Bassist James Jamerson was a driving force of the classic Motown sound, popular through the 1960s and still familiar even to those not even born when it flourished. In the words of Ed Hogan of the All Music Guide, Jamerson "single-handedly revolutionized bass playing." His detailed, rhythmically complex bass lines shaped the sound of Motown's legendary "Funk Brothers" rhythm section to a degree many listeners never suspected; Jamerson was a largely unheralded figure at the time of his early death in 1983, although his influence on other musicians loomed large. The recollections gathered in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown helped to restore Jamerson to his proper place in the history of popular music.
James Lee Jamerson Jr. was born on Edisto Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, on January 29, 1936. His birth year has also been reported as 1938, but the 1936 date, according to Jamerson biographer Dr. Licks, is corroborated by Jamerson's birth certificate. Jamerson's father, James Sr., worked in Charleston's shipyards, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a domestic worker. Jamerson's parents divorced when he was young. His early schooling came on Edisto Island, but he later moved in with family members in central Charleston. He attended Baptist Hill High School in Charleston County.
Music surrounded Jamerson in Charleston: in the homes of his grandmother and church choir singer aunt, at the home of his cousin Louise, who played piano, and from the jazz, gospel, and blues that he began to hear on the radio in the years after World War II. He was confined to a wheelchair for a year after a bicycle crash and, despite making a commitment to evangelical Christianity as a teenager, was later troubled by alcohol addiction. Jamerson's mother moved north to Detroit in 1953, and Jamerson followed her a year later, enrolling at Northwestern High School. As a child he had constructed a bass-like instrument by stringing a large rubber band on a long stick, and when he saw an actual upright bass on the floor of Northwestern's music room, he instinctively picked it up. Teacher William Helstein encouraged Jamerson to pursue music, and soon he had bought a bass of his own—a German-made upright that he continued to play throughout his years of national prominence.
Jamerson was offered a music scholarship to Wayne State University but turned it down because he had already, by his late teens, become a steadily working musician. He played blues with a band called Washboard Willie and the Super Suds of Rhythm at such clubs as the Bucket of Blood—surviving such gigs unharmed thanks to his mastery of martial arts. Moving up in the musical world, Jamerson began to find his way into the dense concentration of jazz clubs that surrounded Detroit's New Center area, home to the headquarters of General Motors. As it was for other Motown session players, the jazz experience was a formative one for Jamerson, whose bass lines often added irregular rhythms and improvisatory flourishes to the plain harmonies and rhythmic support that had been the norm for the instrument in popular music up to the late 1950s.
As his reputation spread through Detroit's vigorous music scene, Jamerson found work playing the bass on records issued by small labels in the city, including Fortune and Anna, Motown's direct ancestor. For a time he toured in a band backing rhythm-and-blues vocal star Jackie Wilson. When founder Berry Gordy developed his Motown label and Hitsville U.S.A. studio in a house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, west of New Center, Jamerson was one of the first musicians he recruited.
By the early 1960s the core of Motown's superb group of session musicians, later known as the Funk Brothers, had taken shape. Jamerson was integral to its sound. One of Jamerson's innovations came in 1961 when he added a Fender Precision electric bass to his musical arsenal, and sometimes overdubbed both the acoustic and electric instruments on the same recording to create a unique timbre.
When Motown rocketed to national and international popularity in 1964 Jamerson gave up live appearances in order to spend full time at Hitsville U.S.A. making recordings. The interaction between Jamerson and the Funk Brothers percussion section was crucial to the so-called Motown sound that more than one Motown session was delayed until Jamerson could be brought to the studio. In Motown's early years Jamerson was paid poorly on a per-session basis, but by 1968 his importance to the label was well enough established that he could make a successful demand for a $1,000-a-week salary. He married, and he and his wife, Ann, raised four children: James Jr. (who later became a musician), Joey, Dorene (nicknamed Penny), and Derek. To unwind, Jamerson liked to do his own South Carolina down-home cooking. "He didn't cook normal stuff," a Jamerson friend told Dr. Licks. "He liked to cook all that gichee food like raccoon, rabbit, possum, and different kinds of gumbos with rice. He made all kinds of weird concoctions."
