Session Musician Spotlight: Carol Kaye

When guitarist/bassist Carol Kaye took her first gig as a session player in 1957 for a Sam Cooke session, she simply saw herself as a working mother who needed to provide for her children. “I knew it looked like money, and I had two kids to pay for,” she once told Far Out.

Kaye was born to working-class, professional musician parents and grew up in a housing project during World War II. At the age of nine, her parents divorced, and she began working to help make ends meet, paying for her own guitar lessons. By the time she was fourteen, she was already a professional – assisting her guitar teacher with lessons and playing jazz gigs in the Long Beach area.

The jazz work led to the Sam Cooke session, and from that sprang a career that encompassed over 10,000 sessions on both rhythm guitar and bass for artists like The Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Quincy Jones, Cher, and Joe Cocker as well as scores for film and television.

As one of the few women to find consistent work in the session world, she is viewed today as a trailblazer who broke the glass ceiling for other women musicians like June and Jean Millington, Bobbye Hall, and Sandra Crouch.

Kaye maintains, however, that her focus in those years was less lofty: "I never thought of myself as a woman at all. I knew I was a woman because of the way men looked at me, but not as a guitar player. The guitar was my voice, so I used my guitar to play and make money with. I was born in 1935 and my parents were not extremely poor, but there were times that we didn't have enough to eat. When you work on that basis, it changes everything."

Glen Campbell - Wichita Lineman

“‘Wichita Lineman’ is one of my favorite records,” Kaye once said. “I got to improvise most of my bass line on that….We just had a chord chart to work from, and they came up with a lead-in line…so they asked me to ‘start it with a pickup on bass’...and what you hear is what I invented.”

Brenda Holloway - You’ve Made Me So Very Happy

Kaye played on more than 175 tracks for Motown artists like Diana Ross & The Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha & The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and others between 1964 and 1971. Her bassline undergirds this slow burner that hit the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1967. It became an even bigger hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears, peaking at the number 2 position on the same chart, two years later.

Righteous Brothers - You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

Produced by Phil Spector, Kaye played rhythm guitar on this recording that hit the number one position on both the American and British charts in February 1965. Kaye recalls of the Spector sessions, “The room would usually hold a crowd of musicians, Sonny Bono would sit in with the percussion section playing tambourine until Phil would call him saying, ‘Telephone, Sonny.’ Then as soon as he was out the door, we'd do the take (to the gratefulness of the percussionists). The booth was constantly crowded with people. What a scene, but fun!”

Tina Turner - River Deep, Mountain High

This 1966 Phil Spector production was no ordinary session, costing $22,000 to record with over twenty musicians. Kaye provided the song’s memorable bassline. She told Songfacts, “It felt like another thing that was going to be a hit, but to walk in the booth and there’s a ton of people in the booth, and there’s a ton of us out in the studio, it almost felt like a party.”

Wonder Woman (Theme)

It seems fitting that Kaye would receive the call to play on the theme song for The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter, which aired on CBS from 1976-1979. Kaye’s bass is prominent in the mix alongside session royalty like Emil Richards, Joe Porcaro, and Tommy Tedesco.

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