The Week in Radio: Wonder woman Carol Kaye made a big hit in a man's world


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The Independent Culture

When a documentary is introduced by its presenter as "one of the least known names in musical history", you might wonder if there is a good reason for this. Some people just don't have it so why pretend that they do? But it turns out the session musician and member of the fabled Wrecking Crew Carol Kaye not only had it, she had it to burn.

The Carol Kaye Story was extraordinary for many reasons. Let's start with the fact that it was on Radio 2, a network where the distrust of women is clear in its steadfast refusal to allow them on air during peak listening hours, except to deliver weather reports. But here we had a whole hour devoted not just to a woman, but a woman it was sure no one had heard of. I know!

Then there was the fact that this documentary was about a female guitarist and bass player. The traditional rock narrative has it that proper guitarists are always male. Putting aside for a moment the existence of Lita Ford, Kim Deal, Kim Gordon, Suzi Quatro, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett et al, here was a woman who helped shape the sound of the 20th century and played on every record you ever loved.

You can hear Kaye playing on theme tunes to TV hits including Mission Impossible, Wonder Woman and Ironside and on films such as Bullitt, Airport and The Thomas Crown Affair. More significantly, she was involved in some of the biggest singles of the Sixties and Seventies, playing on around 5,000 records.

The haunting bass line on "Wichita Lineman"? That was Kaye. Those ridiculously cool low notes on Ray Charles's "Feel So Bad"? Kaye again. Same Cooke's "Wonderful World'? The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"? The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" and "Heroes and Villains"? Uh-huh, that's her.

Johnnie Walker was the presenter dispatched to Los Angeles and entrusted with the task of doing justice to Kaye's talent, and in order to do so he did the only thing that was sensible. He let her do the talking. And man, did she have some stories.

Kaye told us how she rarely got hugs from her mother, who was a pianist, while growing up in a housing project in Wilmington, California, but "when I heard her play, I felt the love".

She told us how she developed "good ears" from studying her mother's music, which served her well when she started out playing in jazz and bebop clubs, which was where producers looked for session players because they would "invent every note that they played".

Rather brilliantly, Kaye revealed: "I think in notes. I never listen to the lyrics." So when Walker rattled off a few words to Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound", on which she played, she didn't have a clue what he was on about.

You had to wonder about her ability to judge a person – Sam Cooke was a "sweet, sweet guy"; Ray Charles was "a gentleman"; Phil Spector, that beacon of even-temperedness, was "very nice" – but then Kaye wasn't going to bad-mouth anyone.

She was there when the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, already in a downward spiral while making Pet Sounds, made everyone in the studio wear fire helmets before starting a fire in a bucket, but she didn't complain. Neither was she going to grumble about always being the only woman in the room.

Whenever history was being made in an LA recording studio, Kaye was there – "reliable, solid, anonymous," said Walker. She's no star, she's one better than that. She's a legend.