James Jamerson: A Matter of Recognition

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

Late 1964, and Paul McCartney is sifting through some singles at his manager’s premises in London. The records are the latest batch of American chart hits, packed up and sent over regularly from New York by Brian Epstein’s Beatles USA office. Paul flicks through the vinyl 45s, and a red-and-yellow Tamla label stands out. He’s been living in London for over a year now and some of the Tamla cuts have already caught his ear at the hipper nightclubs around town.

Back home, he plays Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and is immediately captivated, not least by the sound of a beautiful bass player at work in the grooves. It’s deceptively simple, but also clever, funky, supportive. Just the sort of thing Paul is striving for in his own playing.

“I’d started listening to other bass players, and mainly as time went on it was Motown,” Paul recalled when I spoke to him years later. “James Jamerson just became my hero, really,” he continued, “although I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very good and melodic, and that got me more interested.”

The isolated bass track on Marvin Gaye's 1971 single "What's Going On", performed by James Jamerson.

It was hardly unusual for a session player to go uncredited in the ’60s. The name of a bass player in a famous band—let’s say John Entwistle—might be widely known. And jazz albums regularly listed all the musicians who made the record. But pop singles didn’t have room for much more than the title and artist anyway, and very few pop albums troubled themselves with such apparent trivia. James had to work for Motown for 12 years before he got a credit—in the inner gatefold of Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 LP What’s Going On.

Today, of course, the name and achievements of James Jamerson are known worldwide among the cognoscenti. You’d be hard pressed to find a bass player working today who doesn’t owe a debt to James Jamerson, consciously or otherwise.

For those back in the ’60s who noticed the relaxed bass groove on ‘How Sweet It Is,’ this was an early sign of just how good James could be. Even if hardly anyone knew who he was. His work had been there on some earlier recordings, sometimes on upright bass, but this was one of the first where his electric was a prominent, melodic, and irreplaceable part of a Motown arrangement.

James Lee Jamerson was a house bassman at Motown, the record company that Berry Gordy set up in Detroit in 1959, at first releasing records on the Tamla label and then from 1960 also on Motown.

He was born in South Carolina in 1936 and moved with his family to Detroit in the early ’50s. At 18, he began playing upright bass with jazz ambitions, and then in 1959 he started working sessions at Berry Gordy’s new company. For a musician used to scraping for gigs, it was regular if relatively low-paid work.

Motown’s fresh fusion of pop and R&B was fronted by singers like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Four Tops, and Stevie Wonder. It soon became what Berry artfully described as the sound of young America, with the music attracting a huge audience of fans during Motown’s heyday in the mid to late ‘60s.

James switched to electric bass in 1961, acquiring a Fender Precision when Berry had him go on the road with Jackie Wilson. Three years later, Berry moved James from road duties to become a full-time member of Motown’s choice team of studio musicians, unofficially known as The Funk Brothers. They worked in the company’s basement studio, a funky little dive that James, drummer Benny Benjamin, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, guitarist Robert White, and the rest nicknamed the Snakepit.

The Four Tops' 1966 single "Reach Out I'll Be There", with bass by James Jamerson.

Lamont Dozier, one third of the Motown production team of Holland–Dozier–Holland, was used to seeing James playing around Detroit and on early Motown sessions with his upright bass. Lamont spoke on BBC radio in 2007 about the time he first saw James turn up to a session with a Fender. “I said what the hell is that, man? I felt like a pioneer or something. I said this ain’t no time to experiment, I gotta cut an important song today. He said no man, this is it. He had his Fender. I was shocked at the sound. But he could maneuver it.”

James most certainly could maneuver it. He used a succession of Precision Basses through his career, at least three and possibly four. Like many musicians, he suffered at the hands of thieves.

