On this day in 1983, James Jamerson died of complications stemming from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia in Los Angeles. He was 47 years old.
As one of The Funk Brothers he was the uncredited bassist on most of Motown Records hits from the late 50’s, through the label’s golden era in the 60’s and the early 70’s. The Funk Brothers were jazz musicians who had been recruited by Motown boss Berry Gordy, who for many years maintained a typically full schedule of recording during the day at Motown’s small garage “Studio A”, nicknamed ‘The Snakepit’.
These guys would be shown the bones of a song, work up their parts and record what we now hear as the finished track in a matter of hours. Long before the days of hi-tech studios and gadgets, these session musicians would play live as a group in the studio resulting in the warm and fresh sound that became the ‘Motown Sound’.
Just listen to the hits we all love: Stevie Wonder, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”; Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing In The Street”; Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; The Four Tops, “Bernadette”; The Supremes, “Baby Love”; and Smokey Robinson, “The Tears of a Clown.” Jamerson added his pumping bass lines to nearly 30 No.1 hits!
Jamerson began his career playing upright bass but was one of the earliest adopters of the Fender Precision electric bass, which he played from 1962 onwards. On many Motown recordings he would play both acoustic and electric bass, playing the acoustic bass for the take of the band performance, then overdubbing the same part on electric bass afterwards. He was so precise a player that it’s hard to tell that the record features two basses.
Even more amazing than Jamerson’s creative basslines was the fact that he mostly played them with only one finger, the index on his right hand, as opposed to the two or three that would be more customary. He jokingly named the significant finger ‘the hook’, and many subsequent would-be bassists have struggled to equal that one digit with many of theirs.
According to fellow Funk Brothers in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Gaye was desperate to have Jamerson play on “What’s Going On”, and went to several bars to find the bassist. When he did, he brought Jamerson to the studio, who then played the classic line while lying flat on his back.
Long troubled by alcoholism, Jamerson died of complications stemming from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia in Los Angeles. He was 47 years old and was said to be broke and bitter about his lack of recognition at the time of his death.
Jamerson was described by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy as “a genius on the bass…an incredible improviser in the studio and somebody I always wanted on my sessions.” James is now regarded as one of the most influential bass players in modern music history. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
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