The Incomparable James Jamerson

James Jamerson revolutionized bass playing for the rhythm and blues music genre. He has played on a tremendous amount of music between the 1950s and the early 1980s.

Born in Edisto Island, South Carolina, on January 29th, 1936, James Jamerson taught himself to play the bass by nailing strings to the side of his house and plucking them until each string had the pitch he desired.

Jamerson moved to Detroit, Michigan with his mother in 1954 and attended Northwestern High School. His initial intention was to become a music teacher and teach students to play the double bass. That plan was deterred when he started playing in local bars and clubs with local jazz bands. During this time he also plays double bass on “Boom, Boom, Boom” by John Lee Hooker.

By the late 50’s Berry Gordy was building a machine that was soon to be known to the world as Motown Records. Gordy along with Mickey Stevenson would go to jazz clubs in search of musicians to recruit for Motown’s studio band. The 20 Grand was a popular club in Detroit at the time and jazz musicians performed there. This is where Berry Gordy found Jamerson and several members of what would become The Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band.

Jamerson’s style of bass playing was different than what was normal at the time. His style was often called melodic. The bass technic That he implemented sounded as if it were in a duet with the vocalist. Berry Gordy described Jamerson as a “genius on the bass”.

In the early Motown days, Jamerson’s weapon of choice was the double bass, which he played with only his right index finger, that was later nick named “The Hook”. He bought the double bass while in high school and never changed the strings. The bass was recently auctioned off, and it still had the same strings that were used to create such songs as, “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and The All Stars, and “Please Mister Postman”, by the Marvelettes. Jamerson said that the old strings held “The Funk”.

In later years Jamerson started playing the electric bass. He was given a 62 Precision Fender bass which he called “The Funk Machine”. With this bass he created such bass lines as, “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder and my personal favorite, “Darling Dear” by The Jackson 5.

James Jamerson was the first studio musician at Motown to be put on a retainer. He was paid $1,000.00 per week. His talent was in high demand.

Marvin Gaye insisted that James Jamerson play on his album, “What’s Going On”. When no one could find him, Gaye searched from bar to club to bar all around Detroit until he found Jamerson. When Jamerson was finally found, he was inebriated but was still brought back Studio A, affectionately known as “The Snake Pit”, where he composed the bass line to “What’s Going On”, while lying on the floor on his back.

Motown did not usually give album credit to the studio musicians, however on “What’s Going On” The Funk Brothers are individually given credit, with James Jamerson being credited as “The Incomparable James Jamerson”’

James Jamerson was quite an eccentric character. There is a story of an incident when The Funk Brothers were traveling one night to play a gig for a Motown Revue concert, and Jamerson, sitting in the back seat between two other band mates insisted on putting on his pajama’s. After putting on his pajama’s he lit a cigar and started smoking it. Due to complaints from his band mates, he put the cigar out. Moment’s later, he opens a jar of pickled pig feet and started eating them. Fed up, his band mates put him out of the car.

Jamerson also loved to cook. Whenever he was home, he would cook for his family and any friends that would stop by.

When Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, initially The Funk Brothers did not come along. Most found session work around Detroit. Jamerson did some session work with, The Hues Corporation-”Rock The Boat”, The Sylvers- “Boogie Fever and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.- “You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)”. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, but found it hard to find work. Bass playing had changed. There were new techniques such as “thumpin and pluckin” or “Slap Bass” and bass lines were more repetitive. Mr. Jamerson did not want to evolve to these new trends. He wouldn’t even change his strings, which had never been changed.

The beginning of the end for James Jamerson was when he thought he was called for an audition, and when he got there, his son (also named James Jamerson) was there. The audition was for Jamerson Jr.

A mix of bitterness for never being recognized for his contributions, and alcoholism contributed to his dying of cirrhosis of the liver and pneumonia on August 2nd, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Days before his death his 1962 Precision Fender bass- The Funk Machine, was stolen from his home. Some say that that event was the last nail in the coffin.

James Jamerson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2000 in the first ever group of side men category. He was also inducted into the Fender Hall Of Fame, posthumously, in 2009.

Many bass players were influenced by the talent of James Jamerson. Such as:

Bernard Odum

Willie Weeks

Paul McCartney

Jack Bruce

Pino Paladino

Mike Watt

Robert DeLeo

Geddy Lee

Victor Wooten

and many more.

Popular Jamerson bass lines include:

“Bernadette”- The Four Tops

What’s Going On”- Marvin Gaye

Trouble Man”- Marvin Gaye

I Heard It Through The Grapevine”- Gladys Knight and The Pips/Marvin Gaye

Don’t Mess With Bill”- The Marvelettes

Going To A Go-Go”- Smokey Robinson and The Miracle’s

Dancing In The Street”- Martha and The Vandellas

My Girl”- The Temptations

I Was Made To Love Her”- Stevie Wonder

and TONS MORE!!!!

Remember that James Jamerson played on 95% of all Motown song’s from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Some say that his best work was the music he made with Marvin Gaye. I agree. Maybe it was because they were both “Trouble Men”.

AllanDr. LicksSlutsky authored a book, “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown” about the life and times of James Jamerson. There is also a documentary of the same name available on DVD.