This Day in Music History – Alex Mann on James Jamerson

It was this day in 1983 that Motown bassist and the architect of some of pop music’s most memorable grooves, James Jamerson passed away. Here to tell us what JJ meant to him is Alex Mann, bassist in such musically diverse groups as The Hollows, Medusa, Whippoorwill and Deep Tan & The Frosted Tips.

28 years ago today, the world lost the most influential bass player in modern recorded popular music.

James Lee Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936, and at the peak of his career, he played his weapon of choice, a 1962 Fender Precision electric bass, on the studio versions of the following classic hits, just to name a few: “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “For Once in My Life” and “I Was Made To Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, most of the album What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Bernadette” by the Four Tops, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes, etc.

He also played his 20th-century German upright bass on many early Motown hits, such as “My Guy” by Mary Wells and “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas.

To be clear, Jamerson was the first and foremost bass presence for the vast majority of recognizable Motown hits from the inception of ‘Hitsville U.S.A.,’ as the Motown headquarters was known, up through the early 1970s. It’s always been a challenge to verify the contributions of studio musicians during this era, but many dependable reports agree that he played on over 90% of all Motown recordings between 1962 and 1968. While never distinguished as an individual in the context of the Billboard charts or major award ceremonies during his lifetime, his playing is generally recognized on at least 30 number 1 pop hits, which rivals and even exceeds the documented careers of artists such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

After having so often mulled over these brief but striking statistical notes; for me, two things have always resonated the most about James Jamerson.

First: the disconnect between Jamerson’s omnipresence in the music that touched so many people, and the lack of recognition that plagued his and his fellow studio musicians’ lives. Like the unsung studio heroes of the popular genres of early recorded American music before them (country, jazz, etc.), the Funk Brothers – the Hitsville U.S.A. house band of which Jamerson was a part during the golden years of his career – paved the road and paid all the hard dues for quality studio musicians after them. And yet, their names are still unknown by the general populace that has always been familiar with the artists who enjoyed hit singles and fame thanks to the Funk Brothers’ contributions. Even most of those who may recognize Jamerson’s name probably wouldn’t be able to identify his likeness in any of the extremely few photographs that have survived of him, which are sparse indeed even in this day of internet image overload.

Second: the unique topography of his musicianship. His bass lines have been cemented into not only the American collective consciousness, but the world’s as well, (or those parts of the world lucky enough to hear the tunes on which he has played). So in the face of a recorded output that is more familiar to most fans of popular music than any other artist in any other medium from the past 50 years, it’s no easy task to try to explain how the simplicity of his composition and execution can arrive at an effect of overwhelming and irresistible soulfulness. On a purely musical level, that’s what’s so amazing about Jamerson: so many other bass players’ strengths lie in a greater exhibition of technique, or a more complicated approach to accompaniment, or a more pandering tunnel-vision toward just makin’ that booty shake; but Jamerson consistently succeeded at all of these in such an understated way that his mastery remains beyond the comprehension of any given student until they reach the bass ninja’s most supreme level of enlightenment…

I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that level. I just know that Jamerson’s playing remains sophisticated and sexy despite its simplicity, and that it will stand the test of time for decades and centuries to come against most everything that has followed it to date.

Enjoy the clips below and those listed above for more information on the Funk Brothers, James Jamerson, and the seminal cuts on which they appeared.

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