Friday, November 28, 2014

Carol Kaye

“When you hear somebody with [audacity], that’s me.”

I'm often asked why I became a priest.  When I was younger, and testing the vocation, it was a question that was part of the process as the "powers that be" were always very, very concerned that someone would be ordained "for the wrong reason".  [Given how those men and women who were the guardians of faith in my early career have all but destroyed the church, I'd like to re-visit their standards.  Oh, well, they let me in.  Eventually.]  Later in my career, the question would be asked with a different emphasis, as in "Why did you become a priest?"  I confess that I've never had a particularly compelling response, especially as it's a question I intend in asking the Almighty should I one day be granted an audience, mainly because I don't know the answer.

But no one asks me why I play the bass, which is a pity since I actually know the answer so well that I can trace it to a specific date and occasion.  It was February 27, 1966 and I was on the floor of my parents' living room watching the Ed Sullivan Show with my grandmother when some famous singer's daughter came on and sang a brief, rather ordinary song that featured a terrific bass line in its chorus.

"What's that instrument, Grandma?"
"Ah, Robbie, I think that's the bass fiddle.  Pity we can't see the musicians for this silly girl."
[I should note that my grandmother, who was seventy at the time, was quite a fan of The Beatles.]

Well, she was right about the instrument, although it was an electric solid body bass rather than a bass fiddle, and she was right about not being able to see the musicians, as those who provided the backing for the famous singer's daughter was a group of legendary, albeit invisible, studio musicians known informally as The Wrecking Crew.

"The Crew" were much in demand during the 1960's and backed performers as diverse as The Monkees, Bing Crosby, The Mamas & the Papas, The 5th Dimension, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Nat King Cole, and many, many more.  As they only worked in the studio, they remained virtually unknown outside of the close community of musicians.  Only three of the forty-some who worked in this amorphous group ever developed successful solo careers: Leon Russell, Dr. John, and Glen Campbell.  To my knowledge, there was only one woman in The Wrecking Crew and that was Carol Kaye, the bassist who laid down that walking line that was the best thing about that mediocre song.

It wasn't just "Boots" that Kaye improved, though, as even a casual listener to the radio, or viewer of movies and television in the 1960's will have been exposed to her talent again and again.  In fact, even if the reader's knowledge of '60's pop music is nil, it is still likely that he or she has heard Kaye provide the bass line for the themes to the TV show Mission Impossible and other long-running shows like Mannix, MASH, Hogan's Heroes, Get Smart, Kojak, and, naturally, Hawaii Five-O.

TV work brought Kaye a steady income, but a bass can easily become lost in a brassy, busy TV score, or reduced, as in the Hogan's Heroes themeto walking lines so routine and repetitive that they would numb the bassist's mind.  It was in the pop singles of the 1950's and 60's that Kaye's musicality provided the drive that defined what we think of when we recall the music of that era.  Remarkably, because of the role of studio musicians in those days, not only was her influence unnoticed, but her name and those of her colleagues tended to be left off of the songs' credits.

Kaye was the daughter of musician parents so, naturally, she grew up in poverty in Washington state.  To help her family, she took up the guitar and started working as a busker and giving lessons.  This lead to work as a guitarist for a variety of bebop bands in the Los Angeles area at the time when the guitar was the least important instrument in the ensemble.  This brought her to the attention of Sam Cooke, who invited Kaye to be the guitarist in what would become her first popular recording.

When Leo Fender took pity on bassists, who often had to lug a massive instrument up and down narrow nightclub stairs and fit them into buses, cabs, and subway cars, and invented what was originally known as the highly portable, guitar-oriented Fender Electric Bass, many guitarists switched to the new instrument and decided to earn their living in those bottom notes.  Kaye was one of the first and it was on that instrument that she played in over 10,000 recording sessions.

While a complete list of Kaye's bass recordings may be found on the Internet, her favorite ten are "Boots" and "Summertime" linked to above, "Sloop John B" by the Beach Boys, Ray Charles' versions of "America the Beautiful" and "In the Heat of the Night", Glenn Campbell's "Wichita Lineman", Lou Rawls' "A Natural Man", Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" [yeah, I know], the Frank and Nancy Sinatra duet of "Something Stupid", and her fave, Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright".

So, a surf harmony classic, The Chairman of the Board, Barbra herself, the '60's favorite country twanger, and a gutter rocker.  That's quite a repertoire, isn't it?  It's also the mark of a true musician that whatever the croon, cocktail duet, soul ballad, or deconstructed 4/4 signature barn-burner, the person they had to have on bass was Carol Kaye and no one else.

I have to admit that my favorite of her's is the bass line on this one-hit wonder, and one that I still play along with in idle moments:

I'm also partial to her work on The Monkees' "I'm A Believer", but that's also because it was the first song I ever sang in public.  We'll play that one at 5pm.

Carol Kaye still records from time to time, but mostly she manages to teach up-and-comers and give entertaining interviews about pop music's early days.  As she has written over a dozen instructional manuals with related CD's, her influence is still powerful and there is no bassist with whom I've played, spoken, or for whom I've made an instrument who has not given her due credit for encouraging their interest in the instrument and what it can do for music played in ensemble.  This is why she is now considered the #1 session player of her era.