Born: January 29, 1938 | Died: August 1, 1983 Primary Instrument: Bass, electric
Motown's tormented genius, James Jamerson is unanimously acclaimed as the first virtuoso of the electric bass. James has influenced (whether they know it or not) every electric bassist to ever pick up the instrument. Arriving at Motown in 1959, James' bass playing evolved over the next decade from a traditional root-fifth cocktail style of bass playing into an astonishing new style built upon a flurry of sixteenth-note runs and syncopations, pushing the envelope dissonances, and fearless and constant exploration.
From 1964 to 1972, the entire Motown era flourished in large part due to the driving sound of James Jamerson's innovative bass playing. Up until 1968, his brilliant playing appeared on virtually every song. He was purposely emphasized in the mix to be clearly heard over a car radio, and the wide popularity of Motown contributed to the ascension of the bass as the key ingredient in R&B and soul music. Like the blues before, the influence of a prominent bass would spread far beyond these genres to pop, rock and jazz and fusion.
James Jamerson was born on January 29, 1938 in Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 1950s, he moved to Detroit and began playing the bass in high school after picking it up in the band room on a whim. Within a year he was adept enough to begin playing with other musicians, where his admiration for jazz bassists Paul Chambers and Ray Brown would show up in his accompaniment. All through high school he gigged, jammed, rehearsed, and was mentored by great Detroit musicians such as Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, and Yusef Lateef in the clubs. Upon graduation he was offered a musical scholarship to Wayne State University, but turned it down to play professionally in order to support his expectant wife.
In 1958, Jamerson began doing sessions for a succession of local Detroit labels including Northern, Tri-Phi, Fortune, and Anna Records, owned by Gwen Gordy, sister of Berry. Around the same time a group of fellow musicians invited him to check out a recording session at a local studio. When he got to Motown Records at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, he was asked to try his hand on a track that another bassist was having trouble with, and cut the gig with ease. Though it would take several more years for the nickname Hitsville, USA to carry real meaning at Motown Records and for Jamerson to be the bassman in demand, he had found the outlet for his genius.
By 1964, after a period of sustained touring with the Motown Revues, recording for Motown Records, and assorted outside projects, Jamerson was implored to stay home and always be on call for sessions. He became part of one of the most amazing (and hardest working) studio rhythm sections in R&B music: guitarists Joe Messina, Robert White, and Eddie Willis; keyboardist and leader Earl Van Dyke; and drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, and Richard Allen. At the same time, he also anchored a gigging unit called Igor (Jamerson) and the Funk Brothers that stretched to jazz when given the opportunity away from the tight stylistic restrictions of Motown. The other brothers consisted of Van Dyke, White, and either Jones or Benjamin. Besides playing clubs, recording a handful of albums under various different names, and backing other artists, the Funk Brothers kept tabs on Jamerson, who had developed a serious drinking problem.
The pressure cooker in the snakepit as Motown studios was known in the Sixties was taking its toll on Jamerson as well as the other session musicians. Though loved by his peers, he was also a source of almost constant anxiety and apprehension. By the early Seventies, Motown had grown exponentially from the modest $700 investment of founder Berry Gordy in 1958, and the artist roster had undergone major losses as well as additions. To keep up with production schedules, they began doing sessions in New York and Los Angeles with other bassists. In a quest to be progressive, they tried (successfully) using two drummers and (unsuccessfully) two bass players.
Jamerson reacted badly to all of the changes, sometimes not showing for sessions or being too wasted to play, and there was, unbelievably, a move to fire him. Gordy prevented it, and by 1972, the company decided to make the dreaded move from Detroit to Los Angeles. Though the $52,000 exclusive contract he had since 1968 was not renewed, Jamerson made the move west with Motown and was at liberty to freelance. He took full advantage of the situation, playing on countless dates, but by the mid-Seventies his physical and psychological condition was deteriorating to the point where his vaunted musical skills were suffering. A long, slow, sad slide began that was complicated by a knife injury to his right arm during a mugging. Periods of hospitalization for his physical and mental health in the early ‘80s, and the dissolution of his entire personal life finally ended on August 1, 1983 when he died.
JAMERSON’S BASS RIG:
When he graduated from high school, Jamerson bought a German upright acoustic bass, which he played for the rest of his life. He bought a refinished black '57 P-Bass (Fender Precision Bass®) from a friend in 1960, replacing it, when it was stolen, with an early Sixties sunburst model. When that bass was likewise stolen he purchased a '62 sunburst P-Bass, nicknamed the Funk Machine, that he owned up until it too was taken just before he died. Over the years, he experimented with a 5-string Fender and an 8-string Hagstrom, as well as a fretless model. His string choice consisted of LaBella, heavy gauge flatwound strings. An Ampeg B-15 and a blue Naugahyde Kustom were his two regular gigging amps. With few exceptions, Jamerson always recorded directly into the board at Motown.
To most other musicians, that bass was unplayable. Jamerson kept his action very high, and his neck was bowed due to lack of truss rod maintenance. He rarely cleaned his guitar, and he never cleaned the fretboard. To Jamerson, the sweat and dirt on the bass was the secret of his sound, the essence of the funk.
Source: Fender Players Club