Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

James Jamerson 2

During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube

John Mellencamp’s New Album Features His Now-Familiar Roots Sound With A Twist

“Other People’s Stuff” presents selection of covers from seminal albums, compilations, unearthed sessions and documentaries

John Mellencamp today released his new previously announced 24th studio album Other People’s Stuff. Fans of his transformation from straight rock to a roots-oriented sound, which has been gradual and begun with the excellent The Lonesome Jubilee from 1987, are going to dig what they hear – count me as one of them! Whether Other People’s Stuff will gain Mellencamp new fans is perhaps less certain. Something tells me the fiercely independent-minded Indiana rocker, who clearly is comfortable with the place to which his long musical journey has taken him, won’t be losing any sleep over it!

According to an announcement accompanying its release, Other People’s Stuff presents a collection of covers Mellencamp has recorded throughout his long career. It also includes a new version of Eyes On The Prize, a song he originally performed at The White House during a 2010 Obama Administration celebration of music from the civil rights movement, as I previously covered here. Yes, it still is hard to believe that not long ago America had a leader who truly cared about these issues – and the arts I might add. Eyes On The Prize also became the album’s lead single in early November, coinciding with the record’s initial announcement.

John Mellencamp 2019 Tour Poster

“Most, if not all, of the songs on Other People’s Stuff come from The Great American Songbook,” Mellencamp reiterated. “These are songs that have been recorded over the last 40 years of my career, but had never been put together as one piece of work. Now, they have.”

So there’s your little twist – rather than your traditional covers album an artist typically records at given time period, here you have recordings Mellencamp initially captured at different times during his career and subsequently put a collection of thesm on one record. The other commonality of all these tunes are lyrics that are clearly on the darker side – probably a reflection of Mellencamp’s sentiments about the current state of the country. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s Teardrops Will Fall, which Mellencamp first recorded for the Trouble No More album from June 2003. His great take, which prominently features accordion and violin, would have been a perfect fit for The Lonesome Jubilee. The song was co-written by singer and record producer Gerry Granaham and Marion Smith. Granaham had a string of charting singles in the late 1950s and early ’60s, performing as Dickey Doo & The Don’ts.

Next up: Stones In My Passway, a great Robert Johnson blues tune Mellencamp also first recorded for Trouble No More. It features some nice slide guitar-playing – I assume by multi-instrumentalist Andy York, who has been part of Mellencamp’s band for some 20 years.

Wreck Of The Old ’97 is a song Mellencamp initially recorded for a 2004 compilation album titled The Rose & The Briar: Death, Love And Liberty In The American Ballad. Credited to Fred Lewey, Henry Whitter and Charles Noell, the old country song was inspired by a bad rail accident in September 1903 when a Southern Railway mail train derailed near Danville, Va. The accident, which became known as the Wreck of the Old ’97, killed seven on-board personnel, injured seven others and destroyed a bridge as the train careened off the side of the structure.

The last track I’d like to highlight is I Don’t Know Why I Love You. Interestingly, it’s a Stevie Wonder tune from his ninth studio album For Once In My Life, which was released in December 1968. I didn’t think Wonder, one of my favorite artists, was on Mellencamp’s radar screen, so I was surprised about this pick. Mellencamp’s cover first appeared on a sampler from June 2003 called Conception – An Interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s Songs. The tribute to the soul legend also featured Eric Clapton, Mary J. Blige and Brian McKnight, among other artists.

Mellencamp will support his new album with The John Mellencamp Show (see tour poster above). Appropriately, the 2019 tour is scheduled to kick off on February 7 in South Bend, Ind. The dense 40-date schedule among others includes Cincinnati (Feb 10), Baltimore, Md. (Feb 20), New York (Feb 25-27), Kansas City, MO (Mar 14), Nashville, Tenn. (Mar 19-20) and Wichita (Apr 16), before it concludes on Apr 20 in Albuquerque, N.M.

One of the other stops is right in my backyard in New Brunswick, NJ (Feb 23) at a great theatre. The thought of seeing Mellencamp for what would be my third time is certainly appealing. I guess I just need to find another reason to justify buying a ticket – and hope by the time I do remaining seats will be reasonably affordable!

Sources: Wikipedia, John Mellencamp website, YouTube