Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Beach Girl Behind the Beach Boys

Early in 2015’s Love & Mercy, a film based on the life of Brian Wilson, a foxy blonde in cat’s-eye sunglasses addresses the Beach Boys leader. “Hey, Brian? I think you might have screwed up here,” she says, gesturing to the sheet music with her pencil. “You’ve got Lyle playing in D, and the rest of us are in A major. How does that work? Two bass lines in two different keys?”

As she often was in real life, that blonde bassist Carol Kaye is the lone woman in the studio, and the only female member of an informal, unheralded lineup of talent — drummers, guitarists, percussionists, piano, and horn players — that you hear on the Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds. She’s also on a jukebox’s worth of hit songs from the ’60s: Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” to name a few.

Mostly, these musicians were jazz players brought in from Los Angeles’s teeming nightclub scene to lend their chops to the recordings of rock bands, some of whom (like the Monkees) rarely touched an instrument inside a studio. So, dramatic liberties aside, it’s unlikely that “How does that work?” was a phrase uttered by the now 81-year-old Kaye, whom Wilson and Quincy Jones have called the greatest bassist in the world.

And yet, because so few people know her name, it’s all too easy to fictionalize a woman who made such a big and influential noise while working in the shadows, and in a nearly all-male world.

Kaye never exactly expected to be remembered. Most session musicians thought they were creating ephemeral pop hits, not lasting touchstones. “Music up to that time had a life span of about ten years,” says the chatty, gray-haired Kaye, speaking from the sofa in the living room of her home on a warm day in early April, her white poodle mix Rusty beside her. “We’re shocked those songs lived on.”

Legacies are complicated affairs. As anyone who shares success with other people knows, collaboration and dispute tend to go together. For instance, session drummer Hal Blaine claims he, Kaye, and their colleagues were known as the Wrecking Crew, a sobriquet he came up with after older studio hacks expressed a concern that these firebrands would “wreck” the music industry with their faddish rock. As nicknames go, the group’s is pretty badass — except, according to Kaye, it’s an ex post facto bit of mythmaking from Blaine. “We were never called that,” she says bluntly, and it bugs her that the term has stuck. (...)

The work became regular. One day a bassist was a no-show, Kaye switched instruments, and after that she was first call — the highest compliment you can bestow upon a session musician. Kaye estimates she was making the equivalent in today’s dollars of almost $10,000 per week by 1965. She booked so many dates that she would lay down on her case to catch a few minutes’ sleep. Fellow musicians’ “wives would come down to the studio, and I’d joke, ‘I slept with your husband today!’ ” she says.

Kaye’s second husband didn’t approve of her job’s late hours, and he especially didn’t like it when she was playing with black musicians, which was often — the late virtuoso drummer Earl Palmer was a close friend. So one night, Kaye came home late from a session for Ike Turner, who had paid the crew in cash, and woke her husband up by dumping the money on the bed. “That’s what the ladies of the evening got back then,” she says with a grin. Kaye divorced him not long after, got a live-in nanny, and said, “Screw it, I’m working.”

Even in retrospect, Kaye doesn’t necessarily see that kind of career-oriented attitude as feminist. Honing her craft in jazz clubs, where women weren’t an anomaly, she didn’t consider gender an issue, so whenever she was treated to an insult, Kaye would hurl it right back with a “Well, you play good for a guy.”

It got to be so that if she couldn’t make a date, producers asked other bassists for “the Carol Kaye sound,” which she says boils down to clean lines, perfect timing, and hard picking that let her “dance on top of the beat,” which she does most gloriously on “Good Vibrations.”

by Phoebe Reilly, Vulture |  Read more:
Image: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images