The great James Jamerson’s short but brilliant life in summary.
Born in South Carolina in 1936, James Jamerson inherited his musical awareness from his grandmother and aunt and, by the age of 10, was good enough on piano to be able to sit in with the choir in his local church. Relocating to Detroit with his mother, at high school he decided that he wanted to take up a second instrument, and soon found a natural affinity for the upright bass thanks to his large, powerful hands. By the late Fifties, Jamerson’s playing in Detroit clubs gained him sessions with local record labels who paid him the princely sum of $10 or, if he was lucky, $20 for cutting a track. This beat working in the car factories and warehouses of Detroit, and with each session Jamerson refined his style and pulled in more work. Heavily influenced by jazz virtuoso Ray Brown, he began using syncopation to create rhythmically complex grooves, and would traverse the length of the upright’s fingerboard, adding in upper-register flourishes. When the young Berry Gordy of Motown hired Jamerson as his house bassist in 1959, he joined the elite Funk Brothers, who backed Motown’s stars. In the early days Jamerson cut sessions on double bass, as heard on classic hits such as ‘My Guy’ by Mary Wells. He soon migrated to the bass guitar, developing a picking technique – ‘The Hook’ – where he would play lines with only his index finger. If a Motown line has bubbling sixteenths, chromatic runs, open strings – even when they’re outside the key of the song – and a rich musical inventiveness, it’s likely (but not guaranteed) that you’re listening to Jamerson. His first Precision, a black ’57 with a maple board, was stolen and he chose to replace it with the bass that became known as the Funk Machine. A ’62 Precision in three-tone sunburst with a rosewood board, this is the bass that featured on countless Motown hits throughout the Sixties. Strung with LaBella heavy-gauge flatwound strings, the bass is said to have had a sky-high action, which may have been due to a warped neck. The Funk Machine was also stolen and has never been recovered. Although Jamerson was the first-call bassist for Motown, his increasing dependence on alcohol made him difficult to work with. One famous story has it that Marvin Gaye refused to record ‘What’s Going On’ without Jamerson. The bassist was located playing with a band in a bar and was so intoxicated that he could no longer sit up, and cut the track lying on his back. In 1972 Gordy moved Motown’s base of operations to Los Angeles, and Jamerson loyally followed his employer across the country. However, his association with the company ended just a year later, and he found himself hunting for work in an unfamiliar town. He managed to maintain a level of work throughout the 70s, recording sessions for Robert Palmer and Hues Corporation among others. As the decade progressed, and the musical landscape changed, he found himself less and less in demand. With disco becoming the dominant form of pop music in the mid to late Seventies, a new style of bass playing was emerging. The bass-lines became more repetitive and based around set parts, as opposed to the improvisational and lyrical approach that had become Jamerson’s signature. His refusal to adopt new styles such as slap, or use brighter, more aggressive tones from roundwound strings and modern amplifiers, all meant that his work dwindled away. The steady erosion of his work was also partly due to his increasing reliance on alcohol, which made him unreliable and unpredictable in the studio and on tour. The Eighties saw a rapid decline in his health. At this time he was reported to have become isolated and bitter about his treatment and lack of recognition; a tragic but understandable mindset, given his enormous musical contributions to Motown and pop in general. After a series of hospitalisations he passed away on August 2, 1983, due to pneumonia which had arisen from his various alcohol-related health issues. His death attracted little attention at the time, and his achievements, and those of this fellow Motown musicians, might have disappeared into the mists of time, had it not been for a renewed interest in the man thanks to Allan Slutsky’s Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. Thanks to Slutsky’s efforts and those of Jamerson’s family, he has gained the recognition that eluded him in life. In 2000 he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame for his enduring contributions to music, and is now widely recognised as one of the greatest bassists of all time.