Saturday, May 01, 2004

Motown's James Jamerson: The Greatest Bass Guitarist of All Time

The documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which played in movie theaters a year or two ago and is available in video rental stores, presented the story of Motown's session players (known as "The Funk Brothers"), who were the unsung heroes of the Motown Sound, and (sadly) barely even known, until recent years.

When you are a native Detroiter (if you have any musical sense at all), Motown is a larger-than-life phenomenon. Everyone knows about the studio in the big house with the blue front and sign, "Hitsville U.S.A.", on West Grand Boulevard, not far from the old headquarters building for General Motors, and only a stone's throw from the center of the Riots in 1967 (12th Street). But, like so many who live near a famous landmark, I had never taken a tour of the studio until quite recently. I made a delivery there in the early-90s and stepped inside, but that was it. I read about the efforts to make it a first-class museum and waited until it was renovated to take a full tour. That was about four years ago. I went a second time two years ago.

It's difficult to describe the feeling of someone who grew up in Detroit in the 1960s -- as I did -- walking through this building, which has such a rich musical legacy. Entering the actual studio is almost like a religious pilgrimage: the "Holy of Holies" of 60s pop and R & B music, where Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Diana Ross and the Supremes cut all their records. The only thing that could approach it in the "local heritage" category was when my whole family got to walk onto the field of Tiger Stadium in 1999: the last year that old ballpark hosted major league baseball.

My late brother Gerry was in a "white soul"-type band in 1966-1968. They made a record and appeared on a local rock and roll TV show, called Swingin' Time (with host Robin Seymour). A few years later a "scout" from Motown actually came to the house to listen to him and a friend play and sing. Nothing came of it, of course, but it was great to even have that slight association with Motown.

The greatest and most influential individual talent in the "Funk Brothers" was the bass player, James Jamerson (1936-1983). I would like to cite three articles about this extraordinary musician, and then I'll provide a list of what I consider his greatest performances on record, and several related links. I'm proud to play some small part in making him more known to the public:

From the article: "Enigmatic bassist James Jamerson, anchor of the Motown sound, will get his due at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," by Brian McCollum, 2-27-00, in The Detroit Free Press:

. . . James Jamerson . . . dramatically, forever, altered the sound of contemporary music.

. . . Mysterious as his persona might have been, there was nothing vague about Jamerson's playing. As bassist for the fabled Funk Brothers, he was the bedrock of the Motown sound. When you dance to "Heat Wave," your hips aren't moving because of Martha or her Vandellas. They're being seduced into motion by Jamerson and his fat, vibrant grooves underneath.

Enigmatic in life, overlooked in death, Jamerson is about to get his due. On March 6, he'll be among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's first round of inductees for session musicians -- the unheralded players behind the scenes.

Like his bandmates in the Funk Brothers, the crack studio band that played on nearly every Motown hit that mattered, Jamerson was rarely credited in public for his prolific work. It wasn't until 1971, when he was acknowledged as "the incomparable James Jamerson" on the sleeve of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," that his name even showed up on a major Motown release.

His induction will be the first high-profile recognition of his vast body of work . . . In all, he performed on nearly 30 No. 1 pop hits -- toppling the record commonly attributed to the Beatles. On the R&B charts, nearly 70 of his performances went to the top.

. . . Today's bass players owe an overwhelming debt to his innovations in the tiny studio on West Grand.

. . . sometime in the late '50s, he made his first visit to Motown's Studio A. Somewhere amid it all, he picked up the electric bass. Legend says he mastered the instrument in two weeks.

By the early '60s, Motown's A-team of musicians had come together: Earl Van Dyke, Robert White, Benny Benjamin, Joe Messina and Jamerson. The Funk Brothers, as they came to be known, molded one of the most distinct sounds in pop music history. Under the leadership of Van Dyke, the group also became a fixture on Detroit's club scene.

Allan Slutsky, a Philadelphia musician and writer, became intrigued by Jamerson in the mid-'80s and dove into Motown's past for answers. The resulting book, Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson (Hal Leonard, $32.95), was published in 1989. This summer, Slutsky will head a crew to begin production on a $3-million documentary about the Funk Brothers.

"You have to remember the state of the electric bass at that time -- it had only been around since the early '50s," says Slutsky. "People didn't know what to do with it. Nobody blew you away. Then Jamerson comes along. He was the first virtuoso of the electric bass, the first to give the instrument a voice." In musical terms, what Jamerson introduced was syncopation. In layman's terms, just call it funk.

