Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Mary Wells’

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.

Something about Mary Wells

Mary Wells book coverIn the hearts of the first generation of Motown fans, there’s a special place for Mary Wells. During the period between 1960 and 1964 she became Berry Gordy Jr’s first female star, lending her voice to a series of songs, the majority of them written and produced by William “Smokey” Robinson, that helped define the company’s sound – and that of soul music itself.

From those days I have precious memories of owning “Two Lovers”, one of Smokey’s masterpieces, on the old black, white and yellow Oriole label, and the later Stateside coupling of “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and “What’s Easy For Two”, which stands in my estimation alongside Elvis’s “His Latest Flame”/“Little Sister” and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” among the greatest double A-side 45s in pop history.

“You Lost the Sweetest Boy” was an early product of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, as were like Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Miracles’ “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying”, all of which which burst on to the airwaves at around the same time in the glorious year of 1963 to demonstrate how Gordy’s writers and producers were blending their gospel and R&B ingredients with a new pop sensibility.

Yet I finished Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, a new biography by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press), with very mixed feelings. I knew that Wells’s career had not gone well following the fateful decision to leave Motown after “My Guy” had given her a worldwide smash in 1964. I was aware, too, of a couple of marriages, including one to the man who encouraged her to switch labels from Motown to 20th Century, and another to Cecil Womack, who died earlier this month. And I knew that she had been treated for throat cancer in the 1980s, and had died in 1992, aged 49. But I had no idea of the extent to which a part of her life had been controlled by her various addictions to heroin, cocaine, methadone and alcohol.

Although I’m grateful to Benjaminson for compiling the details of her life, however distressing they may be, I wish he’d also been able to say something interesting about the music that made her famous. So it was with a sense of something like relief that I found a different way of remembering Mary Wells by putting on Something New, a two-CD collection of her obscure and unreleased Motown recordings compiled by Harry Weinger for Universal’s Hip-O Select imprint.

Some of these tracks, shelved when she left Motown and Gordy turned his attention to Diana Ross, turned up in 1966 on an album called Vintage Stock, but most people still won’t be familiar with such treats as “I’ve Got a Story”, a slice of pop-soul heaven written by Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson and Hank Cosby; Holland-Dozier-Holland’s plaintive “Guarantee (For a Lifetime)”; and Smokey’s “To Lose You” and his Miracles colleague Ronald White’s “Forgive and Forget”, both underpinned by light Latin rhythms (as had been “Two Lovers”).

It’s not all great. A couple of unreleased duets with Gaye are hardly spectacular, while the lacklustre versions of 13 standard songs originally intended for an album to be titled The Second Time Around demonstrate that Gordy’s judgement was by no means infallible. But there’s enough here to show that the Beatles were right in 1964 when they invited Wells to join them on tour, making her the first Motown artist to appear on a UK stage.