BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
For someone who has played on over 10,000 recording sessions for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and George Harrison, naming the one for the late Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Allright” as one of your top three is pretty high praise. (The other two, incidentally, are Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” and Ray Charles, “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”)
Kaye has also performed on such famous hits as The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda” for The Beach Boys, plus their iconic “Pet Sounds” album.
Other credits include Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (and most of Phil Spector’s other 1960s “Wall of Sound” produced hits), The Supremes’ “Stop In The Name Of Love,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and a list including television scores and movie soundtracks that would take several pages to fill.
Later this year the “First Lady of Bass” will be coming out with another of her best-selling instruction books and, in commemoration of her forthcoming 80th birthday, a long-awaited autobiography.
EXAMINER: As someone who had worked with such soul music greats as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, did you have any preconceived notions about Joe Cocker, another young white Englishman like Mick Jagger, who was trying to sound like an older black American singer?
KAYE: You know something, at that time I didn’t even know Mick Jagger’s name. I never worked with him. I was always busy just going from one studio to another, and I don’t listen to rock and roll records. I’m a fan of jazz, but regarding Joe, no, I didn’t have any preconceived notions. As soon as I heard him sing those first few notes, I thought, “Yes. He’s great.” I don’t go by names. What I go by is true talent. The talent was obviously there. He could sing and, yes, he was also a very nice guy.
EXAMINER: So, you didn’t feel in any way that he was a Ray Charles imitator, as many critics said when he first started becoming known.
KAYE: No, no, no. I did think that he sang like Ray Charles, but a lot of singers sound like Ray Charles. I didn’t consider him an imitator, because he had his own unique style.
EXAMINER: Where and when did this session take place?
KAYE: The actual recording took place at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood in June of ’68. Denny Cordell was the producer. The tape was then mastered in London.
EXAMINER: You had three pretty good background singers, Brenda and Patrice Holloway, and Merry Clayton (the later best known for her duet with Mick Jagger on The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter”-Ed).
KAYE: Yes, but they weren’t on the actual session. They were put on later because the Musician’s Union would charge the record companies twice as much money for everything if it was just a tracking date. I was already getting double pay anyway, so then they would have to have given me quadruple pay. So, they would get around that by saying, “Well, the main singer’s here,” and that way they could save money by just having him stand around and sing.
EXAMINER: Prior to this session, had you heard Traffic’s original version of “Feelin’ Allright” ?
KAYE: No, I didn’t know about the song at all.
EXAMINER: What equipment were you using that day?
KAYE: My regular Fender Precision bass, and a Verasatone amp. Up till ’68 and ’69, I was recorded by mike only, but then they’d take me one-half mike, and one-half direct. On this session, I was totally miked.
EXAMINER: Who else was in the band?
KAYE: We had Paul Humphrey on the drums, David Cohen on guitar, and Artie Butler on piano. Leon Russell later played piano for Joe when they went on tour.
EXAMINER: The sound quality on the recording is really spectacular, and the band really cooked.
KAYE: Artie Butler was fresh from coming from New York City, where he’d been playing with some really great Puerto Rican bands. He had also done some movie scores, and at Joe’s session, he accidentally came up with that great piano line. We all just kind-of followed him. That’s what happened on the date.
EXAMINER; The track has such a funky groove, and the congas really helped propel it along.
KAYE: Oh, boy! Laudir (de Oliveira) was one of the greats. I mean, at that point I had already worked with him for about ten years. A great conga player. If you’re going to use a conga player, it better be one that has a great groove, because that could make or break a band.
EXAMINER: From what you said earlier, Joe was actually in the studio with the musicians and didn’t overdub his vocals later, as so many singers do now.
KAYE: He warmed up in the regular studio for a while, so the musicians could get a feel for what he was trying to do, to get familiar with his style. Then, I came up with a bass line that fit his singing. After that, he went into the booth for the actual recording.
EXAMINER: Back then, even when he was rehearsing, was Joe already doing what became his trademark spastic facial contortions and the wild hand gestures?
