James Jamerson: Motown's Secret Weapon
October 18, 2008 10:28 PM   Subscribe

"[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 reads:
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 denizens.

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.)
posted by edverb (32 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
There are songs that he played on that I have heard thousands of times but having grown up with these songs I don't always pay too much attention. Sometimes though, I will key in on just the bass part and my mind is blown. I really love the Four Tops songs that he played on, especially that little solo bass lick right before the chorus of Reach Out I'll Be There.
posted by ericthegardener at 10:55 PM on October 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

My God, does this guy have a list of credits!!!

And all with one finger. I'm looking at my bass right now (I'm trying to perfect a four-finger technique when I have the spare time) and thinking....

A truly great player.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:16 PM on October 18, 2008

Pssst... check it out...

Wanna hear something utterly fantastic? A rare chance to hear a Motown track by the Temptations, with nothing else but the vocal track and Jamerson's bass. Eh? Eh? AMIRITE? Sublime.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:18 PM on October 18, 2008 [6 favorites]

Two versions of my favorite Jamerson part: Reflections and Reflections (weird instrumental).

Bass greatness at its greatest.
posted by grounded at 11:19 PM on October 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Want more?

The bassline to Bernadette... solo at first, then band in... but no vox to distract! Sweet!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:20 PM on October 18, 2008

Yeah, I got more for ya.

Here's a fellow faithfully recreating (playing along with the record) Jamerson's typically fluid line for a Jackson 5 song, Darling Dear.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:24 PM on October 18, 2008

And while it's nice to be able to see that fellow playing it, let's just listen to James do it, now, shall we?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:27 PM on October 18, 2008

AAARRRGGHHH! Sorry edverb, I see you linked to the Temptations clip originally in the [more inside]. Too quick on the trigger am I! I think my other links weren't already covered though, so, I guess I don't have to feel quite so stupid.

Thanks for the great post. And in case you were wondering, I had those YT clips close at hand cause I was thinking of doing a Jamerson FPP sometime. I'm glad you did this one, though!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:39 PM on October 18, 2008

Definitely one of the greatest who ever lived. Wonderful melodic invention, impeccable time.

The Funk Machine's still at large somewhere, but nobody's telling.
posted by Wolof at 11:42 PM on October 18, 2008

Whoa *thumbs up*
posted by amyms at 11:51 PM on October 18, 2008

as a sometime bassist, i will testify to this man's greatness.
posted by mwhybark at 12:38 AM on October 19, 2008

I've been meaning to buy Marvin Gaye's "What's goin on", and just did. Thanks for the reminder...
posted by strawberryviagra at 1:53 AM on October 19, 2008

Oh - I'ze be gittin it tonight...
posted by strawberryviagra at 2:00 AM on October 19, 2008

OMG yes. Growing up as a bass player I idolized Jamerson, learned every lick and groove. There was none finer or funkier.

Thank you for this. Without JJ, no Motown.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:18 AM on October 19, 2008

After I had been playing bass for a couple of years and generally using Rick Danko as a reference point, I gradually became aware that Jamerson was The Guy on the overwhelming majority of Motown tracks. I wanted to learn more. Accordingly, in 1989 I picked up "Standing In the Shadows of Motown,*" the book and tapes that transcribed and recreated a lot of his better-known work.

For those who don't know SITSOM, session musician Allan Slutsky (quoted in the FPP) sought out numerous well-known bassists both in bands (John Entwistle) and session players (Anthony Jackson, Skunk Baxter) and had them each play one or two of their favourite Jamerson parts into a DAT recorder. Slutsky then went back with the tapes and added drum/guitar/keyboard parts to recreate the song, save for the vocals, winding up with a sort of karaoke version of the tracks.

In the finished product, the bass was mixed purely in the left channel and everything else in the right, so with the balance knob** you could lower or raise the level of the bass in the mix, from totally absent to nothing but. And while most of the attention got focussed to the left, on the genius stuff going on in the bottom end of "I Was Made to Love Her" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Bernadette" and the rest, I was even more fascinated to hear the tracks sans bass entirely; to my mind, that was what drove home Jamerson's contribution to the tracks. You heard all these fantastic grooves without bass or vocals and suddenly there is no there there.

