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Carol Kaye and Bill Pitman on guitar at Gold Star; circa 1963. (Courtesy of GAB Archive / Redferns)

The Hidden History of a Rock ’n’ Roll Hitmaker

Bassist Carol Kaye blazed her own trail, as the only female studio musician to record some of the greatest songs of the ’60s and ’70s

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“Carol, my name is Bumps Blackwell,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m a producer here in L.A. I’ve been watching you play tonight and I like your style. I could use you on some record dates. Interested?”

A more-than-surprised Kaye looked at Blackwell and then at her bandmates, not sure what to think, say or do. She had certainly heard all the rumors that taking on non-jazz recording studio work would be the kiss of death for someone trying to make a career out of playing live bebop. Once someone left, they tended to never come back. And true jazzers tended to look down on those who played what they sometimes referred to as “people’s music.” It took time to build a name in the clubs, too. But Kaye also knew she needed to get away from her job at Bendix as soon as possible. She had grown to dislike it. Maybe going into studio work would be a chance to finally establish a solid, well-paying career playing music.

With a deep breath, a hesitant Kaye agreed to take the plunge.

“He’s a new singer out of Mississippi that I just started producing,” Blackwell continued, delighted that she was interested in coming aboard.

“His name is Sam Cooke.”

After the serendipitous encounter, Kaye did indeed start working studio dates for Blackwell’s protégé. And the mental transition on her part in moving from dedicated jazzer to rock guitarist proved to be smoother than she expected. Though Kaye had at first never heard of Cooke (few had at the time), she found herself enthused by the caliber of musicians hired to play alongside her. As she gracefully slid into her new role, her particular specialty became adding tasteful and appropriate guitar fills at important points during the songs.

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.

***

In 1963, Betty Friedan, a freelance magazine writer and suburban New York housewife, dismayed by the prevalence of what she called “the problem that has no name,” wrote the book The Feminine Mystique. In her expository essay, Friedan analyzed the trapped, imprisoned feelings that she believed many women (including herself) secretly held regarding their roles as full-time homemakers. Friedan vehemently argued that women were as capable as men to do any kind of work or to follow any kind of career path and that they would be well served to recalibrate their thinking accordingly.

Some considered it a call to arms; others found it to be an outrage. Either way, Friedan’s groundbreaking treatise not only ignited a nationwide firestorm of controversy and debate, it also became an instant bestseller, in the process helping to launch what came to be known as the “second stage” of the women’s movement.

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