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The drunken tale of how James Jamerson was kidnapped to play bass on Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’

In 1969, Marvin Gaye’s collaborator Tammi Terrell had to retire from music because of a brain tumour. However, later that year, she would make one final appearance when Marvin Gaye spotted her in the audience at the Apollo Theater. Upon seeing his soul sidekick, he suddenly stopped performing, and emotionally rushed to her side, whisked her up onto the stage and the duo serenaded a wet-cheeked crowd with a stunning duet of ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’. When they finished, the pair embraced, and they were greeted with a rousing standing ovation. 

This would be their final performance together. The next year, on March 16th, at the tender age of 24, Terrell passed away. At her eulogy, Gaye delivered one final performance of ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’. He later would comment: “I had such emotional experiences with Tammi and her subsequent death that I don’t imagine I’ll ever work with a girl again.”

Sadly, the loss would have a profound effect on Gaye who increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol as a crux. He withdrew from performing live, however, he decided it was high tide to pour his hardships into a message of such meaning that it would almost reconcile the loss and strife that he and his fellow Americans felt at the time. 

He may have shunned the spotlight and been plagued by his own troubles, but the album that followed in 1971, What’s Going On, will always be a sign of the coracle of hope that Terrell and her triumphant times represented. This was the moment that music got serious for Marvin Gaye, and he planned to celebrate the cognisant boon that it can offer in soulful style. 

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For this opus, he would need to ensure that everything was perfect—that the bliss that went alongside his message was as flowing as his own emotional entreaty. At the time, there was one man who ensured and rhythmic river like no other: enter the late, great James Jamerson. The star is undoubtedly one of the greatest bassists of all time, but that didn’t mean he was always rubbing shoulders with the stars. Frequently he jammed in the underbelly, and this made him fairly hard to get hold of. 

As Paul McCartney once said, “The biggest influence on my bass playing was James Jamerson, who played on many of my favourite Motown releases.” Sir Paul McCartney is certainly not alone in lauding the heralded Motown man of the four-string. We recently spoke to Dougie Payne who plays bass in Travis and he said, “I saw the movie Standing In The Shadows of Motown and became utterly obsessed with [bass player] James Jamerson. I started obsessively listening to his basslines.”

He adds, “Then I heard a story about how he was playing on stage in a club once and Marvin Gaye arrived and physically dragged him off the come and play on his record in the studio. Jamerson was so steaming drunk that he played all the basslines lying down. I’ve tried doing it myself,” Dougie joked, “And it’s just about impossible.”

The tale is one of musical legend. However, all the folks in the know from the era assert that it’s true. Gaye bolted out of the studio after learning that arguably the best bass player in the world was laid low (quite literally) a few blocks away. He then found him prompt against an amp mid-performance in a dive bar, lured him away with the promise of free booze and no doubt a fee that a sober virtuoso would scoff at and then dragged him over to the studio. The basslines he mustered are hard enough to play standing up, but Jamerson uniquely offered up his rhythm section perfection from the most laidback stance there is. 

If the album sounds like a party where politics is being discussed, then it is tales like this which illuminate why. With What’s Going On, Gaye does what a lot of great art does: it divulges hard truths and makes them bearable, illuminating, with beauty, that misery does not have to be tackled morbidly and that despair and deliverance coexist. And it does this in scintillating musical style. And it is riddled with the joyous echoes of his old songbird, and a few drunken buddies seeking out a bit of exultation. 

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