How Carol Kaye Became the Most Prolific Session Musician in History

They don’t spend their lives on tour bus­es, per­form­ing for hun­dreds or thou­sands of fans. They don’t make music videos or appear on album cov­ers and late-night TV show couches—all the things musi­cians are sup­posed to do in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. But they con­stant­ly com­pose, play, and record music. And their work may get heard far more than that of most aspir­ing stars, though we may nev­er know their names.

They are ses­sion musi­cians, the sea­soned play­ers that song­writ­ers, singers, and pro­duc­ers call on when it’s time to get into the stu­dio and get seri­ous. And Car­ol Kaye may be the most pro­lif­ic of them all, “with a career span­ning more than half a cen­tu­ry and appear­ances on an esti­mat­ed 10,000 record­ings,” as the Poly­phon­ic video pro­file above notes.

Name a clas­sic rock, pop, R&B, or soul album and there’s a very good chance Kaye’s bass appears on it. The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Frank Zap­pa, Lou Rawls, Ike & Tina Turn­er, Dusty Spring­field, Love, The Mon­kees, Ray Charles, The Right­eous Broth­ers, Wayne New­ton, and on and on.

She start­ed as a gui­tar prodi­gy at the age of 13. Soon, she was teach­ing the instru­ment and play­ing jazz clubs at night. At 25, she caught the atten­tion of band­leader “Bumps” Black­well, who recruit­ed her for her debut ses­sion gig, play­ing on Sam Cooke’s “Sum­mer­time.” Her rhythm gui­tar work can also be heard on Richie Valens’ “La Bam­ba” and sev­er­al Son­ny & Cher hits.

But it’s Kaye’s work on the bass that made her most renowned, the result of a “hap­py acci­dent” when the bass play­er in a record­ing ses­sion failed to show up. Kaye took over and loved it so much that she stuck with the instru­ment, say­ing in one inter­view that she found in the bass “my own lit­tle spot. I knew what to do and what to invent.”

Invent she did, on both gui­tar and bass, con­tribut­ing her taste­ful play­ing to so many clas­sics that the his­to­ry of mod­ern music can­not be told with­out her. She has influ­enced count­less bass play­ers, from Gene Sim­mons to Tina Wey­mouth and writ­ten some of the most icon­ic grooves of all time. How’s that for a musi­cian who nev­er made a video?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet Car­ol Kaye, the Unsung Bassist Behind Your Favorite 60s Hits

Car­ol Kaye, 81-Year-Old Pio­neer of Rock, Gives Kiss’ Gene Sim­mons a Bass Les­son

7 Female Bass Play­ers Who Helped Shape Mod­ern Music: Kim Gor­don, Tina Wey­mouth, Kim Deal & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Mark says:

    A word of warn­ing about the accu­ra­cy of this: the verac­i­ty of Car­ol Kaye has been called into ques­tion: For exam­ple, the Doors remain­ing mem­bers Rob­by Krieger and John Dens­more, have now stat­ed clear­ly that she did­n’t play on cer­tain of the ear­ly Doors sin­gles, it was anoth­er female ses­sion bassist. So why would she claim this?

    In addi­tion, cer­tain of the oth­er Wreck­ing Crew mem­bers deny that Car­ol played as much a part as she claims. There are some peo­ple like Bri­an Wil­son that do ver­i­fy her rec­ol­lec­tion, and there is no doubt that she made a huge con­tri­bu­tion to cer­tain key record­ings.

    It may be that her mem­o­ry has gone, and that these are gen­uine mis­rec­ol­lec­tions (it must be lit­er­al­ly impos­si­ble to remem­ber sin­gle days work that you spent forty years ago, and there are prob­a­bly also old-ill feel­ings still around. But it’s worth bear­ing in mind.

  • Kevin says:

    Ignore Mark. She is tru­ly a leg­endary musi­cian.

  • DC says:

    Amaz­ing women. Absolute mas­ter­class musi­cian and so inven­tive in terms of bass play­ing.

  • Bob Schnebly says:

    Car­ol Kaye is a music leg­end!!! Her work on Pet Sounds and the Smile Ses­sions alone would put her into Rock and Roll ROUALTY!!! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have a place for her…

    Bob Schnebly

  • Bob Schnebly says:

    Car­ol Kaye is a music leg­end!!! Her work on Pet Sounds and the Smile Ses­sions alone would put her into Rock and Roll ROYALTY!ll The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have a place for her…

    Bob Schnebly

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