Most often, many gifted people are recognized first far beyond their homes. Some are only appreciated after they are dead and the scope of their work and contributions are realized in retrospect. South Carolina native James Jamerson is one of those people. Ask the average person on the street who were the Funk Brothers and they’ll give you a puzzled look. But ask him or her to hum the music of their favorite Motown tune and they know every note and part.
Born on Edisto Island on January 29, 1936, Jamerson moved with his mother to Detroit’s west side in 1953 after his parents divorced. Things that made sounds fascinated the boy. In the movie, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown,” Jamerson is quoted as telling a friend he made his first musical instrument by stretching a rubber band on a stick and sticking it into an ant hill so he could, “make the ants dance.” By the time he got to Detroit’s Northwestern High School he began playing the upright bass. He also picked his other lifelong partner and, shortly before graduation, married Annie Wells.
Within a year of picking up the bass he was playing with professional musicians and mentored by some of Detroit’s greats such as Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef. Upon graduation from high school Jamerson was offered a musical scholarship to Wayne State University, but turned it down to play professionally in order to support Annie who was expecting the first of their four children.
In 1958, Jamerson began doing sessions for a number of labels to include Northern, Tri-Phi, Fortune and Anna Records that was owned by Gwen Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister. Jamerson was the “bassman in demand” and his rep as a talented young player grew quickly. Gigs picked up. Berry Gordy heard him and in 1959 brought him into Motown’s Studio A at 2648 West Grant Boulevard.
Even after Jamerson became a regular “Hitsville, USA” (Motown’s nickname) session’s player, he continued to play with a number of bands, including Jackie Wilson’s. While touring with Wilson in 1961, he switched from the upright to an electric Fender Precision bass. Legend has it he mastered the instrument in two weeks. But it was while playing with Wilson that he invented the way the bottom end sounds on Motown records.
According to his wife, Annie, Gordy finally asked Jamerson to stay off the road and devote all his time to the studio. By the early ’60s, Motown’s A-team of musicians had come together: Earl Van Dyke, Robert White, Benny Benjamin, Joe Messina and Jamerson.
The Funk Brothers, as they came to be known, molded one of the most distinct sounds in pop music history. Under the leadership of Van Dyke, the group also became a fixture on Detroit’s club scene.
Jamerson’s bass playing was the foundation of the Motown sound. When you dance to “Heat Wave” your hips aren’t moving because of Martha or her Vandellas. Jamerson’s fat, deep, grooves underneath are seducing your hips into motion. Though few among the record-buying public ever never knew him by name, they were well-acquainted with his work, which included the bass lines on such classics as “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” by the Four Tops; “Dancing in the Street,” by Martha and the Vandellas; “I Was Made to Love Her,” by Stevie Wonder; and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” by the Supremes .
Jamerson was one of the most influential musicians of our time. Within the music industry, Jamerson is considered a legend. Motown founder Berry Gordy described Jamerson as “a genius on the bass…and an incredible improviser in the studio and somebody I always wanted on my sessions.”
Fellow musicians said that he developed his parts in mere seconds. And that his groove-oriented melodicism brought about a broader awareness of the role and possibilities of the bass guitar. Beatle’s member Paul McCartney said Jamerson influenced his own playing. McCartney said: “I started listening to other bass players—mainly Motown. As time went on, James Jamerson became my hero…because he was so good and melodic.”
Jamerson also had a profound influence on the state of the recording art. During the Fifties, electric basses were not considered legitimate instruments by most producers and studio players; the most common approach was to record an acoustic bass to anchor the bottom of the sound, and then have someone, usually a guitarist, add electric bass-string lines for percussive and melodic supplementation. When Jamerson came along, he made the bottom jump and pop and completely changed the way people heard and played R&B and rock & roll. He was the first electric bass virtuoso.
As was often the case in the early days of R&B, Jamerson was not credited as a composer, even though the bass lines he created became part of the song as submitted for copyright. He didn’t even receive credit on albums as a studio musician. Thus, he received no royalties for his contributions.
The unsung life of Jamerson intrigued Allan Slutsky, a Philadelphia musician and writer, who in the mid-’80s jumped into the history of Motown for answers. The resulting book, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson” was published in 1989. The success of the book led to the $3-million documentary about the Funk Brothers – “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” which was featured at this years’ 2ND Annual African American International Film Festival in Columbia, South Carolina.
The movie shines a light on the music and artistry of Jamerson for many South Carolinians for the first time.
“You have to remember the state of the electric bass at that time — it had only been around since the early ’50s,” says Slutsky. “People didn’t know what to do with it. Nobody blew you away. Then Jamerson comes along. He was the first virtuoso of the electric bass, the first to give the instrument a voice.”
In musical terms, what Jamerson introduced was syncopation. In layman’s terms, most call it funk. By changing the way pop music was performed and produced, Jamerson shifted the landscape. Today’s bass players owe an overwhelming debt to his innovations in the tiny studio on West Grand in Detroit called the “snake pit.”
“The thing laymen have to understand is that music is built from the bottom up,” says Slutsky. “James was the bottom. When he changed the way the bottom functioned and sounded, it changed everything up the line.”
Rather than merely outlining a song’s chords in primitive, arpeggio (successive) patterns like most pop and R&B bassists — dum, dum, dum, dum — Jamerson developed lines of increasing complexity. His jazz background allowed him to toy with unusual harmonic flourishes. He widened the palette.
