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 Entwistle, Jack 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 Rainey, Geddy 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.
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