Called the most influential musician of the past 50 years, Motown bass player James Jamerson changed the face of soul and R&B music forever. He was a master of the art of developing inventive and distinctive bass lines, characterised by unexpected fluidity, rhythm and harmony. His influence on subsequent generations of bass players is profound.
The Motown sound dominated popular music from the late 1950s through early 1970s. Household names like Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and countless others, enchanted listeners worldwide. Behind the scenes a largely uncredited group of session artists calling themselves the Funk Brothers worked their magic.
The studio musicians at Motown records had long been unsung heroes until Marvin Gaye’s 1971 “What’s Going On” album; which was the first to credit James Jamerson and the other Funk Brothers. Ultimately Jamerson played on over 100 hit songs, including nearly 30 chart Number One’s. His unique skills and contribution to the music still shapes bass players today. Jamerson is said to have played on around 95% of the Motown recordings between 1962 and 1968.
Some of Jamerson’s notable recordings include –
For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder
My Girl – The Temptations
Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
Bernadette – Four Tops
Dancing In The Street – Martha and The Vandellas
You Cant Hurry Love – The Supremes
Whats Going On – Marvin Gaye
This Old Heart of Mine – Isley Brothers
Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, seventeen years after his death.
In a way James Jamerson has had an impact on every bassist who has picked up the instrument since 1959, whether they know it or not. His style of playing, built on sixteenth-note runs and syncopations, pushed the envelope of the sound. Jamerson’s constant, fearless exploration of the bass role in popular music is still felt today.
Paul McCartney of the Beatles stated Jamerson’s style was one of his major influences. John Entwistle, bassist for The Who, claims every British bassist of the 1960s had “a little Jamerson in him.”
Jamerson expanded the role of the bass in popular music. Up until his time, bass players followed a steady repetitive pattern of root notes and fifths. Jamerson’s bass lines, in contrast, used syncopation, chromatic runs, and more. He erased the “standard” bass line and played in harmony with the singer’s melody while remaining locked with the drum groove. His creative and forceful playing brought the electric bass from a mere rhythm role to a lead instrument.
Bassists since the 1970s have become less afraid to play what they want. James Jamerson lit the way for many musicians to follow, and inspired bass players all around the world. He is considered a legend and a genius on the bass, according to Motown founder Berry Gordy. Most of Jamerson’s parts were improvised or created in just a few seconds. This melodic sound influenced later generations of musician’s awareness of the potential for the bass guitar. Some have called him the first electric bass virtuoso, the first to give the electric bass its own voice.
Jamerson was the behind-the-scenes spirit and groove of the Motown sound and the Motown recordings remain some of America’s most iconic and durable songs decades after their release.
Quotes about James Jamerson –
“As far as I’m concerned, he was Motown.” – Wah Wah Watson
“When Leo Fender designed the Fender Bass, he had James Jamerson in mind.” – Ron Brown
“He was the only guy I ever saw who was just as adept on electric as he was on upright. He’s really the father of the modern day bass player.” – Smokey Robinson
“Jamerson was a genius.” – Marvin Gaye