As the #1 call Los Angeles studio bassist, Carol Kaye worked extensively with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Lee Hazlewood, and other top producers in the 1960s, although she was a straight jazz player when she started guesting on rock dates in the late 1950s. Here she remembers her work with famous musicians, producers, and arrangers. For more information on Carol Kaye, go to her website at www.carolkaye.com .
How did you get involved with playing sessions in Los Angeles?
In Dec. 1957 by the time Bumps Blackwell had walked into the Beverly Caverns jazz club to ask me to work on a Sam Cooke record date ("You Send Me" had just hit the radio stations in LA, they had sent tapes out), I looked around at my fellow combo members, Teddy Edwards, Billy Higgins, Curtis Counce etc. and they knew Bumps, so I had decided to take the record date, really just for the money temporarily. My day job was supporting myself, my two kids and my mother (jazz didn't support even the best in those days). But the talk had been that if you began studio work, you can hang up your jazz music career as it "ruins" your jazz chops and my guitar career was off to a flying start with all the work I was getting and all the finest musicians I enjoyed playing with.
The thinking was in the jazz circles that rock was here to stay, but as many eagerly went into the studio work (was steady and paid so well), it was noted they didn't come back to playing a lot jazz then. People didn't mind playing rock and roll, it was essentially latin 8/8 with a heavy backbeat, and the rock of say Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens, etc. was pretty good music. Even the later Herb Alpert music was pretty fair. Then it got to be heavy surf music, Phil Spector, etc., that got a little old to jazzers like Plas Johnson, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessell, etc., but mixed in would be some "nice" dates say with Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughn, those kinds of dates. No we all knew rock was here to stay and we sure had to keep quiet about the fact that most of us were either jazzers or former big-band horn men (Stan Kenton, Glen Miller, Casa Loma, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, etc.), we were "rockers" for all intents and purposes to the young producers in the booth, most of whom were nice, but they being sort of new, we didn't want to rock the boat. We would play any way they wanted (most of us like me, they listened to the current radio rock styles and quickly got them together, no problem), as long as they paid -- we all had families to take care of.
What do you think were the most distinguishing marks of the sound that you and other L.A. session players came up with in the 1960s?
You speak of sound, about our bunch having a distinct sound. Well according to that, I can only say we played HARD, very intensive. Our lives and the lives of our kids and family all depended on that sound. We used to say it was the "hungry" sound. After playing your tail off in tons of nightclubs, being on the road (away from your family) so much of the time in big bands, etc., when you get the chance to work "normally" in your home town in the respected studio work dates, you play very INTENSIVE. Another aspect of that is that we had all the creativeness, especially the jazz rhythm section players, to CREATE instant arrangements (frameworks of songs for hit records) with licks, patterns, all sorts of ideas bouncing back and forth from us, we knew where to put the quiet parts, the key changes, the breaks, the fills, and the mid-range monotonous hook lines, all sorts of things you do constantly in jazz, which is spontaneous constant improvisation. Arrangers then learned from our ideas and learned to arrange better and better, but still relied on us for not only our intensive performances but also we could still come up with better lines (much of the time) than what they wrote, certainly we could really pad their arrangements well with more ideas of our own, and this was the secret of the hit sounds of early recorded rock hits in 60s LA.
Also, one has to credit the fine engineers who sometimes were just out of school, and didn't get jobs in the movie industry and came to work for studios like Gold Star (thinking of Larry Levine) and they got on-the-job training from the likes of Stan Ross and Dave Gold, co-owners of Gold Star (Dave invented that famous echo chamber), this was common in all the studios as they went from 2-track to 3, then 4-track, 8-track and quickly to 16-track (geez we tho't what next, this is as high as they could go -- how wrong we were) and plus Phil Spector helped innovate the use of all those barriers, multi-mikes on the drums, and earphone use to hear each other with balance-controls on the mix fed back to us too. A musician doesn't play well if they can't hear the rest of the band, all these things helped us get our performance intensity so well -- so it wasn't just the musicians, we were all in it together, all these revolutionary changes in studios, due to the demand for rock records by the populace out there.
Who were the musicians you enjoyed playing with the most?
