James Jamerson, Forgotten Motown Bassist

James Jamerson, Forgotten Motown Bassist

By Nathan Siegel

SourceJon Sievert/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty


Because one of the most influential bassists never got any credit … and that’s downright shameful. 

By Nathan Siegel

Thirty-one years ago today, arguably the best bassist ever died in L.A., aged 47, an alcoholic, severely depressed and out of work for the better part of two decades. The day before, his beloved 1962 Fender Precision Bass — known as “the Funk Machine” — was stolen. 

How did James Jamerson, who anchored Motown’s famous style and played more number one hits than the Beatles — 30, in case you were wondering — manage to evade the musical radar until so long after his death?

According to most, it was Berry Gordy Jr. The cutthroat businessman behind the iconic Motown record label couldn’t let Jamerson be picked off by competition. “Motown was its own genre of music. And James was Motown,” said the late Bob Babbit, fellow member of the Funk Brothers, the core group of uncredited background musicians for the vast majority of Motown hits.

Lying on his back, on the floor, he proceeded to deliver an unrivaled masterpiece of low-end love.

More likely, he was just plain greedy. (None of the Funk Brothers made enough money to survive without doing graveyard gigs at local clubs).

To be fair, most record companies in the ’60s didn’t credit background musicians, but Motown’s negligence was extraordinary. They didn’t even ask Jamerson to play at their 25th anniversary. That’s like giving Marx the boot from the first annual Commie-Con©. To add insult to humiliation, he was then denied backstage access. Scalping a ticket, Jamerson claimed a back row bleacher seat. “God knows what went through his mind,” said Babbit. I’d guess, “Fuck this.” 

But placing blame now is a waste of space. Let’s celebrate the funk. 

Jamerson wholesale changed the face of bass playing. Before him, most upright jazz bassists played a follow-the-leader style. They stayed “inside the box.” When he landed on scene — during the formative years of electric bass — Jamerson released the instrument (if not himself) from its backdrop position “ …bringing it to a height of creativity and freedom, experimentation and fearlessness,” said Smokey Robinson, yet to be reached. Transferring standup bass technique to the electric four-stringer, he used only his index finger, dubbed “the hook.” Jamerson’s unmistakably round sound and lavish use of open notes, flat fives and chromatics “has influenced every bassist since, whether they know it or not,” said Tony Franklin, bassist for supergroup The Firm. 

If I had only 10 words, I’d quote his son: “James was to bass what Jimi Hendrix was to guitar.”

But unsung heroes aren’t anomalies. I’d be damned if Thorfinn Karlsefni was ever inducted into the Colonists’ Hall of Fame. And while Jamerson may have been a “tormented genius” during his lifetime, his legacy is being given royal treatment. He was the first musician inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the “sideman” category. Hordes of contemporary bassists have rushed to acknowledge his influence. To be sure, Pastorius, Graham, Clarke, etc. are all standing on Jamerson’s shoulders.   

And rightfully so. While recording Marvin Gaye’s seminal “What’s Happening Brother,” Jamerson was dragged to a recording session from a local blues bar, wasted drunk. Lying on his back, on the floor, he proceeded to deliver an unrivaled masterpiece of low-end love. As James famously said, in a (debatably) different context, “The dirt keeps the funk.”  

Now put on some headphones and crank the bass (Jamerson first appears @ 1:23 and “What’s Happening Brother” begins @ 6:35).