Remembering the best bassist you’ve never heard of today. Or, even if you have heard of James Jamerson, probably the best bassist – at least according to Bass Player magazine and Rolling Stone. Jamerson was born this day in 1936. Although he was a session player, he managed to play on at least 23 #1 singles and, according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bring the bass “out of the shadows and to the forefront of music.”
Jamerson was born in rural South Carolina, with a musical family. His grandmother was a talented pianist and one aunt a singer. So, not surprisingly, he learned to play piano quite young, and was good at it. He even played a little trombone, perhaps not so well. But when they moved to Detroit in the early-’50s, he found the standup bass and took to it quickly. Soon he was playing in R&B and jazz combos in the clubs there, then touring with Jackie Wilson. About that time, he’d switched to a Fender electric bass. That helped him get his foot in the door at Motown, where by 1960, he was getting regular work as the go-to session bassist. Through the ’60s, he played on the majority of Motown records, often with friends who dubbed themselves the “Funk Brothers.” “Bernadette” by the Four Tops? “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes? “I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye? All Jamerson on bass, as were countless others. “When they gave me that chord sheet,” he explained, “I’d look at it but I’d just start doing what I felt and what I thought would work.” Jamerson treated it like a day job, working through the day in the Hitsville Studio and often playing in jazz outfits in bars at night. Which he must have enjoyed, since by the late-’60s he was being paid $1000 a week by Motown, or about $8000 today. What he wasn’t getting though was public attention, since Motown would not list session musicians back in that era.
That only changed in 1971, and it started with Marvin. Gaye so wanted Jamerson to play on his “What’s Going On?” single that when he wasn’t in the studio, he sent crew out to look for him. They located James, very drunk, in a bar, and brought him back to Gaye. Unable to stand up, he played the track lying down! Gaye on that album was the first Motown act to list his backing players, putting Jamerson as “the incomparable James Jamerson.”
Things began to change when Motown moved west. Although he followed Berry Gordy & Co. to L.A., their sound was changing and he was less in demand. He quit the label in 1973, but kept quite busy through the decade working on albums by the likes of Tavares, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, and even Robert Palmer. The workload lessened more in the ’80s as his drinking escalated and he refused to alter his playing style to suit the times. Sadly he died in 1983 from a combination of cirrhosis and pneumonia. His son James Jamerson Jr. followed in dad’s footsteps, also being a well-received professional bassist, playing on records by the likes of Janet Jackson, Phillip Bailey and Aretha Franklin) and also died quite young, in 2016.
Although not well-known to the listening public by name, other musicians took note, including Paul McCartney who cited James as a major influence on his bass-playing. In 2000, the Rock Hall inducted him, saying Jamerson “bestowed the funkiest, grooviest basslines in the Motown catalogue.” Since then, both Rolling Stone and Bass Player have listed him as the greatest bassist ever. The latter said he “wrote the bible on bassline construction and development.” Not bad for an anonymous player!