Wednesday, August 12, 2009

James Jamerson -- The Sound of Motown

In the '60s, Detroit, Michigan was the hit capital of the world. Motown Records, the independent label headed by Berry Gordy, would discover, record and promote such future stars as Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

Under Gordy's very capable leadership, Motown Records maintained a stable of in-house songwriters, choreographers and session musicians.

Of the session musicians on Motown's roster -- which included guitarists Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, Robert White and Dennis Coffey -- bassist James Jamerson is arguably the most well-known.

Spotted by Gordy at a recording session on which he was playing upright bass, Jamerson was signed on as the then fledgling label's house bassist, to record as well as tour with various Motown acts. Playing his early sessions on the upright, Jamerson purchased his first electric bass, a Fender Precision, in 1961. This was the instrument that was to become his trademark.

From 1959 to 1973, Jamerson provided the backbone for innumerable Motown hits. And unlike most bass players of the day who were content to dwell in the background, Jamerson propelled the music along with creative hooks and riffs that became integral to the song.

And for that reason, Jamerson was pulled off the touring circuit in '64 as the label needed him to concentrate on recording sessions. As Jamerson himself put it, "Nobody at Motown would record anything until I came off the road."

Stringing his Precision bass with flatwound, heavy gauge LaBella bass strings and plugging into an Ampeg B-15 amp exclusively, Jamerson's equipment setup was simple by today's standards. Having had his first two Precision basses stolen, he claimed to have changed strings on his third instrument only once since purchasing it in 1963, when he replaced the stock Fender strings with his preferred LaBella brand.

Jamerson's right hand technique was simple and unorthodox. But still he managed to execute his grooving, complex lines with just the index finger of his right hand as seen in the clip above.

Despite his incredible body of work, Jamerson was to languish in relative obscurity throughout his career -- something that was an endless source of frustration for him.

Motown was a label that focused primarily on the star. The session musicians did not receive printed credit, either on the albums or the singles. And Jamerson's wages were paltry relative to his contributions to the music. Working for Union scale, he reportedly received $61 for playing on 'Reach Out' by The Four Tops which was a #1 hit song on the R&B charts in 1966.

Jamerson died on August 2nd, 1983. It was only after his death that he began to receive the recognition that he deserved, with bassists like Jerry Jemmott, Jaco Pastorius and Anthony Jackson claiming Jamerson's influence on their playing.

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