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James Jamerson at 80

James Jamerson 2Had he lived, the most influential of all bass guitarists would have been 80 years old this week: on January 29, to be precise. Many of us will never stop marvelling at the creativity shown by the one and only James Jamerson during an era when session musicians who played his instrument were expected to do little more than mark the song’s chord changes and keep in step with the drummer.

Luckily, Jamerson (who died in 1983) played on so many records during his time as the No 1 bass player in Motown’s Detroit studio — roughly from 1960 to 1972 — that fans like me can spend a lifetime discovering half-buried examples of his artistry. A couple of years ago I wrote here about his contribution to Martha and the Vandellas’ “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. The latest one I can’t stop playing is a Mary Wells obscurity called “I’ve Got a Story”, recorded in 1962 and released a couple of years ago on a Hip-O Select from-the-vaults compilation called Something New: Original Recordings 1961-64.

An irresistibly catchy song by Marvin Gaye and two of Motown’s top backroom boys in the early years, Mickey Stevenson and Hank Cosby, its lyric has Mary telling us about a friend who’s made a disastrous decision to turn love aside before admitting that the fool is, in fact, her (“Now it was me… it was me who lost a real true lover”). It gets a fine Stevenson production featuring a chorus of grainy horns and an ace performance by the Funk Brothers, with a starring role for the bass.

A rattle of the snare and toms from Benny Benjamin’s mix ‘n’ match studio kit introduces a strutting medium-tempo rhythm entirely driven by Jamerson. He makes his Fender Precision sound almost as fruity as a tuba in a New Orleans marching band as he sits on top of the 4/4, adding his own distinctive hook to the track by inserting little descending 16th-note runs on the fourth beat of each bar, occasionally adding variation by switching the run to the second beat, and in the bridge — as the drummer adds a subtle Latin accent — sometimes extending the motif into a run across both the third and fourth beats.

The choice of notes in these beautifully articulated 16th-note flurries could only have come from someone with a jazz background, someone used to searching the chords for the most interesting variations. That’s what Jamerson had, and this is an example of how it could put it to creative use in the service of a pretty little pop song, probably something he’d already forgotten by the time he got into his car that evening and headed away from 2648 West Grand Blvd.

I’ve also been listening to his playing on the Four Tops’ hits, specifically “Bernadette”, on which he spins an amazing variety of figures around Richard “Pistol” Allen’s imperturbable four-to-the-bar snare drum beat with astonishing flexibility and imagination, and “Ask the Lonely”, where he does the opposite: by dropping anchor on the tonic while the chords shift, avoiding any hint of decoration, he underscores the song’s piercing melancholy.

But back to “I’ve Got a Story”. Recorded on June 28, 1962, it remained unheard for more than 30 years. Obviously it didn’t get past Berry Gordy Jr’s celebrated quality control committee. Could that be because, at 1:40 and 1:47, in the course of this virtuoso display, Jamerson hits two of the very few unconvincing notes of his career? Unlikely. They’re not wrong. They’re just not the perfect choices by a man to whom, in the dozen years that counted. perfection was an everyday matter of fact.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Pidgeon #

    Apologies for an off-subject comment, Richard, but I’m still getting over reading in ‘Five Things’ yesterday that Dylan asked Pops if he could marry Mavis, and Pops turned him down. Am I alone in being oblivious to this rebuffed proposal?

    January 26, 2016
  2. Lovely piece Richard, always loved James Jamerson’s bass playing, got me and my first girlfriend Margaret off our seats and onto the floor time and again at the Penny Farthing disco in Bradford back before London beckoned.

    January 26, 2016
  3. Bill White #

    So good to be reminded of the ‘genius’ that was James Jamerson. Caused me to dig out that fantastic tribute book lovingly put together by Alan ‘Dr Licks’ Slutsky: Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, one of the finest music publications ever produced and big inspiration to many. Furthermore, it sets the record straight about the classic Motown recordings and exactly who played bass on them. Nuff said. My description of Jamerson as a genius was prompted by Anthony Jackson’s most eloquent justification of the term in his homage to the great man to be found on the accompanying CD.

    January 26, 2016
  4. Great piece. Made me go and find the music, as you always do. I was delighted to find that if you put ‘James Jamerson’ as the search term in Spotify the top hit is”Bernadette – bass line”

    January 27, 2016
  5. WKB #

    There’s a six note run, 2′ 09″ into “You Keep Me Hangin On'” after Diana sings ” let me find somebody else”, that always floors me. Love “fruity as a tuba” btw.

    Damnit, one day away from sharing a birthday with the great man, instead, I get Dick Cheney and Phil Collins.

    January 28, 2016
  6. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Thanks for the piece on the great James Jamerson, Richard – I will try to make some time on 29 January to re-visit the DVD of the marvellous film released a few years back, ‘Standing In the Shadows of Motown’, which did full justice to Jamerson’s contribution to the wonderful Motown sessions he appeared on.

    That film shares it’s title with a valuable book published back in 1989 in which one Dr Licks – a Philadelphia based guitarist – asked a number of bass players (Jack Bruce, Chuck Rainey,Bob Babbitt, Willie Weeks and Marcus Miller amongst them) to select their favourite Jamerson tracks. This book led to the discovery of my own favourite Jamerson track through Anthony Jackson’s selection of the Frank Wilson and Pam Sawyer composition, ‘How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone’. It can be found on the 1968 Dianna Ross and Supremes album, ‘Love Child’, and Jamerson’s playing on it is a thing of wonder – it defies you not to use the word majestic to describe it..

    And on the back cover of Dr Lick’s book, this touching tribute from Stevie Wonder: ‘Jamerson’s bass playing made a certain fabric of my life visual’.

    January 28, 2016
  7. My goodness…he’d have been 80. Of course with an early passing, James remains as per the images of him as the young man in suit, shirt/tie playing that bass. When it was published, I bought the the book/cassettes of Standing In The Shadows..fascinating. One of the most revealing constructions (to my lugs anyway) was from “Ready” Freddie Washington who played 2 bass parts from Diana Ross’ version of Ain’t No Mountain. Quite different but beautifully placed as the song (and orchestration) changed. Made me listen afresh to the record…and to marvel at what James had done. It’s not on YouTube, unfortunately, to post here and hear Freddie’s explanation and playing. Thanks again, Richard. I’ve picked up on the Mary Wells song…again, more insight from you👍👌

    January 28, 2016
  8. …just a correction. It was Jimmy Williams & Keith Benson who explained “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, not Freddy Washington

    January 28, 2016

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