Born January 29th 1936, James Jamerson was one of the most influential bassists of all time. Today marks the anniversary of his passing on August 2nd 1983. His premature death stemmed from complications resulting from longstanding alcoholism, a tragic yet all too familiar tale in the annals of music history.
Regardless, his extensive work continues to blow away and inspire in equal parts. An elegant and highly-gifted master of low-end theory, he was the resident bass player of the iconic Motown record label during the most decorated part of his lifetime. It is his work for Motown that underpins a great deal of his legacy. If one is to think of any of Motown’s most significant records, Jamerson is likely to have lent his expertise to it.
Like many of his contemporaries, Jamerson started playing the upright bass as a child in the 1950s, in a church band before switching to the electric bass as an adult. His early musical life was informed by gospel, blues and jazz. Technically, these influences can be heard in his playing, precise but soulful. The impressions of legendary bassists Ray Brown, Paul Chambers and Percy Heath all permeate his work.
After leaving high school, Jamerson played in bands in Detroit nightclubs. It was in this circuit that he would genuinely cut his teeth. Before too long, he joined Washboard Willie’s backing band and toured with the inimitable Jackie Wilson. Providing a robust rhythmic ballast to the likes of Willie and Wilson built Jamerson’s reputation. As people started to heed his skill, session work opportunities began to appear for him at several local recording studios.
In 1959, he found himself regular work at Berry Gordy’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio, the home of the prestigious Motown record label. He first leant his bass to the Smokey Robinson single ‘Way Over There’ (1959). This then started a meteoric rise for both the label and Jamerson, which included John Lee Hooker’s 1962 album Burnin’ and The Reflections’ unmistakable hit ‘(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet’ (1964).
While working for Motown, he became a critical member of the group of musicians who labelled themselves “The Funk Brothers”. This extensive yet close-knit group performed on the majority of Motown’s output in the ’60s. By the early ’60s, Jamerson had switched from the double bass to the electric Fender Precision Bass, which he would use in most of his subsequent recordings. This instrument is most closely associated with the bass icon—giving him that signature, warm, mid-range bass tone that carries all of Motown’s most significant hits.
In a 1983 interview, Jamerson talked about Motown’s songwriting team: “[They] would give me the chord sheet, but they couldn’t write for me. When they did, it didn’t sound right. When they gave me that chord sheet, I’d look at it, but then start doing what I felt and what I thought would fit. I’d hear the melody line from the lyrics and I’d build the bass line around that.”
Motown founder, Berry Gordy, also weighed in on Jamerson’s brilliance. He labelled the bass player an “incredible improviser” and stated: “I, like some of the other producers, would not do a session unless at least two of the Funk Brothers were present – namely, Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson.”
Jamerson would move with Motown from Detroit to L.A. in 1972 when the label moved its headquarters. He would continue to feature on many of the label’s hits, including ‘Neither One of Us’ by Gladys Knight & The Pips (1973) and ‘Boogie Fever’ by The Sylvers (1976). During the ’70s he also played on records by Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robison and the unforgettable Ben E. King.
However, by the advent of the ’80s, Jamerson’s star began to fall. No longer a part of a group of musicians like The Funk Brothers, he felt cooped up, less free to improvise. He fell out of favour in the recording circuit, and his alcoholism began to impede his work more seriously. At the turn of the decade, other musicians would begin to make use of the latest technological advancements. This included modern amplifiers, round-wound strings and new playing styles such as slapping. Somewhat of a traditionalist, Jamerson’s style fell out of favour. Simultaneously wracked by alcoholism, by 1982 he was unable to secure any worthwhile jobs as a musician.
Soon after this stark and rapid decline, he would, of course, pass away. Nevertheless, he has not been forgotten. It is a testament to his skill that he influenced a significant number of four-string icons. Paul McCartney, Jaco Pastorius, Jack Bruce, Flea, John Entwistle, Geddy Lee and Bootsy Collins are just some of the legends that have cited Jamerson as an influence. His influence was so far-reaching that even Jason Newstead, former bass player of metal titans Metallica, cites Jamerson as a hero.
