-Ronnie Spector, Rolling Stone, 2016
Kaye came from a jazz background, and her improv skills and technical proficiency made her a first-call player when she transitioned to sessions. She started on guitar, but did most of her work on bass, which lightened her equipment load, an important consideration when you had to leave a session and go across town for another.
Carol was the ultimate working mom - she had three kids and was popular at Spector sessions during her pregnancies because Phil would make an exception and grant bathroom breaks. In the '70s, she did a lot of TV and film work, which included themes to the shows M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible and The Love Boat. We spoke with her about many of these sessions, and about the documentary The Wrecking Crew, which she appears in to her regret.
Carol Kaye: Somewhat, yes. It's important to know the mood of the piece, yes, of course.
Songfacts: So if it was a breakup song, you'd play on it differently than if it was a sentimental song?
Kaye: Well, your fills would be slightly different. There's kind of a different attitude in the way that you play things, yes. But it's not the emotion so much as the choice of notes and choice of attack on your instrument. It's very subtle in the differences there.
Songfacts: What do you mean by an attack on the instrument?
Kaye: Well, you're not going to play real hard on a love song. You're going to play a lot more sensitive on a love song. When I took the Barbra Streisand – "The Way We Were" - there were times when I attacked it harder, but it was to pump up the band, because it was a huge band. It was cut live, so they told me for the longest time, they said, "Don't add any notes to the part." And it was a very boom-de-boom part. Very simple part, because I think that they wanted to let the strings shine and for it to sound more like the movie version, which is very sweet and subtle and all that kind of stuff.
Well, the band was playing some important lines, and in the middle of the bridge there, I couldn't play sweet. It's the role of the bass to pump up the band, and in that sense, yes, I had to pump up the band. I mean, she was holding her notes, and had I played nothing, it wouldn't have sounded good. So I added some more notes, that "dum-de-da-dum, de-da-dum, de-da-dum," to kind of pump it up. But, of course, I'm still attacking it with the sensitivity. But you still have to add a certain kind of a movement pattern to keep the band going in good time and good sense.
Ray Charles told me a long time ago, because I did a lot of hits with Ray and a lot of them were like [singing], "I don't need no doctor," it was fast and "bom-bom-bom-bom-be-be," that kind of stuff. And then I get on some slow tunes with him, some ballads and things like that. I said, "Ray, why do you call me on the slow tunes, because anybody can play these?" The bass parts were easy. He says, "Listen, Carol. Yes, you can play any part you want to fast, but it takes a real good player to play it slow and still groove." So you have to keep that groove going in the slow tunes, too.
Songfacts: Would you ever get thrown off by a song like "Last Train To Clarksville," where the lyrics might not match what you're playing for the song, because it's an upbeat song about a somber subject?
Kaye: No. Because the tempo of the tune was a good tempo, and the main thing is to keep that tempo going. No. In fact, a lot of times you never hear them sing the song, so you don't know how it goes.
Songfacts: And would you get any direction as to what the song would be about in a Monkees session, say?
Kaye: Not too much, no. Because, remember, back in the '60s, you're playing for people who dance. And if the tempo is 1-2-3-4, that's a dance tempo. So you're going to keep the tempo up, that's important.
So no, the mood of the song is not critical if the tempo is high, if the tempo is fast. If it's slow, yeah, it's kind of critical, and it depends upon how much is happening in the tune, too. You're playing a little bit more when there's not much going on in the tune. You're trying not to fill in the gaps so much as to support the tempo and the kind of things that are happening in the song.
Songfacts: How did you feel about doing the surf songs like "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Dead Man's Curve"?
Kaye: Oh, that's easy. That's just doing the drum beat. I mean, you're just doubling up and doing it. You can do that for years, and that's what we did for years. Eventually, I got really tired of that. We called them ditch-digger dates, because you're just simply putting in the exercise.
Songfacts: What were some of the non-ditch-digger dates? Some of the ones where you were really called on to use all your powers?
Kaye: Well, to be honest, on every record you used all your powers to get that record into a hit record. That's what you did every take: You put your all into every take.
You never rested anywhere. It didn't matter if it's a slow tune, if it's a fast tune, if it's a love song, if it's happy, if it's a dying song or whatever, you put all your efforts into making that record a hit record, because if it fell flat, then you weren't going to be working next year.
Songfacts: You're doing three or four songs in a session, though.
Kaye: Oh, at least. Five sometimes. And then with the Motown cash dates, we would do six to ten tunes. And you're creating lines on that stuff, too. It was kind of hard at times to make each one sound different, but that's what you did.