A complete Jamerson discography would be a voluminous undertaking, for he appeared on most of the prolific Motown label releases of the 1960s (an extensive listing appears on the Bassland Web site). Songs on which his contribution is especially noticeable include the "My Girl" (the Temptations), "Heat Wave" (Martha and the Vandellas), "Don't Mess with Bill" (the Marvelettes), "My Guy" (Mary Wells), "Ooh Baby Baby" (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles), and both famous versions of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips), as well as various hits by Diana Ross and the Supremes. The more elaborate Motown arrangements of the 1960s, written out in musical notation, cramped Jamerson's improvisatory style slightly, but "Love Child" (Diana Ross and the Supremes, 1968, with full string arrangement) showed that he adapted quickly. His own favorite among his own recordings was Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?"(1971), during which, he told his wife, he was lying flat on his back as he played the bass.
Jamerson's personality emerged as mercurial in the recollections of the musicians featured in Standing in the Shadows of Motown; the Funk Brothers, in the words of Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times, "had to cope with the whims of a genius as wily and autocratic as Fidel Castro and far more unpredictable." The narrator of the film refers to Jamerson as tortured, and alcohol abuse caused him to begin missing recording dates in the late 1960s. Even after a decade of chart-topping session activity, Jamerson was virtually unknown to the public at large; Motown was a star-oriented organization that made little mention of the diverse talents that combined to make it a success. Bassists and other instrumentalists, however, were quick to cite Jamerson as an influence; Beatle Paul McCartney, in a Bass Guitar interview quoted on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Web site, said that during his early years he "started listening to other players—mainly Motown. As time went on, James Jamerson became my hero … because he was so good and melodic."
Jamerson moved to Los Angeles when Motown relocated its headquarters there in 1973. His association with Motown ended quickly, but he landed steady session work on the West Coast and was heard on such recordings as "Rock the Boat" (the Hues Corporation, 1975) and "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)" (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, 1976). He returned to touring, backing folk-rock artists Joan Baez and Maria Muldaur, and he was heard on the theme music for the hit television series Starsky and Hutch.
At a Glance …
Born James Lee Jamerson Jr. on January 29, 1936, on Edisto Island, SC; died on August 2, 1983, in Los Angeles, CA.; married Ann; children: James Jr., Joey, Dorene, and Derek. Education: Northwestern High School, Detroit. Religion: Missionary Baptist.
Career: Various jazz clubs, Detroit, musician, mid-1950s; Washboard Willie and the Super Suds of Rhythm (blues band), member; Detroit, freelance session musician, late 1950s; Motown Records, session musician, 1958–73; Motown Records, staff musician, 1968–73; Funk Brothers (informal name for core Motown session group), member; Los Angeles, CA, freelance session musician, 1973–83.
Awards: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inductee, 2000.
In the late 1970s, however, Jamerson entered the deeper stages of addiction and depression, and he was hospitalized or institutionalized several times. Work opportunities declined, although young musicians still sought Jamerson out, and he emphasized his still-obscure role in the Motown story when interviewed. The 1983 broadcast of the television special Motown 25, marking the company's 25th anniversary, had little to say about Jamerson and the other Funk Brothers. Jamerson died later that year, of pneumonia, on August 2, 1983. Articles and museum exhibitions in the late 1980s and 1990s began to uncover the remarkable cooperative aspects of Motown's rise. A biography and musical analysis of Jamerson, Dr. Licks's Standing in the Shadows of Motown, appeared in 1989. Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, but a full appreciation of his contributions did not come until the release of the film version of Standing in the Shadows of Motown in 2002—in which Jamerson loomed large although he had been deceased for nearly two decades.
Singles (as session musician)
"Heat Wave" (Martha and the Vandellas), 1963.
"My Girl" (the Temptations), 1964.
"My Guy" (Mary Wells), 1964.
"Ooh Baby Baby" (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles), 1965.
"Don't Mess with Bill" (the Marvelettes), 1966.
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (Gladys Knight and the Pips), 1976; (Marvin Gaye), 1968.
"Love Child" (Diana Ross and the Supremes), 1968.
"What's Going On?"(Marvin Gaye), 1971.
"Rock the Boat" (the Hues Corporation), 1975.
"You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)" (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis), 1976.
Licks, Dr. (Allan Slutsky), Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, Hal Leonard, 1991.
New York Times, August 6, 1983, p. 26; November 15, 2002, p. E12.
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), September 14, 2003, p. E7; September 21, 2003, p. B1.
"James Jamerson," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 1, 2007).
"James Jamerson," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=220 (February 1, 2007).
"James Jamerson—Bassist," Bassland, www.bassland.net/jamerson.html (February 1, 2007).