Rather than merely outlining a song's chords in primitive, arpeggio patterns like most pop and R&B bassists -- dum, dum, dum, dum -- Jamerson developed lines of increasing complexity. His jazz background allowed him to toy with unusual harmonic flourishes. He widened the palette.

Tales of Jamerson in the studio are legendary. He'd concoct his parts in mere seconds, they say, then fool around as the band rehearsed, stomping his foot in odd meters or humming an alternate melody to throw off the players.

. . . He was, by any definition, a genius. "Jamerson terrified bassists all over the world," says Slutsky. "Still does." With Motown archivist Harry Weinger, Slutsky got a chance to hear Jamerson parts isolated from the other tracks. It was a breathtaking event. "I was floored . . . It was the funkiest, grungiest thing I had ever heard in my life. It was like every single note was ready to explode."

But it was more than just the bass lines -- whether the familiar stutter of "Bernadette" or the one many call his best, Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her."

"The thing laymen have to understand is that music is built from the bottom up," says Slutsky. "James was the bottom. When he changed the way the bottom functioned and sounded, it changed everything up the line." "Play it like the guy from Motown" became a standard call from producers everywhere.

. . . Since childhood, James had revealed a two-pronged personality: angel and devil. He was a class clown and a loner. Gregarious and mean. Sweet and flammable. Like so many great artists, there was something in his personality that evoked traces of bipolar disorder.

"He wanted to live the good life, to be a religious, God-fearing guy," says Slutsky. "But he was the sheepish little good-kid-gone-bad. He had a lot of demons. It's a Vincent Van Gogh story."

. . . "In hindsight, 'What's Going On' was the swan song for Jamerson," says [Bob] Lee, the Los Angeles bassist. "He always thought that was his best work." Marvin Gaye's seminal 1971 record was among the last Motown albums recorded in Detroit.

. . . Since Slutsky's book was published, he's received more than 10,000 letters looking for insight into the mysterious legend. "If James knew the fuss, he'd be floored," says Slutsky. "This was a guy who died in agony. He figured he was forgotten."

. . . "Very few people have a chance to impact the world on a large scale. But that's what he did," says Slutsky. "People don't know him like they should. But when you think about it, the impact pop culture has had all over the world ...he's right there at the foundation."

From Marshall Crenshaw's article in Rolling Stone, 9-29-83:

James Jamerson, the pioneering Motown bassist who died of pneumonia in Los Angeles on August 2nd at the age of forty-five, was not famous like Sting of the Police, or John Entwistle of the Who. But Jamerson was one of the greatest and most influential musicians of our time, and it's safe to say that his sound and soul will always be with us, because the great Motown records of the Sixties will be listened to and appreciated for as long as there is a vibrant American musical culture.

Jamerson's bass playing almost defined the Motown sound. He was with the company from 1959 until 1973, and during the peak years of Motown's incredible golden era, from 1963 to 1966, he played on virtually every Motown, Tamla, Gordy, Soul and VIP release. On these records - backing the Supremes, Steve Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and many others - Jamerson created a sound, a feel and an impact that make him one of the three or four most important innovators in the last twenty years of American music.

. . . It's hard for me to think of words to adequately describe his beautiful sound and the deftness and sensitivity of his playing. Fortunately most people have heard "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Dancing in the Street" to cite only two of Jamerson's classic performances. But Jamerson also had a profound influence on the state of the recording art. During the Fifties, electric basses were not considered legitimate instruments by most producers and studio players; the most common approach was to record an acoustic bass to anchor the bottom of the sound, then have someone, usually a guitarist, add electric bass-string lines for percussive and melodic supplementation. When Jamerson came along, he totally blew away such prejudices - and by making the bottom jump and pop the way he did, he completely changed the way people heard and played R&B and rock & roll. He was the first electric bass player that you might call a virtuoso.

From: Chuck Rainey's Jamerson Page:

Ever wonder what the specific ingredient of a hit record was or is? If you are a producer, writer, arranger, artist, an avid fan of the artist or a listener - you might consider first - the groove, sound and feel of the bass instrument and who is playing it. True, The 4 Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Jr. Walker were indeed very special and talented artists, but consider three things; (1) all the songs were good songs, (2) all the horn and string arrangements were great and (3) all songs and arrangements were led by the bass part. All but a few bass parts were played by my hero James Jamerson.

