A Smile for Carol Kaye

by David Hajdu | November 18, 2011

The unironically monumental project of monumentalizing the music of the Baby Boomers has reached yet another landmark this month, with the release by Capitol Records of multiple editions of material the Beach Boys recorded in 1966 and 1967 for their aborted Smile album. Long mythologized as the lost masterpiece of rock, the album was reconstructed and revised several years ago by its principle creators Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for a concert tour and recording. Now we finally have an official release of tracks from the original unfinished project, issued as The Smile Sessions in several forms: a two-CD set of the tracks organized to approximate their intended sequence, along with alternate takes, snippets of out-takes, and a miscellany of sound clips from the sessions; a super-box of five CD’s, two vinyl LPs, two vinyl singles, and a thick booklet; and digital-only editions for iTunes and Spotify. The grandiosity of the presentations befits Wilson’s gestative conception of the project as “a teenage symphony to God,” even if the music fails to fulfill its unfulfillable promise. Wilson was smart to have kept the album unfinished and its myth intact for decades.

Smile was originally conceived as an extension of the experimentation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the album that Paul McCartney acknowledges as having transformed his approach to the bass, in addition to prodding the Beatles to employ the studio more adventurously. McCartney has repeatedly cited Wilson’s bass playing in the era of Pet Sounds and Smile as the inspiration for the lyrical, contrapuntal bass style that he developed around the time of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The problem is, the bass player on nearly all of both Pet Sounds and Smile was not Brian Wilson. It was a jazz musician and studio pro in Los Angeles named Carol Kaye.

Versatile, impeccably proficient, and inventive, Kaye played both electric guitar and electric bass on more than 10,000 (no typo) recordings, including the Beach Boys’ singles “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! album, and Lalo Shifrin’s 5/4-time theme to Mission: Impossible. Kaye’s bass playing was the bedrock of Sixties pop. A professional musician since she was fourteen years old, in 1949, Kaye has written a series of well regarded instructional books on the bass and she has taught generations of West Coast musicians. Countless more, including Paul McCartney, learned volumes from her without knowing who was giving them the lessons.

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