"[James] Jamerson terrified bassists all over the world. Still does."
The original Motown hit machine dominated popular music between 1959 and 1971, making household names out of Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many others. Their secret sauce was a tight knit group of musicians called the Funk Brothers
. Uncredited until Marvin Gaye's 1971 LP "What's Going On", these musicians provided the backing instrumentation on over 100 hit songs
, gracing the charts more than Elvis, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys combined. The soul sound of Motown was driven largely by its innovative bass playing, and that playing was provided largely by the unheralded James Jamerson.
A definitive Jamerson bio
Motown's tormented genius, James Jamerson is unanimously acclaimed as the first virtuoso of the electric bass. Plagued by alcoholism and emotional problems throughout his career, James has influenced (whether they know it or not) every electric bassist to ever pick up the instrument. Arriving at Motown in 1959, James' bass playing evolved over the next decade from a traditional root-fifth cocktail style of bass playing into an astonishing new style built upon a flurry of sixteenth-note runs and syncopations, "pushing the envelope" dissonances, and fearless and constant exploration.
A converted upright bass player with bear claw hands, James plucked the strings with only the index finger of his right hand (which he dubbed "The Hook), and effortlessly and routinely pulled off head-turning, technical feats on the '62 P-Bass he nicknamed "The Funk Machine." His explosive, earthquake-heavy bass lines have had the entire world dancing and grooving to Motown records for over four decades. But he labored in total obscurity - a condition that ate at him throughout the last years of his life.
After Hitsville in Detroit was abruptly closed and Motown relocated to Los Angeles, Jamerson spiraled downward into alcoholism, lack of steady work, and deteriorating health. He passed away in 1983, unknown and nearly destitute.
Fast forward to the 21st century. After being inducted
into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with his memory looming large over the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (previously)
, the once-anonymous genius Jamerson received some long overdue (sadly, posthumous) recognition. The Funk Brothers have even won a number of Grammys
in their own right.
The full scope of Jamerson's discography
is still being compiled, thanks to exhaustive research, recently discovered documents
, and recollections of family
and Hitstown USA
Another key piece of the Jamerson puzzle yet to be found is the aforementioned Funk Machine, Jamerson's stock 1962 Fender Precision Bass
, stolen from his Los Angeles apartment just days before Jamerson's death. Fender Musical Instruments
has offered a no-questions-asked reward for its return.
Enjoy isolated tracks of James Jamerson's bass playing from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"
, on the Temptations "You're My Everything"
, and be sure to check out master bassist Rick Suchow's archive of isolated Jamerson
brilliance. (though you'll have to contact Rick for a password.)