Songfacts: That's an interesting point you bring up. You're creating these lines, so it's not like you're just in there going through the motions of what somebody tells you.
Kaye: That's right. And the tunes are always very different in nature.
Kaye: Well, the first four bars were written, so that thing was pretty straight. The first bar was written to give me an indication of what they wanted for the rest of the tune. And then another part I can remember was written - that triad lick was written. And I screwed that one up. [laughing] I mean, you always remember when you make a mistake on the hits. I made plenty of mistakes, but the feel of the record was good and that's the main thing.
So the rest, I was on my own. No problem, a lot of chromatics and just aiming for the triads and stuff.
Songfacts: Did you ever make a mistake and have the producer like it?
Kaye: Oh, yeah. In fact, a lot of times they'd tell me to add more of that or something. When I recorded "Elusive Butterfly" [by Bob Lind] it was at Sunset Sound. It was kind of a boring tune. I think it was D-flat or something, and it stays a long time in that chord and then it moves in a funny way to the next chord - it's like a sidebar phrase or something like that. I missed it and I went to go up to the G-flat or whatever and I missed it and I came right back down. I did a slide up and down. And they stopped and I thought, "Uh oh, he caught me." He said, "Do more of those!" [laughing] So the slide was born, then. I'd stick that slide in here and there on the records I cut.
Songfacts: Some of the early '60s pictures, you see all you guys are together in the same room. Were you all playing at the same time?
Kaye: Yeah, we were all playing at the same time. They didn't start to do the tracking until late in the '60s. In other words, they had the horns and the rhythm section together and then we can bounce off of each other in the plane. That's the best of all times, because when you have the whole band together, it feels better. We were very good about the tracking because we could imagine what was going on top. But it was kind of funny. It was a lot more work on us. It wasn't the pressure, it was the work, because you're trying to second guess what is going on top.
But little did we know that they wanted us to invent more, because they would copy some of the licks that we'd do and write the arrangements that way. So we saved them work by doing that. When I cut "Wichita Lineman," I stuck in licks and everything. I didn't know it, but Al De Lory wrote the strings from some of my licks in - he'd use a bass lick here and there.
A lot of times that's what David Axelrod did on the Electric Prunes and then his own stuff. He'd have us jam boogaloo with certain chords in there and everything, and Earl Palmer and I would look at each other like, What the heck is he trying to do? These are jazz scores and he wants us to play funk on them? So how do you compose a bass line on C Major 7th, a jazz chord, and play funk? But that's what we did. And then he wrote the arrangements on top of what we did, so it helped him to do that.
Now, when you're trying to do tracks for singers, a lot of times they would have the singer there to avoid paying the double scale. Tracking payed double scale because of the extra work and the fact that they could take their time with that track and just add the singer on at will. So they'd have the singer there and they'd avoid the double scale thing. They'd say, "Well, we're cutting the singer live," and then they'd take the singing track off and re-do it.
Songfacts: So if you played a session and Frank Sinatra was not there, and then his vocals were added later, you would get paid twice as much as if Frank Sinatra was there singing it?
Kaye: That's right. And the few of us that were first called were getting double scale anyway. They simply avoided the extra fees that way. But Frank always loved to cut live, so he was always there.
But sometimes you had singers that didn't sing well, and then a lot of the songs weren't that good, either. People have no idea how bad some of the songs were before we reworked them and added a line here or a break here or a key change or whatever. The players who were there, the studio musicians, were mostly from the jazz world, and that's what you do in jazz: you create every single note you play in jazz. And it's very intimate. One guy can breathe in, the other guy breathes out. They used a lot of the jazz players on purpose like that, because they knew that we could do it - at least those of us that were sober, not on drugs. They'd go out to the nightclubs in the late '50s and early '60s to get the jazz musicians because there were a ton of jazz clubs out there, and we were all working. But one by one the jazz clubs were being shut down, and then they would reopen as rock clubs. So we saw the handwriting on the wall and we just moved on over to the studio work.
And then you had the very talented ones, like Billy Strange and Glen Campbell, in there to create lines on guitar, and that's from the country field. The country and western field out here was so strong and a lot of people came out of those ranks. They could create very well, too.
Songfacts: What's an example of one of the songs that you guys really added to and made into a hit?
Kaye: Well, "The Beat Goes On" is a biggie. I mean, it was a nothing song, and then the bass line kind of made that. But you'd have to say all of them. There's only a certain song, like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" that was guaranteed to be a hit because it was a great song. But about 95% of that stuff would not have been a hit without us, that's true.
