Many, many years ago, I was at a party when my friend Craig began chatting up this girl. Whether he was being my wing man or just trying to make conversation with her (for his own nefarious purposes no doubt), he mentioned to her that I played bass. She asked me who my favorite bassist was and I said “James Jamerson”. I was met with a blank, dumb puppy like stare. “Who”?. “James Jamerson”, I said. “He played bass on all the classic Motown records like Heard It Through The Grapevine, I Was Made To Love Her, Dancing In The Street”. There was a faint glimmer of recognition in her eyes but you can tell that she wasn’t impressed. Neither Craig or I got any farther with her.
James Jamerson was possible one of the most important musicians in the second half of the 20th century that most people never heard of. Non-singing bassists usually don’t get much recognition from the public in the first place but even many music geeks aren’t aware of his place in the history of popular music. Motown didn’t credit it’s session musicians before 1971 and it wasn’t until that year, when he was acknowledged as “the incomparable James Jamerson” on the sleeve of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, that his name even showed up on a major Motown release.
Prior to Jamerson, bass playing in the popular music of the day rarely consisted of anything more than simple patterns outlining the chords. Jamerson, who had a solid jazz background, brought that music’s harmonic and melodic sophistication to the bass lines that he played on all those classic Motown tunes but with a rhythmic sensibility that would help define the “Motown Sound”. His playing would go on to influence a incredible number of other bassists including Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Bill Wyman, Brian Wilson and Bootsy Collins.
The clips below illustrate how amazing Jamerson’s bass playing was (he passed away way too young 1983 at the age of 45) where you can hear how his melodic bass lines created a duet with the vocals. Prepare to be amazed.
JAMES JAMERSON & MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON
James Jamerson with Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
James Jamerson & The Temptations – I CAN’T GET NEXT TO YOU
JAMES JAMERSON with The Four Tops – REACH OUT (I’LL BE THERE)
James Jamerson – I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Jamerson was the subject of a 1989 book titled Standing in the Shadows of Motown (that was subsequently made in to a 2002 documentary film). It features a few dozen transcriptions of his bass lines which were perfomed by a who’s who of bassists on an accompanying CD. I could not recommend this enough to any musician, regardless of instrument or the type of music you play.