It is telling that in his lifetime, Jamerson performed on 23 number one hits. This feat is only surpassed by one other — Paul McCartney, a dedicated disciple of Jamerson’s rhythmic licks. Throughout his career, Jamerson also performed on a staggering 56 number one hits on the R&B charts, making him a true soul icon.
Without further ado, join us as we list James Jamerson’s ten greatest basslines.
James Jamerson’s ten best moments
‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ – The Supremes (1966)
One of Jamerson’s greatest basslines underpins this soul classic. This song can only be described as a match made in heaven. Diana Ross‘s unmistakable and brilliant vocals, heartfelt and yearning, the swooning backing vocals of Mary Wilson and Marlene Barrow, and the music of The Funk Brothers all comprise this classic.
Apart from Ross’s vocals, the standout element of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ is undoubtedly Jamerson’s walking bassline. Warm and comforting, Jamerson wraps the listener in a tonal blanket of 5th notes that perfectly match Ross’s melodic vocal melody. Through this self-aware classic, Jamerson’s legacy lives on.
‘My Girl’ – The Temptations (1964)
Another stellar moment. The listener knows exactly what is coming when Jamerson teases the rest of the song with the faint rumble of his bass. Another warm, tonally dialled-in piece of bass work, ‘My Girl’ is one of the more docile basslines in Jamerson’s back catalogue.
That funky rhythm at the break, before the instrumentation comes back in is sheer brilliance on Jamerson’s part. Temptations frontman Smokey Robinson summed it up: “I can be in a foreign country where people don’t speak English and the audience will start cheering before I even start singing ‘My Girl’. They know what’s coming as soon as they hear the opening bass line. ‘Bah bum-bum, bah bum-bum, bah bum-bum.'”
‘Shotgun’ – Jr. Walker & the All Stars (1965)
‘Shotgun’ is one of the most recognisable singles Motown ever produced. However, it is not common knowledge that the bass licks are Jamerson’s. It would not be unreasonable to say that this is one of the coolest basslines Jamerson ever produced.
‘Shotgun’ is a funky, jiving classic. As soon as it kicks in, you want to move your feet. Headed up by the brilliant keys, and the wailing brass section the song is a continuous groove. It is a shame it doesn’t run for longer. The strength of this jam owes to Jamerson’s technical skill and knowledge of scales. He covers the fretboard in style, and it is clear to see from where the likes of Flea and Pastorius take their cues.
‘For Once in My Life’ – Stevie Wonder (1968)
Initially recorded by Connie Haines but first released in 1966 by Jean DuShon, ‘For Once in My Life’ had numerous early versions before Stevie Wonder made it his own in ’68. Some early versions of the hit were attempted by legends such as The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross and Tony Bennett.
Wonder’s version is an uptempo take on what was originally a slow ballad. It is also the most successful, becoming a top three hit on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as Wonder’s undoubted brilliance, ‘For Once in My Life’ is also hailed as a classic Jamerson bassline.
The track is held in the utmost regard by bassists worldwide because of Jamerson’s unfettered genius. It is the finest example of his improvisational skill. No two bars of the song feature the same notes, and it is melodic as it is technical.
It serves brilliantly as a bassline as it holds up the rhythm of the song perfectly whilst managing to complement Wonder’s vocals. This is no mean feat. Bassists often fall into the trap of being either too flashy and technical with their lines or too rigid, relying on root notes. Jamerson finds the perfect balance on this classic, and it is this that makes it so enduring.
‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1967)
Arguably the most iconic of all the Motown releases, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ had two leases of life. The Gaye and Terrell version became a hit single upon release in April ’67. It then found an even wider audience in 1970 went former Supremes leader Diana Ross released a hit take on the original. It would become her first number one hit as a solo artist, for which she would receive a Grammy Award.