Songfacts: It sounds like it must have been very important for you guys to pick each other up, for somebody to step up and do something that would make this song a hit.
Kaye: Well, that's why we were hired.
Songfacts: But would you feel any pressure, like if you were having a down day, would maybe Earl Palmer come up with something that would make the song special?
Kaye: No, uh-uh. We would show up if our father died, we would show up on the date and play. That's what we did. And that's what jazz musicians do all the time. They go to the gig and play. Because when you play music, it helps to remove a lot of the bad feelings that you have inside, that kind of thing. So we do what we do and that's to play and invent music.
Songfacts: It also sounds like in those days before the tracking when you're all playing together, if one person makes a mistake the whole take is ruined.
Kaye: No, uh-uh. Not necessarily. I'd make a mistake about half the time, but it was a note that didn't matter or something. And it's the same for a guitar player. If he played the wrong chord, though, that's a different thing and we'd do another take. But we were so good that we were right most of the time.
Usually the first time, the mistakes would be made in the booth, not with the players. That's what they paid us for. They paid us a lot of money and the musicianship was great back then. You're talking about experienced people that had been playing for years and years and years and had big careers way before they ever did studio work. You're not talking about rockers that go out and play gigs every night. You're talking about people who played in big bands, you're talking about people who played all kinds of styles of music. They were experienced. They paid their dues in concerts and nightclubs before they ever did studio work.
Songfacts: How would you make a mistake in the booth?
Kaye: Oh, they do it all the time. I mean, they forget to roll the take or they have the wrong sliders going - back then they had knobs. They made mistakes all the time. Or they changed the music or something. Sometimes they changed the key and said, "Can you move it up a half tone?" Barney Kessel had a guitar in his hands, he shoves it to one side and says, "Okay, it's moved up." [laughing] That's true. That's something that we can do.
But we were able to create and record three, four, five songs in three hours. That's the experience that we all had.
Songfacts: Did you ever come out of a session and you didn't think much of it, and then one of the songs from that session became a big hit?
Kaye: Oh yeah. A few times. Most of the time I could predict which take was going to be the hit. You just felt it. It just kind of came together.
But there was one time when I overplayed on bass to try to wake up a drummer. The drummer was in on tour and he was sleeping. You could tell that. It was a big band and he was slowing down in the parts, and the part that I was playing was slow according to the tune - the tune required just a few notes on my part. So somebody in the band said, "Do something, Carol." So I played a lot of notes and it woke up the drummer. I walked in the booth after the take and I said, "Now we can do a take." They looked at me and laughed and said, "That was the take." I said, "Oh, no, that's a bass solo. All the way through that'll never be a hit." But it was the biggest hit that Mel Tormé ever had. It was a #1 hit. The bass part that I invented is a test now at schools around the world. It's funny, the name of the record was "Games People Play." And he's just going, "La di da," and here's all this bass and stuff coming in. I thought, That'll never be a hit. And it was a big smash hit for him. So yeah, a lot of times you're wrong.
Songfacts: I'd like to know what it's like recording one of these TV theme songs and how it differs from doing a typical session.
Kaye: Well, the TV music and the movie music was so much more fun for me to play. You have to understand that I'm coming off of jazz - I was a jazz guitar player. But Sam Cooke was good, Ritchie Valens was good - I enjoyed that music because it was brand new. The rock and roll and the pop and the soul was brand new. When I switched to bass, it was a different feel. Bass is on the bottom of the band, and that was fun for a long time. But after years of that - drinking a ton of coffee, no sleep - you get tired of rock and roll.
So when I started to do the film scores in '63 and then the TV shows in '65, that was a lot more music, and it was scary at first, but then you get used to it. And it was a lot of fun. And to work for the geniuses of Jerry Goldsmith and Michel Legrand and Quincy Jones and all those people, they had to have bass in there. It was very important to have the bass. So you had to be able to sight read. But you had to invent lines on top of what they'd write some of the time, too. So yeah, it was a lot more enjoyable.
Because by the end of the '60s I was really tired. Some of the rock felt like cardboard music. It just didn't feel real. I've got to be happy when I play music. I've got to play a lot of good, good music. So it came on at the right time in my life then, and then I did more and more of that stuff. It was great music. And the TV themes were enjoyable, it was real music, and the movie themes – Airport! and all those - I mean, Steve McQueen films that I played on, Bullitt and all that stuff, that was all fun. But then I got tired of that and eventually I went out to play jazz again. This time it was on bass in the '70s. I had the best of it, really.
