There is an argument to be made that Paul McCartney’s bass is one of the most heard instruments in history. After all, according to CBS News, The Beatles have sold over 1.6 billion singles in the United States alone and 177 million albums, with worldwide album sales topping 600million. If those figures didn’t come from such a reputable source, then they wouldn’t be believed.
With numbers like that to his name, it is simply impossible for Paul McCartney not to have influenced every bassist that has followed, at the very least in some far-removed nebulous sense. However, even heroes have a hero, and Paul McCartney is no different.
During a Q&A with fans, Macca was asked: “Who was the biggest influence upon your bass playing?” to which he responded: “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.”
This laidback style (not in the literal sense of lying down) and heavy Peter Hook-esque notion that the bass should be front and centre at the party and not just holding the drinks in the background, is something that has led Jamerson to cult hero status. Although he, along with fellow Motown legend Carol Kaye, are championed as two of the greatest bass players of all time by those in the industry, such was the nature of being a session musician for the eponymous hitmaking label, they haven’t received the wider credit that they deserve.
In an interview with Tony Bacon, first published on Reverb, McCartney was more than happy to reveal just how much the cult figure influenced his style. “[Bass playing] became a bit more skilful, yeah,” he said. “I wouldn’t personally credit myself, but thanks for that. But part of it, I think James Jamerson, him and me, I’d share the credit there. I was nicking a lot off him.”
Later adding that, as was the case for many other fans, Jamerson was a faceless sound to him for a lot of years. “James Jamerson became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”
And the other bassist who McCartney took inspiration from was Brian Wilson. “Actually, he and Brian Wilson were my two biggest influences,” he added. “James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”
With a triumvirate of Brain Wilson, James Jamerson and Paul McCartney himself in the mix, you’ve just about encapsulated the sound of the sixties and some of the most seminal basslines that have ever been laid down.
You can check out James Jamerson’s work on the Jackson 5’s ‘Darling Dear’ below; it is undoubtedly one of the prettiest basslines that vinyl has ever struggled to contain in its grooves, with a fluency and intonation rarely heard today. It’s slicker than a penguin’s back and smoother than a hot-butter silk nightgown.