The Gaye and Terrell is the better version of the hit. A brilliant vocal duet, it effectively reflects the lyrical content of the chorus: “There ain’t no mountain high enough/ Ain’t no valley low enough/ Ain’t no river wide enough/ To keep me from getting to you, baby”.
The song is also iconic as it features Jamerson and his syncopated bass. The introduction of the track, with the technically brilliant interplay between the bass and cymbals, draws the listener in before catapulting you into the euphoric chorus. This effectiveness of the rhythm section on ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ is a defining factor in the song’s everlasting stature within pop culture history.
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ – Gladys Knight & the Pips (1967)
Although Marvin Gaye’s version of the song is the most well-known, Gladys Knight & the Pips‘ offering is musically the more respected. This owes to Jamerson’s bassline. Well-respected in bass circles but relatively unknown in the mainstream, when you listen to this version you instantly understand why it is so hallowed.
There is not much more to say about Jamerson’s work here than it is a funky, walking groove that spares the dynamics no rest.
‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’ – Jackie Wilson (1967)
When one thinks of the most iconic basslines in soul and Motown, you would be right in thinking that Don Ciccone’s bassline in the Frankie Valli and The Four Season’s Northern Soul classic ‘The Night’ takes the top spot. However, Jamerson makes a strong claim for the throne with his work on Jackie Wilson’s uplifting 1967 hit ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’.
Similar to Ciccone’s bass work in the Valli classic, Jamerson gives us a busy exercise in movement up and down the fretboard. It is a warm swelling of notes that keep the groove in Wilson’s classic. Jamerson perfectly captures the sentiment of Wilson’s optimistic lyrics and vocal melody. It is the sonic equivalent to one of those rare days where everything goes right.
‘Dancing in the Street’ – Martha and the Vandellas (1964)
A pure soul classic. Most famously covered by Bowie and Jagger in 1985, everyone from The Kinks to the Mamas & Papas and even Van Halen have made the song their own at different points in the past. However, the most iconic recorded version is Martha and the Vandellas original. The lyric “Can’t forget the Motor City” is best delivered by the Motown starlets.
The song also found a life as a Civil Rights anthem amongst the racial tensions and civil unrest that engulfed America in the ’60s. Along with the song’s glorious lyrics and the defiant vocal performance, the song is characterised by Jamerson’s bassline.
In one of his more pinned back songs, Jamerson expertly shows that a bassline does not have to be flashy as he perfectly holds up the rhythm and vocal melody with a simple piece of tonal work.
‘What’s Going On’ – Marvin Gaye (1971)
Marvin Gaye‘s most iconic single, featuring his sultry yet powerful vocal performance was the title track and lead single from the concept album, 1971’s What’s Going On. The album is regarded as one of the greatest musical works of all time, and its lead single is an embodiment of this.
Unmistakably Jamerson, the bassline is his best. However, getting him in the studio for the song’s recording session was not easy. According to The Funk Brothers in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Gaye desperately wanted to feature Jamerson on ‘What’s Going On’.
This is where Jamerson’s alcoholism comes to the fore. Gaye was so in need of the bass maestro’s services that he went to multiple bars around Detroit in the hope of locating him. Eventually, he tracked down the elusive Jamerson and prized him away from the bar and into the studio.
In the most brilliant example of Jamerson’s alcoholic curse but a musical gift, Jamerson was so intoxicated when Gaye located him that he couldn’t stand upright. He recorded the famous line whilst lying on his back. We’ll leave that there.
‘Bernadette’ – The Four Tops (1967)
Described as a “hard-driving rocker” by Billboard upon its release, ‘Bernadette’ is a distinguished performance by all involved. Lead singer Levi Stubbs’ passionate cries of “Bernadette!” are of course the song’s most defining feature. However, The Funk Brothers expertly provide a platform for Stubbs to do his thing.
The song is a sonic representation of one wearing their heart on their sleeve. Jamerson’s bassline is clinical in supporting and reflecting this sentiment through his tracking of Stubbs’ vocals. This is a fine example of Jamerson at his commanding best.