Originally posted March 20, 2011
When I was playing in the recording industry in LA in the 60s, Fender bass-man Ron Brown would speak animatedly about fellow bass player James Jamerson who was recording albums for “Little” Stevie Wonder, among others, at the time. Ron showed me a couple of licks and I was pretty much hooked.
Over the years I could almost always pick out Jamerson’s erratic, yet perfect bass lines. Soon he became the “star” regardless of who was up front on a record. More and more I realized how important this cat was to the music. All those Motown hits like: “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” by the Four Tops; “Dancing in the Street,” by Martha and the Vandellas; “I Was Made to Love Her,” by Stevie Wonder; and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” by the Supremes, and countless others were standout hits greatly due to the excellence of Jamerson’s bass lines, which were in the background – but were they? He played the bass like it was a lead instrument, and he had the stuff to do it. My contention is that Jamerson’s bass lines were the preconscious, so to speak, “hooks” that helped these records soar to great heights. In other words, while the listener was focused on a voice or lead instrument or whatever, these soul-nudging “background” notes were registering on a different level, nevertheless, they were registering. This is not to take anything at all away from the other artists’ abilities, bet they would agree with me.
I’ve often tried to describe his playing like this: He would go up when you expected a note to go down, and would do just the opposite of what a hundred other guys would do.
When you were sitting in a Deuce Coup at the drive-in or cruising down Colorado Boulevard and that song came on that switched on your night in that indescribable way, chances are very good that James Jamerson was driving the music that night in a way that only he could. Thanks Mr. J.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame says it best:
“One of the unsung heroes of the Motown sound, James Jamerson was described by Motown founder Berry Gordy as “a genius on the bass…and incredible improviser in the studio and somebody I always wanted on my sessions.” He was the anchor of the in-house group at Motown dubbed the Funk Brothers. Though few among the record-buying public ever never knew Jamerson by name, they were well-acquainted with his work, which included the bass lines on such Motown classics as “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” by the Four Tops; “Dancing in the Street,” by Martha and the Vandellas; “I Was Made …” read more from The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson” is the title of a book to which there is a link at the R&RHOF website.