Carol Kaye’s biography. Image courtesy of Carol Kaye

If you think you’ve never heard bass player Carol Kaye, you probably just don’t know you have.

Kaye is the bassist on hit songs like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,” “La Bamba,” “The Beat Goes On,” “Wichita Lineman'” and “California Girls.” It’s also Kaye you can hear playing bass on the theme songs for a host of TV shows including “The Brady Bunch” and “M*A*S*H*” and, perhaps most iconically, “Mission Impossible.”

That’s a microscopic sampling of the thousands of songs Kaye played on as a studio musician in Los Angeles, and you can hear a number of the ones she helped make famous during Boston Dance Theater’s two-night stint at Space in Portland. The dance performance is called The Carol Kaye Project and features works by four choreographers that celebrate the music of Kaye. One of the pieces incorporates actual bass guitars in it.

During the 1960s, Kaye spent countless hours recording, sometimes multiple sessions per day, making good songs sound better. In a phone interview last week, she told me that she and her fellow jazz musicians-turned-session players survived the long studio days with coffee, sunflower seeds and canned soup.

Kaye’s storied career may have flown beneath mainstream radar, but her musical fingerprints are over at least 10,000 songs.

The idea for The Carol Kaye Project came from the father of Boston Dance Theater’s co-artistic director Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, who is one of the choreographers and also dances in the show.


A few years ago, Stinnett told her father, Jim, that she hoped to come up with a show that celebrated a female musician who has been overlooked. He suggested Kaye, a household name in the musical Stinnett family. Jim, who passed away unexpectedly in 2021, was a gigging jazz musician on electric and acoustic bass in the ’80s and ’90s and became a full-time professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he crossed paths with Kaye.

Stinnett herself studied bass and then singing before switching to dance. Her brother Grant is a bass player, and he created original music that will be used in the piece Stinnett choreographed and will dance in during the show, called “Legacy,” in honor of their father.

Scene from Boston Dance Theater’s Carol Kaye Project. Photo by Melissa Blackall

Stinnett dug into Kaye’s library and then enlisted the help of fellow female choreographers Karole Armitage, Rosie Herrera and Rena Butler. They all created pieces that will be performed by Boston Dance Theater.

The Carol Kaye Project premiered in October at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and Stinnett said it was well received. The Portland venue is significantly smaller, but the company will make it work. “We’ve been mapping out the dimensions in our studio space in Boston and have been rehearsing with chairs all around,” said Stinnett. “It’s going to be a very intimate experience for the audience.”

As the project came together, Stinnett kept in contact with Kaye, who has seen a video of the show and said she’s very grateful for it. “Those people can dance, it’s beautiful,” she said. “The dancing was so inventive and so beautiful.”

Both of Kaye’s parents were musicians, and she started playing guitar at a young age. She was never interested in the fame that pop stars have, she just wanted to be able to take care of her kids and her mother.


Originally a jazz guitarist, Kaye switched to bass in 1963 when there was a no-show at a record date (now referred to as a studio session) at Capitol Records.

“When I picked up the bass, all of a sudden I had a weapon,” Kaye said from her desert home outside of Los Angeles. “Everybody treated me with the highest of respect, you don’t fool around with the bass player in the ’60s.”

When the ’60s ended, Kaye and many of her colleagues jumped ship from session work. Kaye said there were a few reasons for that, including that crime had gotten so bad in Hollywood that musicians were getting mugged on the way to the studio. But another was more significant.

“I was so sick of rock by that time because the music had gotten so bad, “said Kaye. While some would disagree with Kaye’s contention, she had more than paid her dues as a session player. She wasn’t, however, ready to leave music behind and played on several film scores in the ’70s and worked with composers including Michele Legrand, Lalo Schifrin and Jerry Goldsmith.

Kaye said the 1970 disaster film and a box-office hit “Airport” was her favorite of the films she was involved with. It starred Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bissett and Maureen Stapleton, and featured the last score by Alfred Newman, who died six months after the movie was made.

“He was wonderful to work for and the music of gorgeous,” Kaye said. In fact, Kaye loved all of the movies she did back then. “The music was so great,” she said.

Her film resume also includes “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” “In the Heat of the Night,”  and “Dirty Harry,” to name a few.

Now 88, Kaye still lives in California but no longer plays the bass guitar she still owns. She is, however, involved with teaching music, has written more than 40 books on the topic and has made several instructional DVDs. Kaye also published an autobiography, which you can order an autographed copy of from her website.

Boston Dance Theater’s The Carol Kaye Project
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Space, 538 Congress St., Portland, $32 in advance, $35 day of show.

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