Some of the most enjoyable/creative people I enjoyed working with were: Ernie Freeman (had such great jazz chops and arranging ideas, he constantly honed his crafts to be one of the all-time greats, plus he respected you as a top-flight musician also, but dared to get the best out of you, he was strict and got some great performances, we all loved him) -- Phil Spector (he liked all the jazz musicians, hired some of the greats: Don Randi, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessell, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine -- now Hal is not known for his jazz, but you'll hear him on the new "Drum Legends" CD two cuts we just cut live at the Baked Potato, you'll hear his fine jazz influence, Emil Richards, Gene Estes, Tommy Tedesco (he didn't get to play all the jazz he wanted to, but was good), Freddy Hill (now in Africa, fine trumpeter), Lew McCreary (fine jazz trombonist), Ray Johnson (pianist brother of Plas), Plas Johnson (Pink Panther, Peter Gunn jazz sax legend) and on and on, Phil while being somewhat of a character, really had good respect for us and we admired his forte for innovations and the sounds he was going after altho' there were 24 takes sometimes. Brian Wilson ditto like Phil, he was into something atonal, very different -- and the fact that he could write so many parts himself, set him above all the rest of the rock groups who relied heavily on our creativeness, he also loved the jazz musicians and was a good producer-arranger-composer-singer, a good guy. Don Costa (mostly pop stuff), a musician's musician. Quincy Jones, a FINE arranger/composer for the films especially, used all the jazz musicians he could get ahold of, was a pretty good musician himself (not really that great, but understood the "dues" a musician pays), he was a great writer, and appreciated us all for our sometimes-created parts also.
Michel LeGrand, ah, the beauty in that writer (he studied under the same madame in Paris that Quincy did too), and he respected us, got the best out of us with his tough parts, we loved the challenge of his music, Dave Grusin, Billy Goldenberg, Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Roseman, Jerry Fielding (he was a little rough, but could sure write), Oliver Nelson, John Williams, Benny Golson, Bob Prince, Michel Colombier, Clark Gassman, so many greats and good people they were too, the list goes on and on and on. The tougher they were, the better they wrote, the more we lived to play their great music.
But back to rock and roll. You had Jimmy Bowen, a tough entrepreneur who knew how to put the right people together for a great hit product, he jumpstarted Nashville in the early 80s to be what it is today I understand. He was gruff, funny, right to the point, no-nonsense yet fun-loving in his quest for the hit record, and was responsible for the Sinatra hits, etc.
Harold Battiste in contrast was responsible for so many of the Sonny & Cher arrangements. He would take an ordinary tune and turn it into a huge different-sounding production. We'd still add a few licks here and there, but his genius was evident in his writing, plus he was a helluva fine jazz sax player and organist too, living back in New Orleans now, he hangs out with his good friend, the father of the jazz family, M......... Harold was sharp, and noticed (like all the rest did also) every note you played, good or bad. A fine leader, a kindly man, but strict with the music. Those are the qualities you need to get the best out of studio musicians (of all kinds) and get the best recording values also.
We still miss the #1 rock-sax studio musician Steve Douglas, and the wonderful first studio elec. bassist Ray Pohlman (he started recording in LA 1956). Ray Pohlman also was a fairly good jazz guitarist, but didn't pursue the black clubs like so many of us did. Ray was quite content playing elec. bass in the studios up to 1964, when he became the musical conductor of the Shindig TV show (using Larry Knechtel on the elec. bass on that show) which opened up the work about the time I began playing a lot of elec. bass on the dates, shortly after filling in for a no-show elec. bassist at Capitol Records one day. I had been a successful studio guitarist up to that point for 5 years, and really became quite busy after that, due to Ray's absence -- he had done so much bass work on the early LA hits up to that point, nice man who also arranged well, sung also on session work.
Interestingly, Ray Pohlman in the early 80s became the rhythm guitarist for Frankie Capp's great jazz band, Juggernaut, ala Freddie Green -- Frank was the drummer on the Sonny & Cher 60s hit "The Beat Goes On" (Bob West on elec. bass, I played guitar, but they used my made-up bassline on that 1-chord hit). Frank Capp was one of Phil Spector's favorite percussionists and still is an excellent jazz drummer.
