She's a one-woman Wrecking Crew

carol-kaye-smithsonian.jpgAuthor and music historian Kent Hartman was in town this weekend for signings of his new book, "The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret." It's about (obviously) the famous set of studio musicians who played the instruments on so many of the hit songs to come out of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s. Hartman also has a piece in the new Smithsonian magazine that breaks out his section on Carol Kaye, the Wrecking Crew's lone woman. She came out of Long Beach, played in LA jazz clubs in the 1950s and broke into session work in Hollywood with an invitation to play electric bass on a Sam Cooke recording. Ten thousand sessions or so later (including for Motown and on the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album), Kaye and the roster of musicians have become the stuff of history.

If a rock song came out of an L.A. recording studio from about 1962 to 1972, the odds are good that some combination of the Wrecking Crew played the instruments. No single group of musicians has ever played on more hits in support of more stars than this superbly talented, yet virtually anonymous group of men—and one woman....

Her mentor, Horace Hatchett—an esteemed instructor and graduate of the Eastman School of Music—had helped her pick up some local work around the Long Beach area, and she had flourished. Starting with about one booking a week at the almost unprecedented age of only 14, Smith rapidly gained acceptance during her high school years among the area’s veteran players. She soon found herself in regular demand for live work at a variety of dances, parties and nightclubs in the South Bay region.


To Kaye’s surprise, playing on Cooke’s hits at the turn of the decade like “Summertime (Pt. 2)” and “Wonderful World” didn’t seem all that different from playing live in the clubs, either. A quality song was a quality song. And her work began to lead directly to additional offers from other well-known producers and arrangers, including Bob Keane (“La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens), H. B. Barnum (“Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens), and Jim Lee (“Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez). Word habitually traveled quickly among recording studios whenever a hot new player arrived on the scene. The comparatively lucrative studio pay also proved to be a godsend for Kaye. She soon found herself earning a steady enough income at union scale to finally quit her suffocating day job for good.

Kaye is still working, teaching the bass and apparently living in Santa Clarita. She has an active website that's rich in local music lore, and a Facebook presence. And by the way, she points out that no one in the day referred to themselves as "the wrecking crew." That was a later marketing invention, she says.

Here's a 2000 interview with Kaye by Bob Edwards on NPR.

Photo of Kaye at Smithsonian website

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