This week’s title is just a little bit misleading. While I have undying love for the Four Tops, and while “Bernadette” is my favorite single of theirs and in my Top Ten overall, this week’s column is about James Jamerson.
As you know, Jamerson was the bass player in the Funk Brothers, the studio hit machine behind all of the great Motown records. Those great musicians toiled in anonymity and certainly never reaped the financial benefits of Motown’s massive success. Their names never even appeared on a Motown record until Marvin Gaye gave them a shout out in 1971 on What’s Going On (“the incomparable James Jamerson” his credit read), and it wasn’t until the 2002 film Standing in the Shadows of Motown chronicled their history that the Funk Brothers finally received a little bit of the acclaim that they so richly deserved.
While the public may have been unaware of the Funk Brothers, musicians knew. And one thing that they knew was the James Jamerson was quite possibly the greatest bass player that popular music has ever known. He played, without credit, on all of the great Motown records of the ’60s and into the ’70s.
Here’s one of my favorite examples of his work:[youtube id=”QLDqlgRK100″ width=”600″ height=”350″]
Jamerson was born in South Carolina in 1938 and moved to Detroit in 1954. He started playing in local clubs and began to find work on recording sessions. He finally touched down at Hitsville USA, home of all the great Motown recordings, in 1959. The work was steady, very steady. I could list the Motown hits that Jamerson played on, but the list of hits that he didn’t play on would be a lot shorter.
Motown left a lot of people in the lurch when Gordy Berry moved the company to Los Angeles in 1972. A few of the Funk Brothers followed, hoping to maintain their connection. Jamerson was one of them. He found some work there, but it didn’t last. By the following year, his relationship with Motown was over. He continued to be an integral part of hit records though. That’s Jamerson on “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, “Boogie Fever” by the Sylvers, and “You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)” by Marily McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
In 2000 Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, part of the first class of sidemen to be inducted. Four years later the Funk Brothers received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. But the accolades came too late for James Jamerson. He had a long-term problem with alcohol, and it had finally killed him in 1983.
Ask any bass player, any musician at all for that matter, to name the greatest bass player of all time. The response is likely to come quickly, and the answer will be James Jamerson.