You played on several of the Beach Boys' best records. What was Brian Wilson like to work with?
Brian Wilson was a continually growing talent. His first dates were pleasurable, sort of the usual surf dates but they grooved a little better than most. Then he would bring in tougher and tougher music, more deeper songs to record (only 1 per date, usually several takes, and he'd experiment a lot from the booth, having the guitars try this and that, changing the music a little, but experimented with sounds too). He was always great to work for. Dynamic, strong, sense of humor, and self-assured at all times. He also respected us, and our opinions of his music, think he enjoyed writing more and more just to show us what he could do, and it all worked out. He sure had our respect and still does, he's quite a guy, quite a talent.
How did things change for you when more self-contained groups that played their own instruments and wrote their own material started to emerge in the mid-1960s?
The record companies tried to use the groups one time during the 60s for doing their own recordings. They would go for weeks to get a good recording -- they couldn't do it. The companies recanted and got back to us immediately. We could usually cut a great hit album in 2 sessions (6 hours).
What were the main ways the industry changed by the end of the 1960s and the 1970s?
I saw our clean-cut coffee-clache bunch being added to by musicians who were pot-smokers. This didn't bother us at first approx. 1968-69 but in the 70s you saw cocaine in the studios and they were taking days to cut hits then, even producers used drugs and insisted that the studio musicians on their dates also use cocaine, something we were appalled at. Most of us by that time were ensconced happily recording for the movies and TV shows, there were no drugs there in those studios. Plus the synthesizers came in about the middle 70s and started to take jobs away. A lot of us were then playing live again, but we do miss the 60s for sure.
Are there personal favorites among the many records you played on?
I don't know what to say to that, some of the jazz-funk I cut at Fantasy Records in the early 70s are some of my best recordings--they're not too well-known, some funky things with Peggy Lee, but my favorite recordings are: "The Way We Were" (Barbra Streisand), "Feelin' Alright" Joe Cocker, "Feel So Bad" Ray Charles, "Wichita Lineman" Glen Campbell, "Good Vibrations" "Help Me Rhonda", }California Girls," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B," "Heroes & Villains," and Pet Sounds with Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), and many others on my picture list, really love all that stuff altho' I still just listen mainly to jazz.
Is it frustrating that it's taken so long for you and other session players to get recognition, and even then you're not nearly as recognized as the people who had their names on the records as artists and producers?
We were satisfied with being background
session players in those days. It took a lot of guts, pain, and
to be a star -- so many were treated like meat back then, and it takes
a special talent to get up on the stage and be an entertainer for sure,
something jazz musicians were not into (bigband musicians
We knew some of the lies being put in the trade papers and magazines,
it didn't really matter back then, we just collected our monies at the
Union (2-3 weeks later) and went home to our families, that was what
real to us. The Union then about 1973 compelled the record
to put musicians names (especially the rhythm section) on the backs of
albums. We have found out later that companies (like Motown) got
away with murder tho', and sometimes we don't
get our rightful credits (and the re-use monies too) from our works, this doesn't sit well with us now. We're in our 60s and can't do that again, altho' we enjoy good pensions and most of our due-reuses, it hurts a little to know that the public is being lied to, and our work is just cast aside as "musicians", something that has happened to musicians for centuries -- but lately we're becoming more known for it, so it'll all work out I think. More films about us, more credits know, etc.
We were just known as "studio musicians" and some of us were also considered the "clique". It's the arranging ideas (mostly from the jazz musicians) plus the intensive performances that really made those hits happen I think, plus the innovations that were going on, the sounds, the engineers, the echo of Phil Spector, the uses of earphones, the sound barriers, the increasing available tracks, and later, much later, the arrangements from people who saw what we did but we still had to "pad" the arrangements, come up with our own ideas to make it "happen", the late 60s arrangements were not always "the" hit-making ideas they needed to be -- they still needed the studio musicians.
Believe me, these are a bunch of great guys I've worked with, all 350 or so of them, they had integrity, were sometimes a little rough in the kidding department (it got boring at times, it was important to keep the fun into the recording), but hey, you have to know that these are grown men, same fears, same trials as anyone else, and they took care of business and I still love these men, all of them and their families too.
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