Though impossible to say for sure — it’s likely that Jamerson played on more Top 10 records than anyone in history. He was with Motown from 1959 until 1973, and during the peak years of its golden era, from 1963 to 1966, he played on virtually every Motown, Tamla, Gordy, Soul and VIP release. On these records – backing the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and many others – Jamerson created a sound, feel and impact that made him one of the three or four most important innovators in the last twenty years of American music.
Like his Funk Brothers band mates, Jamerson was rarely credited in public for his prolific work. It wasn’t until 1971, when he was acknowledged as “the incomparable James Jamerson” on the liner notes of Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 record “What’s Going On,” that his name even showed up on a major Motown release. In hindsight, ‘What’s Going On’ was the swan song for Jamerson and he always thought that was his best work.
“What’s Going On” was among the last Motown albums recorded in Detroit. Within a year, the Jamerson family was in Los Angeles as the company branched out into film and TV production. Jamerson hoped to follow the fortunes of the company that had provided them with an upper middle-class life in Detroit.
But 1972 move proved hurtful for many of the Detroiters. It was particularly painful for Jamerson. LA wasn’t Motown, and the cutthroat scene wasn’t “Hitsville, USA.” The family atmosphere cultivated in Detroit disappeared.
The pressure of working in the “snake pit” had already taken a toll on Jamerson. Although he was known as a generous man with both his time and money, he was plagued by alcoholism throughout his career. His peers loved him but he was also a source of anxiety and apprehension. Sometimes Jamerson would show up to sessions too wasted to play, and there was a move to fire him but Berry Gordy prevented it. James had started drinking back in his jazz club days, but as the ’60s progressed his love for the bottle transformed into a moodiness that nearly doomed his Motown career on many an occasion.
“Some folks disliked him as much as they loved him,” says Annie Jamerson.
Since childhood, James had revealed a “two-pronged personality: angel and devil. He was a class clown and a loner. Gregarious and mean. Sweet and flammable. Like so many geniuses, there was something in his personality that evoked traces of bipolar disorder.”
“James was a wonderful man, except when alcohol became a problem,” said Annie. “Without the firewater, James was a wonderful guy who would give you the shirt off his back.”
When Jamerson’s $52,000 exclusive contract he had since 1968 was not extended in the 1972 move, he became a freelance session man, and for several years was in high demand for tours and recording sessions.
But drugs had also entered his scene. In 1975, depressed and strung out, he was cut from a Diana Ross tour in midstream. Medications prescribed to combat his substance abuse only compounded his problems, limiting his motor control. And although his great bass lines were being recycled and restated on hundreds of records year after year, he was still not receiving the recognition he deserved.
Acquaintances say it was about that time that Jamerson began speaking of ghosts in his head. His afflictions gradually eroded his reputation. He was abruptly cut from sessions for Lionel Ritchie and Smokey Robinson. Financial problems set in. He longed for the fame he’d had in Detroit.
According to Annie Jamerson, the alcohol and abandonment ended his career with Motown. “When people clamor after you, and then forget you when you become ill…That really hurt him.”
By the end of the seventies his physical and psychological condition had deteriorated to the point his musical skills suffered. A long, slow, sad decline began that was complicated by a knife injury to his right arm during a mugging. After periods of hospitalization for his physical and mental health in the early 80s, he died on August 1, 1983 of alcohol-related complications.
Annie moved back to Detroit three years after his death to care for her ailing mother in St. Louis. She moved back to their east side home from the ’60s that they had never sold.
Mysterious in life, overlooked in death, Jamerson got his due on March 6, 2000 when he was among the Fifteenth Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first round of inductees for session musicians — the unheralded players behind the scenes.
His induction was the first high-profile recognition of his vast body of work. In addition to his Motown material, Jamerson played on a number of hits in the 1970s, including “Rock the Boat” (Hues Corporation), “Boogie Fever” (the Sylvers) and “Theme from S.W.A.T.” (Rhythm Heritage). In all, he performed on nearly 30 No. 1 pop hits — toppling the record commonly attributed to the Beatles. On the R&B charts, nearly 70 of his performances went to the top.
Jamerson was survived by his father, James Jamerson Sr.; his mother, Elizabeth Bacon; his wife, Annie; three sons, James Jamerson III (a bassist known in the industry as James Jamerson Jr.), Derek and Joey; one daughter, Doreen (known as Penny); one granddaughter, and one brother, Richard Brown.
Motown was trying to change with the times by moving west. But since the company’s move, there has been no such thing as an identifiable Motown sound – the one-time “Sound of Young America.” As Jamerson told Guitar Player magazine in 1979, “They lost the sound, man. They moved to L.A. looking for something different, and they didn’t find it. And all along, everybody else was searching for the same sound they had.”
Since Slutsky’s book was published, he’s received thousands of letters from around the world wanting to know more about the enigmatic legend.
“If James knew the fuss, he’d be floored,” says Slutsky. “This was a guy who died in agony. He figured he was forgotten.”
“Very few people have a chance to impact the world on a large scale. But that’s what he did,” says Slutsky. “People don’t know him like they should. But when you think about it, the impact pop culture has had all over the world …he’s right there at the foundation.”
© 2003 KAG (By Kevin Alexander Gray for Black News –
Additional sources: Marshall Crenshaw – Rolling Stone, Brian McCollum – Detroit Free Press)