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    Jamerson, James (29 January 1936 – 2 August 1983)

    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 Lateef. 


    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.


    He quickly 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. 


    It is 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. 


    Motown kept 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 and Vee-Jay.  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 chart.


    So ubiquitous 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.


    He continued 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.


    He was 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.


    His chart 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)

    A&M 1516-S (2633-S)



    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jamerson
    2. http://www.musicradar.com/us/news/bass/bass-legends-motown-session-giant-james-jamerson-508816
    3. http://www.metafilter.com/75769/James-Jamerson-Motowns-Secret-Weapon
    4. http://hub.yourtakeonmusic.com/hub/motown
    5. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/james-jamerson-mn0000123578/biography

















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