KAYE: Well, he did that a little bit. All of us noticed that, but then a lot of singers move their arms or do something to express themselves. I mean, no singer is just going to just stand there like a statue. Joe was a little odd in the way he moved and looked, but that was Joe Cocker. The main thing was, as I said, he was a really nice guy. He treated all of us well, and he was very, very warm. So, for us, it was an easy, fun date.
EXAMINER: It’s no secret that Joe had a propensity of drugs and alcohol. Was any of that evident on this session?
KAYE: No, no, no. I mean, I got the impression that he might have had a drink before he got to the studio, but that’s normal for a lot of people. I never saw him actually drink in the studio, and I never saw him use drugs either. He was very coherent there.
EXAMINER: Besides Joe Cocker, you’ve worked with so many great artists. You must have some really special memories of people like Elvis, Sinatra …
KAYE: I just went to work, and then went home. I’m not a fan. Musicians are not fans. It’s a business. I have to keep telling people that. They think we’re all fans because of the way that they think. They don’t realize that the musicians …. we’re a business. That’s what studio work is. We’re not doing it for fun. We go in, we cut ‘em, we go on to the next session and then, eventually, we go home, hopefully, for some sleep. When I would get home, I’d tell the kids, “Shut off all the music” because you can’t stand any more sounds like the ones that bombarded your body all day and night in the studio.
EXAMINER: How do you feel about some of the newer studio technologies like Pro-Tools, that weren’t around for you in the 60’s and 70’s?
KAYE: The reason so many people have doubts about Pro-Tools, is that many of today’s engineers and producers have no idea how to mix real horns, real drums sounds … real instruments. In the 60’s, our engineers would come to where we were in the studio to make sure they could faithfully reproduce the actual real sounds of our instruments. What’s happening now shouldn’t be blamed on technology, but on people’s ears. You have rockers turned producers who have no idea how to capture real sounds. There’s no feeling in the recordings.
EXAMINER: What about of some of today’s big-name singers who rely on things like auto-tune, both in the recording studio, and in some cases also in concert?
KAYE: I think it sucks. A singer who can’t sing in tune should stop singing. What made the ’60s so great was that you had real singers like Sam Cooke and, before him, Ritchie Valens. These people knew how to sing in tune. I say what makes the business stink now is that you have too many non-talented singers trying to sing crap, when they can’t even sing in tune. Then, you have rockers trying to interpret standard tunes that have no clue how to phrase them. They’re only thinking about themselves, how great they sound, and you can really hear it in the music.
EXAMINER: Have you heard the recent album of standards by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga?
KAYE: I’ve heard a little bit of it. Tony Bennett is not a Frank Sinatra, and GaGa makes me go gaga. I played on a few dates with (Bennett). He’s a good singer, but there were dozens of those kinds of singers back in the ’40s and ’50s. Only a few them were really great. You go from good singer to great singer, and you know the difference.
EXAMINER: Which singers would be at the top of your list?
KAYE: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby … I would say Rosemary Clooney is one of my favorites, also Peggy Lee. These are singers that today’s people have no clue who they are. Lou Rawls was a great singer, and Glen Campbell also has to be up there. Ray Charles was great, not a great voice, but great in the way he phrased and the way he put feeling into the songs. These people weren’t trying to pat themselves on the back with every nice note they sang, like some of the singers do today … and to use the tuning thing when they can’t even sing in tune … To me, that’s the ultimate insult to fans.
EXAMINER: Your closing comments on Joe Cocker…What would you say in his greatest legacy?
KAYE: He was truly a great singer, and he was also a great star. To be a star, you have to be great onstage, too. If you put any of us studio musicians onstage, people would either yawn or walk out because we’d just sit there and play. Audiences who grew up on TV want to see singers move. They want to see the music.
EXAMINER: Had you ever seen him in concert?
KAYE: No, I don’t have time for things like that, but when I saw him on TV, he really put it out. Aside from being a great singer, he really felt the music. He had a great sound in his voice … the way he phrased things, plus the way he moved onstage … everything. I mean, he really got into the music. That was real. Today, you see people smile onstage and you know they’re thinking, “Oh, that note I just hit was so great,” but that wasn’t Joe. Joe was just into the music, and that’s what made him great.