His first Precision was a black-finish ’57 model with maple board, but that didn’t last long. For most of his electric work on Motown shows and recordings from 1961 to ’66 he used his second Precision—a rosewood-board sunburst model, possibly a ’60 or ’61—and from ’66 onward he played his third P-Bass, another rosewood/sunburst and likely a ’65 or ’66, known as the Funk Machine. His favorite amp was the Ampeg B-15 Portaflex.

The string mutes in P-Bass bridge covers were part of his sound, too, pressed hard against the strings to give a staccato sound. He set his heavy-gauge flatwound strings with a very high action, and he often played with only the index finger of his right hand—he called it “the hook.”

He wasn’t one to take great care of his instruments. Allan Slutsky, James’s biographer, said that anyone who had the chance to try out his bass usually found it almost unplayable. “But for James,” Allan wrote in the essential Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, “it was fine because of his unusual hand strength.”

James hit his stride at Motown as the ’60s rolled by, performing some spectacularly kinetic lines that helped to transform the potential for electric bass in pop music. For the skeptics who demand one convincing go-to track to convince, I’d nominate “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” from 1966 by The Supremes. But at the end of this piece you’ll find a shortlist I’ve compiled of my ten favorite James cuts. Bear in mind, though, that there are so many gems to choose from in the vast Jamerson canon that it can only hint at the scale of his work.

"You Keep Me Hangin' On" by The Supremes, with bass by James Jamerson.

Motown had gradually moved to Los Angeles, and James moved with them, but during the ’70s his life began to unravel. Back in the ’60s, Jack Bruce had been another musician who noticed some records featuring a great but anonymous bassist. “Nobody knew who he was back then,” Jack told me later. “I started to hear James in the mid ’60s and started developing my bass playing in that direction, and that encouraged me that I was on the right track. I met James later, in fact, in LA, and we became very firm friends in 1974. He gave me some of his Motown sessions there when he couldn't do them.”

Jack described James as a broken man. “He felt, in the same way as I felt about some of the situations I’ve been in, that you’ve put your heart and your soul and your health into making something great, and when you’re not wanted any more you’re just tossed aside. That’s exactly what had happened with him.”

Jack said that by the time he got to know him in the ’70s, James had lost his home and his way of life. “He’d never had the recognition he deserved. Nobody knew who he was apart from the people who took the trouble to find out. James Jamerson to me was Tamla Motown, as much as any of the great singers. He's what made it great, this bass player.”

James’s great skill was to create powerfully rhythmic basslines that were melodic, syncopated pieces of magic, and his recorded grooves with Motown helped to change the perception of the potential role for the electric bass guitar. He went beyond the root-note machine of pop music and the rarely challenged root-and-fifth routine of country, establishing the bass part as an important element in the wider musical picture of pop music.

He played for Motown until the early ’70s, and he died at the age of just 47, in 1983—almost exactly 40 years ago as you read this—following alcohol-related problems and ill health. Until quite recently, his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit was identified only by a simple marker in the grass. James’s cousin, Anthony McKnight, decided that wasn’t right for such an important and influential musician, and through GoFundMe he campaigned to pay for something more appropriate.

In August 2021, alongside other members of James’s family, Anthony unveiled the new memorial, a sizable and suitably inscribed black marble plinth surmounted by a bronze sculpture of a Precision Bass. “I felt James deserved more, because he’s considered the father of modern-day bass,” Anthony told the Detroit Free Press.

Tony Bacon’s Top 10 James Jamerson tracks

  • “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” Marvin Gaye (1964)
  • “Stop! In The Name Of Love” The Supremes (1965)
  • “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” The Supremes (1966)
  • “Reach Out I’ll Be There” Four Tops (1966)
  • “Bernadette” Four Tops (1967)
  • “I Was Made To Love Her” Stevie Wonder (1967)
  • “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” Gladys Knight & The Pips (1967)
  • “For Once In My Life” Stevie Wonder (1968)
  • “Darling Dear” Jackson 5 (1970)
  • “What’s Going On” Marvin Gaye (1971)

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Paul McCartney: Bassmaster and The Bass Book. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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