The dude didn't help the Motown sound: he was the Motown sound.

*Of course, more than a decade later the biographical chapter got expanded to form part of the backstory for the film of the same name. This must surely be the only time in history an instructional book of sheet music has been adapted into a feature film. Though I also dig Carol Kaye, I don;t see Warner Brothers financing "Electric Bass Lines No. 4" any time soon.

** Do sound systems still even have these?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:35 AM on October 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Great post! nearly everything i've ever needed to learn about playing bass came from recordings of James Jamerson. those grooves are in my head ~all the time~.
posted by The_Auditor at 8:37 AM on October 19, 2008

Jamerson didn't get credited on an album until Marvin Gaye's What's Going On in 1971, and had to buy a ticket to Motown's twenty-fifth anniversary special.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2008

The reason James Jamerson used to terrified other bassists was because he garroted them with his E-string.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:56 AM on October 19, 2008

How did I read this post as "Jenna Jameson terrified bassists all over the world"? Man, the imagery that gave me.
posted by bonaldi at 10:06 AM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

James Jamerson vs. Carol Kaye.
posted by bonefish at 10:48 AM on October 19, 2008

yes, he was one of the greats and much of what i think about bass playing is from listening to am radio in the 60s and hearing what he and carol kaye were playing - (and it's a shame that she's trying to claim his legacy like that - she's got enough legacy of her own)
posted by pyramid termite at 11:23 AM on October 19, 2008

The reason James Jamerson used to terrified other bassists was because he garroted them with his E-string.

And when that didn't work, he'd gas them with the noxious vapors of rancid pig's feet.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:26 PM on October 19, 2008

Jamerson was the first bass player I knew by both sound and name. An amazing, amazing musician, and learning how little respect and money he got when he was carrying Motown on his back was my introduction to the shitty nature of the music business. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 4:41 PM on October 19, 2008

James Jamerson vs. Carol Kaye.

Oh, I know all about that, Bonefish. I prefer to concentrate on the Kaye performances that, er, actually are Kaye. "Good Vibrations," "Wichita Lineman," that sort of thing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:39 PM on October 19, 2008

I love James Jamerson's playing, but was surprised he didn't play my favorite Motown bass line, "Ball of Confusion."
posted by drezdn at 6:08 PM on October 19, 2008

This is a fucking FANTASTIC post. Gold star.
posted by alexwoods at 6:26 PM on October 19, 2008

Indeed, AWESOME post.

I cut my teeth on the recordings that Ricochet Biscuit references.

My favorite JJ story follows.

One time, Motown Records hired a new studio engineer/assistant. The band went out to lunch and the engineer took it upon himself to change JJ's strings. JJ returned from lunch, and upon discovering what the engineer had done, became enraged. He made the engineer retrieve the old strings from the dumpster in the alley and put them back on his bass. (JJ played on flatwounds).

ALL of those songs, all of the hits, JJ used the same set of strings for all of them. Talk about something that should be in the RNR Hall Of Fame.........
posted by peewinkle at 6:51 AM on October 20, 2008

"...musicians and music lovers throughout the world were discovering the holy grail of the bass world."
posted by songfromme at 7:31 AM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

flatwounds! who knew? huge harmonics, really distinctive strings. My very first bass, a hofner-copy quick-made for the early Beatles imitator market, came with flatwounds. The combo of the tiny hollow body and the odd sound of the flats made for interesting effects, such as nearly uncontrollable feedback.
posted by mwhybark at 8:31 AM on October 21, 2008

P bass with flats is enjoying quite some vogue at the moment. I have a couple myself — if you want to do the Motown it's really the only way to fly.
posted by Wolof at 8:09 PM on October 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm on a J-bass with rounds, so I guess that's why I can't make it do that. Huh.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 8:19 AM on October 22, 2008

Thanks for the awesome post, edverb. I rented Standing in the Shadows and watched it last night: it was fantastic. You've opened a whole new world for me.
posted by popechunk at 7:50 AM on October 26, 2008

« Older The majestic Synthaxe   |   Stories from Hogar de Don Guido - the DX shack in... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments