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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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Like the clarion call of a medieval trumpet, the money to be made in the record business at the dawn of the ’60s in Los Angeles would prove to be an irresistible draw to every kind of hopeful. Essentially music’s version of the California Gold Rush, the varied and rapidly growing number of opportunities to make some cash and a name in rock and roll began to attract talent, ambition, greed and egotism, all in seemingly equal measure. And from this diverse migratory mix—aside from the scores of singers, songwriters and others who made the journey—there evolved a core clique of instrument-playing sidemen who gradually began to stand out from the rest. These musicians not only had the willingness and ability to play rock ’n’ roll (two qualities that set them uniquely apart from other session musicians in town, both old and new); they also instinctively knew how to improvise in just the right doses to make a given recording better. To make it a hit. Which naturally put their services in the highest of demand: producers wanted hits. It also, over time, provided them with a nickname that mirrored their emergence as the new, dominant group of determined young session players who were taking over the growing rock- and-roll side of things: the Wrecking Crew.

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.

By the time the early ’50s rolled around, Carol Smith knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to keep playing guitar.

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.

Never satisfied with the status quo, the independent Smith took additional steps on her own to further her musical education by frequently taking the short train ride up to Los Angeles to see acts like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and many of the popular big bands of the era. It was in watching these top-flight pros that Smith began to imagine herself being a part of their world.

Just after high school, Carol caught on for a couple of years with the popular Henry Busse Orchestra, with whom she traveled the country playing dances and other events. She also ended up marrying Al Kaye, the band’s string bass player, permanently taking his last name. Soon thereafter came a son and a daughter.

However, by 1957, with the big band gig having come to a close sometime earlier (in 1955 Busse had fallen over dead from a massive heart attack during, of all things, an undertakers’ convention), Kaye found herself at a crossroads. Despite her best efforts, her short marriage had not worked out, due in large part to a considerable age difference and her husband’s penchant for drinking a little too much wine. Kaye was also no longer on the road making regular money, either. And she now had two kids and a mother to support, all on a single income.

Deciding she needed to be practical, Kaye found a day job as a high-speed technical typist within the avionics division of the giant Bendix Corporation. Though the pay was good, she simultaneously moonlighted on guitar sometimes five or six nights a week in the jazz clubs around Los Angeles. An exhausting schedule for anyone, let alone a working mother of two. But laying down some bebop fed Carol Kaye’s musical soul; there was no way to shake that. And the more she played, the more her reputation grew within the higher echelons of the West Coast jazz world.

Unfortunately for Kaye, however, with rock ’n’ roll’s popularity on the rise in the late ‘50s, the number of Southern California clubs catering solely to jazz patrons began to dwindle in direct proportion. It made it almost impossible for an up-and-comer like Kaye to earn a living playing full time, which had always been her dream. But she persevered, creating the music she loved by night, hoping for the best by day.

One evening, while Kaye took a short break from laying down her inventive lead guitar fills as part of the saxophonist Teddy Edwards’ combo at the Beverly Caverns nightclub, a man she had never seen before approached her with a very unexpected question.

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