. . . Once any bassist heard or hears Jamerson play the electric bass instrument, an immediate respect for him and the instrument occurs . . . Although James was an acoustic bass player first, he opened the career door for the rest of us electric players basically by being heard so many times on radio hits produced by Detroit Motown. When I heard Bernadette by the 4 Tops in the 60's, my heart throbbed for a week. I Was Made To Love Her by Stevie Wonder during that same time period caused another week of sheer electric bass ecstasy.

My Compilation of 32 of James Jamerson's Greatest Hits, on a 90-Minute Cassette

The songs were chosen for their inventiveness, originality, key role in the structure of the songs, and memorable nature. Reference is made to the date of release, and disk and number of selection on the disk, from the CD Box Set: Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection: 1959-1971. The songwriters will be indicated by a code, referring to the writers listed below.

Side A

Mickey's Monkey * (7/63 | I, 16), Miracles
Pride and Joy ^ (4/63 | I, 13), Marvin Gaye
How Sweet It Is * (11/64 | I, 28), Marvin Gaye
My Girl # (12/64 | II, 1), Temptations
This Old Heart of Mine * (1/66 | II, 17), Isley Brothers
You Can't Hurry Love * (7/66 | II, 25), Supremes
I Can't Help Myself * (4/65 | II, 8), Four Tops
Ain't no Mountain High Enough < (4/67 | III, 8), Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
I Heard it Through the Grapevine > (9/67 | III, 10), Gladys Knight & the Pips
Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing < (3/68 | III, 15), Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
My Whole World Ended ~ (1/69 | III, 22), David Ruffin
I Was Made to Love Her + (5/67), Stevie Wonder
Ain't Too Proud to Beg (*) (5/66 | II, 21), Temptations
You Keep me Hangin' On * (10/66), Supremes
It's the Same Old Song * (7/65 | II, 11), Four Tops
Ain't That Peculiar # (9/65), Marvin Gaye
I Know I'm Losing You (*) (11/66 | III, 2), Temptations

Side B

A Place in the Sun ::: (10/66), Stevie Wonder
Reach Out, I'll be There * (8/66 | III, 1), Four Tops
Reflections * (7/67), Supremes
What's Going On? = (1/71 | IV, 17), Marvin Gaye
I'm Gonna Make You Love Me & (11/68), Temptations & Supremes
Bernadette * (2/67), Four Tops
I'm Wondering + (9/67), Stevie Wonder
Cloud Nine > (10/68 | III, 18), Temptations
If I Were Your Woman % (10/70 | IV, 15), Gladys Knight & the Pips
Standing in the Shadows of Love * (11/66 | III, 3), Four Tops
For Once in My Life (::) (10/68 | III, 17), Stevie Wonder
The Happening * (3/67), Supremes
I Can't Get Next to You > (7/69 | III, 24), Temptations
Ain't No Mountain High Enough < (7/70 | IV, 10), Diana Ross
Higher and Higher, Jackie Wilson (not a Motown song, but the Funk Brothers played on it, helping to make it one of the all-time great R & B records)

Songwriter's code:

* Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, & Eddie Holland
(*) Eddie Holland, Norman Whitfield
# Smokey Robinson
+ Stevie Wonder, Sylvia Moy, & Henry Cosby
^ Norman Whitfield, Marvin Gaye, & William "Mickey" Stevenson
> Norman Whitfeld & Barrett Strong
< Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson
= Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye, & Renaldo Benson
~ Harvey Fuqua, Johnny Bristol. Pam Sawyer, & James Roach
::: Ron Miller & Bryan Wells
(::) Ron Miller & Orlando Murden
& Kenneth Gamble & Jerry Ross
% Laverne Ware, Pam Sawyer, & Clay McMurray

Further Reading about James Jamerson, Motown, and the Funk Brothers:
(Many thanks to Bob Lee: the first site below)

Bob Lee's loving tribute page, James Jamerson, Bassist (with a great photograph of Jamerson on top)

Detroit News article about the film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Article on the Funk Brothers, "From Motown to our Town," by Jonathan Takiff (Philadephia Daily News, 4-11-03)

Dozens of articles about Motown in the online archives of The Detroit Free Press.

Funk Brothers interview on NPR radio

USA Today review of Standing in the Shadows of Motown (SITSOM)

Detroit Metro Times review of SITSOM

Fender tribute to Jamerson

Standing In The Shadows Of

Who's Who of the Funk Brothers

List of some of Jamerson's greatest performances

Section on the Funk Brothers from The History of Rock and Roll site.

Soul Man (French site about Motown and the Funk Brothers)

Amazon.Com page for Standing In The Shadows Of Motown

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