James Jamerson at 80
Had 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.