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Although largely anonymous to the world at large, another important figure was honing her chops as a be-bop guitarist in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Born Carol Smith in Everett, Washington, the child of two unsuccessful professional musicians, she grew up in poverty around the Port Of Los Angeles district. As a teenager Carol Kaye, as she became known, was a fixture around the L.A. jazz circuit, also teaching guitar, and she moved in heavy company even then . . . Bob Neal, Jack Sheldon, Lenny Bruce, Teddy Edwards and Billy Higgins, to name a few.
Carol began working studio dates in 1957 as a guitarist, but a few years later, by fateful coincidence, a no-show bassist prompted her to fill in on the session, using a Fender bass guitar. Seen more as a novelty, it was not yet fully accepted as a legitimate instrument and certainly not viewed as a replacement for the upright double bass. Being trained as a guitarist, Carol used a pick rather than fingers or thumb, and quickly caught the attention of the L.A. recording community with her clean percussive sound and agile fretwork. Her jazz background had also honed her reading skills, so she ascended the ranks rapidly to become first call on bass guitar, and a fixture in The Wrecking Crew, the elite band of sessioneers who dominated the West Coast recorded output. Her resume through the ‘60s is overwhelming, not only for the vast number of hits she played on, but also for the film and TV themes and soundtracks, not to mention the top producers who requested her services.
At that time, in a practice that was also being developed independently in the Nashville studios, the L.A. low end was often the combination of double bass and bass guitar, sometimes in unison, sometimes employing counterpoint. Carol was often teamed with upright bassist Lyle Ritz for an instantly identifiable signature that powered Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, the Brian Wilson confected Beach Boys records, and just about anything else recorded in Los Angeles.
I’ve always believed that Carol’s secret was that she took the nomenclature of her instrument literally. It was a bass GUITAR, not an ersatz substitute for double bass, and she approached it that way, taking advantage of the possibilities of a more workable neck and strings than the bull fiddle offered, and also the increased tonal pallette that the pickups and controls made possible. To me, there was always a distinct difference between a Carol Kaye part and one by her great contemporary at Motown, James Jamerson, in that Jamerson had started as an upright bass player and moved to bass guitar, whereas Carol was first a guitarist, with a guitarist’s sensibilities.
Ms. Kaye wrote many tutorial books, was responsible for classic DVD courses, and gave lessons to myriad players through the years. Her achievements and contributions have been truly monumental.