, but in her inventiveness, her dependability, and her incredible skill. Her basslines became the harmonic and rhythmic backbone for some of the most important rock songs of all time.

She was used for much of The Beach Boys best work through the 1960s. Her work was so good, it was bumped up in the mix to be heard louder than most other instruments. Producers even started asking other bassists if they could recreate the ‘Carol Kaye sound’, which Kaye says is a balance of clean lines, perfect timing and hard picking. 

“Good Vibrations” is the song that shows off the signature aspect of Kaye’s bass lines: her use of a pick. While bassists conventionally pluck with their fingers, Kaye had come from playing the guitar, so a pick felt most natural in her hand.

(via Happy Mag)


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