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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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With Kaye self-reliant from an early age, it never entered her mind that she couldn’t perform either in the same profession or at the same level as men. She had played alongside many women in her earlier jazz days, when greats like the organist Ethel Smith, the pianist Marian McPartland and the alto saxophonist Vi Redd were at the height of their careers. So the notion of being a woman who happened to play guitar seemed as normal to her as any other line of work. And when rock ’n’ roll came along in the late ’50s, Kaye naturally made the transition, where other women, for reasons of their own, decided to leave the business or stick purely with jazz.

Over the years, Kaye had more than held her own while moving up the studio ladder, too, and she was not at all shy about defending her turf. Whenever some wise-guy male musician would comment, “Hey, that’s pretty good for a woman,” she would immediately counter his backhanded compliment with, “Well, that’s pretty good for a man, too.” That was also a big part of why Sonny Bono liked having her on his sessions: She was quick and she was creative.

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As Kaye carefully listened one day in the studio as she and her fellow musicians ran through “The Beat Goes On” several times in order to try to make sense out of it, she knew that she was going to have to come up with something inventive. In her opinion, the droning, one-chord tune was a real dog; it just lay there. Playing around with several bass lines on her acoustic guitar, she then came upon a particular pattern that had some real hop to it. Dum-dum-dum-da-dum-dum-da-dum-dum.

Bono immediately stopped the session.

“That’s it, Carol,” he whooped. “What’s that line you’re playing?”

Maybe he couldn’t really play an instrument himself, least of all the bass, but Bono instinctively knew a signature lick when he heard one. And Kaye had just come up with an all-timer. As she dutifully played her creation once more for the producer, Bono had Bob West, the electric bass player on the date, learn it on the spot. Kaye and West then proceeded to play the simple yet transformative line in unison on the final recording, turning a previously lifeless production into a surefire hit.

Entering the charts in January 1967, “The Beat Goes On” made it all the way to number six, giving Sonny & Cher their biggest Top 40 showing in almost two years. Stepping in as the song’s de facto arranger, the independent-thinking Carol Kaye had just saved Bono’s composition, and likely Sonny & Cher’s tepid recording career, from an almost certain demise.

But the beat also went on for scores of others trying to gain a measure of their own fame and fortune in the high-flying, competitive Top 40 marketplace of the mid-’60s. There was always another Sonny Bono or Jan and Dean or Roger McGuinn waiting in the wings someplace, anonymously dreaming the same fevered dream. The “kids’ ” music that label executives like Mitch Miller at Columbia had once derisively dismissed as a passing fad had now become firmly entrenched as the biggest-selling genre of them all. Rock ’n’ roll had gone mainstream. Which gave the Wrecking Crew players more studio work than they knew what to do with. For Kaye, it meant a grand total of more than 10,000 sessions.

From The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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