Songfacts: Did you know what the TV shows were about when you were recording the themes?
Kaye: Well, you see them on the screen. You see all the blood and all that stuff, so you know what it's about immediately because a film is always on the wall there. They show the film at the same time that you're recording the theme.
So yeah, you know what it's about, but a lot of times the cues are in the wrong order. In fact, practically all the time you might cut the end theme first, and then you cut some part of the middle part of the movie, and it depends upon if they need the whole orchestra or not.
Songfacts: Do you have a favorite of the TV themes that you've done?
Kaye: Oh yeah. Well, a lot of them. I love "Hikky Burr," which was the Bill Cosby thing that I did. I loved Mission: Impossible, and I loved M*A*S*H. Some of the things, like Wonder Woman and The Streets of San Francisco, I loved that. It Takes a Thief, that one I like. Kojak, Brady Bunch was fun, except it was a lot of trouble. But I had a chance to play all the 16th notes that I like to play. But they wanted a lot of highs on my bass. I loved them all, because they were all fun to cut.
Songfacts: Are you still getting some residuals when these shows air?
Kaye: Yeah, not much. They're cutting down on the royalties now, so there's not much. What they pay on is the hit records that they re-use in a film. So you get a check once a year. I think I got 5 cents a year for King of Kings. [laughing] That kind of thing. So yeah, a little bit, but it's less and less and less. And the union really tries, but they don't have enough people to police it. And then to try to get the money out of companies these days is really tough, too.
Songfacts: What do you remember about working with the Doors?
Kaye: Well, the Doors weren't there. Just a couple of the guys were there in the booth. We cut the track ("Light My Fire"). I'm playing on that, but I don't like to talk about it because there's too many fanatics about that stuff. I'm a prude. I don't do drugs. I think it's stupid. I think for people to be into drugs and to die on stage, I think that's so stupid and totally unnecessary. So I stay away from even talking about that. But I am on the contract. Yeah, I played on the hit of that.
Released in 1966 (credited to Ike & Tina Turner even though Ike played no part), it landed with a whimper, reaching just #88 on the Hot 100. Spector didn't return to the studio until 1970.
In later years, the song was recognized as a landmark, included on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Kaye: Yeah, well, 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. And you know that something that feels like a party is not going to be a hit record. It's not the feeling of sitting down and cutting a record, which is business. You've got to take care of business.
But the arrangement was nice and the feeling was good and Tina was there to sing. I'm sure that they put her voice on again after that. So I thought it was going to be another hit, but that's the feeling that was on the date to me. It didn't quite feel like a normal record date.
Songfacts: What about your Elvis songs?
Kaye: Yeah, I met Elvis. Very, very nice man. And it was easy stuff. The last time I worked for him, it was some kind of film, and I got sick. I had the flu and I think I was just plain tired. So I waited until Billy Strange, the arranger, called a sub for me.
But I'm a jazz player. I don't go for that kind of music much. And it was toward the end of the '60s and I was really, really tired. As soon as I got home I felt a little bit better. I was just exhausted.
Songfacts: Earlier you were talking about when they went to tracking. Did the transition from mono to stereo affect you at all?
Kaye: Well, they were doing two-track right away when I recorded in 1957. It was two-track then, so they kept adding tracks all the time. It didn't bother us, but I think it cost more time in the booth, yeah.
Songfacts: But you didn't have to play any differently if it was a stereo recording versus a mono record?
Kaye: No. In fact, because we were so experienced, the engineers would walk out in the studio to make sure that they were getting the same exact sounds that we were doing in the studio because they trusted us to get the right amp sounds. A lot of times we'd have to move the mikes to put the mikes in the right places. We helped that way.
Songfacts: After a take, would they play it back for you so you could hear it?
Kaye: Oh, sure. And then with Phil, he usually played it back real loud. I mean, if you were in the booth, your ears would ring after that, so I tried to stay out of the booth. But you always listened to the playback to see if your part is fitting real well or if you need to add some more highs or lows or whatever. You tried to adjust a little bit then. But you usually ask if you should add some more highs and lows, because it's up to them what kind of sounds they want from you. But you've still got to clean the sounds. It was up to you to do that.
Songfacts: Besides needing more bathroom breaks when you were pregnant, what were the challenges of being a female in this environment?
Kaye: I had no problem at all. All I had to do was play. Because they had women back then in jazz that worked with the men. It wasn't like I was the only one.
