Bassist from Edisto Island, South Carolina,
who relocated to Detroit,
Michigan, with his mom in
1954. After dabbling around on the
piano, he gravitated to the acoustic, upright bass while attending Northwestern High School. He played in the school’s jazz
ensemble and branched out into the local club circuit, improving his chops
with the likes of Kenny Burrell, Hank Jones and Yusef
While still in
school, he wed Annie Wells and declined a chance to attend Wayne State University
on a music scholarship as he was already working in his field of
interest. He hooked up with
Washboard Willie & the Supersuds of Rhythm, and
at one of their dates, Northern Records owner Johnnie Mae Matthews asked
him to come to the studio and lay down some tracks. This led to further recording gigs
with labels such as Anna Records, Fortune and Tri-Phi. A few of his fellow musicians invited
him to jam with them at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, an address that is
significant because it was the location of the Hitsville
U.S.A. recording studio and home base of Berry Gordy’s Motown label.
endeared himself to his band-mates, drummer Benny Benjamin, pianist Earl
Van Dyke, and guitarists Joe Messina and Robert White, a tightly knit group
that became known affectionately as the Funk Brothers.
important to note that James switched from the double bass to the electric
bass guitar (a Fender Precision Bass) in the early ‘60s. However, his jazz background
continued to inform his playing, which gave him a unique and irreplaceable
sound. Sometimes, he would even
overdub the electric bass on top of the acoustic bass for a richer tone, so
accurately that it is practically undetectable.
the Funk Brothers busy, but not to such an extent that they didn’t
continue playing clubs, touring with Jackie Wilson, or recording for other
labels, like Brunswick, Golden World, Karen, Ric-Tic
One of the earliest hits on which James can be heard was “Boom
Boom”, a #16 R&B hit for John Lee
Hooker in the summer of 1962.
In July 1966, he played base on the #7 pop and top-ten R&B hit,
“Cool Jerk”, by the Capitols. Jackie Wilson’s
“Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)”
went to #11 on the pop chart and #5 on the R&B chart in autumn
1966. In 1966, the Funk
Brothers appeared on Edwin Starr’s #9 R&B hit, “Stop Her on
Sight”. James played on
some of 1967’s biggest hits, in fact: The Parliaments’ “I Just
Wanna Testify” went to #3 on the R&B
chart; The Platters’ “With This Ring” peaked at #12 on
same; and, Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher
and Higher” topped the R&B rolls and checked in at #6 on the pop
was James between 1962 and 1968, he is purported to have played on
approximately 95% of Motown’s output during that time. Sessions were postponed to
accommodate his schedule.
To say that he was Berry Gordy’s go-to bassist would be an
egregious understatement: Even
when James was having problems with alcoholism, Gordy remained loyal to his
hardworking, prolific Funk Brother.
Most of the
rest of the world would not have even known who James was, though. At the time, session musicians were
not credited on albums. That
changed with 1971’s multiplatinum smash, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, on which he was billed as
“the incomparable James Jamerson”.
In the early
‘70s, Motown relocated their HQ to L.A. and James went along with them, but
not all the Funk Brothers did, which disenfranchised James, as well as
stylistic changes such as tighter arrangements that rendered his creative,
improvisational style moot.
to record for other artists and groups, however, appearing on hits such as
“Then Came You” by the Spinners and Dionne Warwick, which
topped the pop chart and came in second on the R&B chart in the autumn
of 1974. Other ‘70s hits
which featured his bass acumen included: “Boogie Fever” by the Sylvers (#1 pop, #1 R&B); “Rock the
Boat” by the Hues Corporation (#1 pop, #2 R&B); “Show and
Tell” by Al Wilson (#1 pop, #10 R&B); “Theme from S.W.A.T.” by Rhythm Heritage
(#1 pop, #11 R&B); and “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be
in My Show)” by Marilyn McCoo and Billy
Davis, Jr. (#1 pop, 1 R&B).
James, who was
notorious for not taking care of his instruments or bothering to update his
strings, found it more and more difficult to get jobs as the 1980s’
musical landscape evolved. On
top of this, his health was failing.
On 2nd August 1983, having suffered from pneumonia,
cirrhosis of the liver and heart problems, he passed away at the University of Southern
California Hospital in Los Angeles.
survived by his daughter Doreen, sons Derek, Ivey a.k.a. Joey and James Jr.
(also a bassist) and wife, Anne.
The burial took place at Woodlawn
Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan.
To add insult
to injury, days before he died, his 1962 Fender Precision Bass was stolen
from his apartment in L.A. Its whereabouts is one of the great
mysteries of the musical world.
Fender itself has been willing to give a handsome reward for it,
with no strings attached (no pun intended).
In 1989, James
was memorialized by Allan Slutsky in his
biography, Standing in the Shadows of
Motown: The Life and Music of
Legendary Bassist James Jamerson. The first part of the title was
shared by a documentary in 2002.
James got some
more long-awaited recognition in 2000, when he was enshrined in the Rock
& Roll Hall of Fame. The
Funk Brothers were likewise acknowledged with a Lifetime Achievement Award
by the Grammys in 2004.
success is staggering, and some say record-breaking, having performed on
approximately thirty #1 pop hits and seventy R&B hits, all in a
too-short recording career that spanned two decades.
Joan Baez recordings
Forever Young (Bob Dylan)