Bass players always get the short end of the stick. Often low in the mix and unappreciated for their skill, there was no glory to be had for those that rocked the four-string instruments. That changed in the 1960s, largely because of flashy rock and roll pioneers like Paul McCartney and John Entwistle, but also because of the indelible sounds of Motown, specifically the work of master musician James Jamerson.
Barry Gordy had a novel idea for mixing songs: he had one of the most talented bass players in the world, so why not turn him up in the mix? Jamerson is all over some of the best Motown songs of all time, including The Supremes’ ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’, and Stevie Wonder’s ‘For Once In My Life’. But he always seemed to kick things up a notch when working with Marvin Gaye.
Gaye was a bit of a lost soul as he progressed through his Motown career. Initially a clean-cut pop singer who excelled in early rock and roll cuts like ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and duets, specifically with frequent singing partner Tammi Terrell, Gaye began to forge a more unique path starting with 1971’s What’s Going On. A constant force of change, Gaye still held on to what he knew was essential to his music, and Jamerson’s bass was a constant presence.
Jamerson’s bouncing bass on ‘Save the Children’ and the album’s title track are career highlights, but his style was evident even as Gaye was still tracking duets with Terrell. That can best be heard on ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, the expertly arranged and impeccably performed song that lets Jamerson stand out loud and proud. An isolated track almost feels unnecessary, but if you really want to dissect all the killer details of the bass line, it’s essential listening.
The boys over at Michigan funksters Vulfpeck, always ones to appreciate a classic backing band, also made a fascinating visualiser that tracks the movements on Jamerson’s bass during the song. For those who might have a hard time comprehending the extremely skilful physical movements that Jamerson brought to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, the Vulfpeck video works well in tandem with the isolated bass track.
Check out both videos down below. Plus, if you want to listen to the classic track in its fully-fleshed out final form, that’s down below as well.