But yes, I was the only one in the studios, and it was only because they needed guitar players back then, and I was a guitar player. So I accidentally got into studio work that way. And then I got on bass accidentally, too. When somebody didn't show up they put the bass in my lap and I thought, Okay, if I play bass then I don't have to carry in five or six different guitars, 12-strings and all that stuff. And it was a lot more fun to create on bass. So no, there was no problem. Once in a while, a drummer would cuss or something, and I would just learn to out-swear him. I'm not proud of that, but sometimes you have to do your own.
And then there was a guitar player that called me names, and I called him names back. I said, "Well, you're kind of sexy for a fat guy." So that was the end of that. He didn't bother me after that. So that was it.
Kaye, after seeing the edited film, regrets her participation, and she told us why.
Hal Blaine was the extremely prolific and popular drummer on many of the Los Angeles sessions. He came up with the name "The Wrecking Crew," claiming that the older musicians said they were "wrecking the business," which Carol disputes. We couldn't find any references to "The Wrecking Crew" in any publications from the era. Hal Blaine's business manager Andy Johnson tells us in response, "Whether Hal named them the Wrecking Crew years ago or yesterday, what difference does it make? There's consensus among the other members (those that are still alive), and a collection of fans that appreciate the talents of all of those musicians that refer to them as the Wrecking Crew."
Kaye: We were never known as that. Sometimes we were called the Clique, but that's a Hal Blaine-invented name for his own self-promotion in 1990, and most of us are really, really angry about that film, too.
Songfacts: What is it about the film that you don't like?
Kaye: It doesn't represent us. It represents a very limited Hal Blaine view.
Songfacts: Is there something that misrepresents what happened?
Kaye: Everything. We were told it was a film about us. They should have just renamed it "The Hal Blaine/Tommy Tedesco Story." And he wouldn't have gotten us then. Most of us wouldn't be in that, had we known what they were going to do.
Songfacts: The name itself, "Wrecking Crew," isn't it better to be known by some nice compact moniker than the anonymous studio musicians?
Kaye: Why not do the truth? The truth was the Clique. We were known as the Clique. Why not do the truth? I'm the one that helped him get that book published. I introduced him to the publisher. I had no idea he was going to name us with that book. And it's just simply wrong. Why believe in something that's wrong? How would you like to be called "The Wrecking Crew" if your name was something else?
Songfacts: I see your point. It's just surprising to me, because it's a documentary.
Kaye: It's not a very good documentary. Let's face that. He's out there trying to make money off of it. He's made his money back. He's out there trying to raise money saying that it costs millions to license the songs. It didn't cost millions to license, it cost a thousand dollars a record.
Songfacts: And the whole idea that the name the Wrecking Crew came because you guys were...
Kaye: Hal Blaine. Only from Hal Blaine. It didn't come from us.
And he's got a flawed book, there's some bad things in his book. Like, he says that the older musicians called us that. They never said that.
Journalists look at that film, they call it a piece of Hollywood fluff, and they're absolutely right, because it doesn't represent us. In fact, the public, when they see it – a few of the public have seen it – they get angry because they think that we're putting the music down. We never put the music down. Now Denny Tedesco's trying to change his story. That's what wrong with the film, so he's trying to jump on that to sell himself. He's a fairly good salesman, but producers don't threaten you when you drop doing free PR. I saw the film, I said, "I cannot promote this film. I'm not going to promote it anymore with the interview." And I got threatening emails and phone calls because of it. No real producer does that.
Songfacts: Yeah, that's wrong.
Kaye: There's a lot of other things that's wrong, too. Out of jealousy, Howard Roberts was portrayed in a negative light. Mike Melvoin, the most recorded pianist in the world and a fine jazz legend, isn't even in there.
Songfacts: Well, I'm very glad that you've taken the time to tell your story and get a lot of this out there, because it's a very important piece of history.
Kaye: Yes, it is. And there's a lot of people that will back me up in what I say, too, about that. There's people that take advantage because you're out of state or you're not high profile or something, and then people take advantage to try to spread their own egotistical viewpoints, and it's wrong. It's just absolutely wrong.
Songfacts: Well, I hope this story has a happy ending.
Kaye: It will. And it does. It's just that people who are saying lies shouldn't be given the opportunity to tell lies. But there's a lot of rockers out there that love to hear that kind of stuff. The jazz guys don't like that film, I'll tell you that right now.
We spoke with Carol Kaye on October 12, 2011, updated April 18, 2019
Photos from Carol Kaye's archives, used with permission
Get more at carolkaye.com
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