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James Lee Jamerson (January 29, 1936 - August 2, 1983) was an American bassist. He was the uncredited bassist on most of Motown Records' hits in the 1960s and early 1970s (Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971), and he has become regarded as one of the most influential bass players in modern music history and the "father of modern bass guitar." He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Famemarker in 2000.


A native of Edisto Islandmarker (near Charlestonmarker), South Carolinamarker, Jamerson moved with his mother to Detroit, Michiganmarker in 1954. He learned to play the double bass at Northwestern High School, and he soon began playing in Detroit area blues and jazz clubs.

Motown years

Jamerson continued performing in Detroit clubs after graduating high school, and his increasingly solid reputation started providing him opportunities for sessions at various local recording studios. Starting in 1959 he found steady work at Berry Gordy's Hitsville U.S.A.marker studio, home of the Motown record label. There he became a member of a core of studio musicians who informally called themselves The Funk Brothers. This small, close-knit group of musicians performed on the vast majority of Motown recordings during most of the 1960s. Jamerson's earliest Motown sessions were performed on double bass, but in the early 1960s he switched to mostly playing electric bass.

Like Jamerson, most of the other Funk Brothers were jazz musicians who had been recruited by Gordy. For many years, they maintained a typical schedule of recording during the day at Motown's small garage "Studio A" (which they nicknamed "the Snakepit"), then playing gigs in the jazz clubs at night. They also occasionally toured the U.S. with Motown artists. However for most of their career, the members of the Funk Brothers went uncredited on Motown singles and albums, and their pay was considerably less than the artists or the label received. Eventually Jamerson was put on retainer with Motown for one thousand dollars a week, which afforded him and his ever-expanding family a comfortable lifestyle.

Jamerson's discography at Motown reads as a catalog of soul hits of the 1960s and 1970s. His work includes Motown hits such as, among hundreds of others, "Shotgun" by Jr. Walker & the All Stars, "For Once in My Life", "I Was Made To Love Her" by Stevie Wonder, "Going to a Go-Go" by The Miracles, "My Girl" by The Temptations, "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and later by Marvin Gaye, and most of the album What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Bernadette" by The Four Tops, and "You Can't Hurry Love" by The Supremes. 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. He is reported to have played on some 95% of Motown recordings between 1962 and 1968. He eventually performed on nearly 30 No. 1 pop hits -- surpassing the record commonly attributed to The Beatles. On the R&B charts, nearly 70 of his performances went to the top.

Style and influence

Jamerson is noted for expanding the role of the bass in popular music, which until that time largely consisted of root notes, fifths and simple repetitive patterns. By contrast, many of Jamerson's bass lines for Motown were more melodic, more syncopated, and more improvisational than had been heard before. His bass playing was considered an integral part of the "Motown Sound". He transcended the standard "bass line" and created a duet with the singer. Prominent bassists who have claimed Jamerson as a primary influence include James Brown's Bernard Odum, Rick Danko, Anthony Jackson, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Bernard Edwards, Jason Newsted, Jaco Pastorius, John Patitucci, John Paul Jones, Robert DeLeo, Mike Watt, Billy Sheehan, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten, Paul McCartney, and Matt Rubano.

Post-Motown career

Shortly after Motown moved their headquarters to Los Angeles, Californiamarker in 1972, Jamerson moved there himself and found occasional studio work, but his relationship with Motown officially ended in 1973. He went on to perform on such 1970s hits as "Rock the Boat" (Hues Corporation), "Boogie Fever" (The Sylvers), and "You Don't Have To Be A Star " (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.). But as other musicians went on to use high-tech amps, round-wound strings, and simpler, more repetitive bass lines incorporating new techniques like thumb slapping, Jamerson's style fell out of favor with local producers and he found himself reluctant to try new things. By the 1980s he was unable to get any serious gigs working as a session musician.

Long troubled by alcoholism, Jamerson died of complications stemming from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983 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. He left behind a wife, Annie, three sons, James Jr., Ivey, and Derek, and a daughter Doreen. He is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery.


James Jamerson (as is the case with the other Funk Brothers) received little formal recognition for his lifetime contributions. In fact, 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.

Jamerson was the subject of a 1989 book by Allan Slutsky (aka "Dr. Licks") titled Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The book includes a biography of Jamerson, a few dozen transcriptions of his bass lines, and two CDs in which 26 internationally known professional bassists (such as John Entwistle, Will Lee, Chuck Rainey, and Geddy Lee) speak about Jamerson and play those transcriptions. Jamerson's story was also featured in the subsequent 2002 documentary film of the same title.

In 2000, Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker, part of the first-ever group of "Sidemen" to be so honored.

In 2004, the Funk Brothers were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2009, Jamerson was inducted into the Fender Hall of Fame. Among the speakers was fellow legendary Motown session bassist and friend, Bob Babbitt.

Jamerson's equipment

James Jamerson's double bass was a Germanmarker upright acoustic bass that he bought as a teenager and later used on such Motown hits as "My Guy" by Mary Wells and " Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas.

The electric bass Jamerson played was a stock 1962 Fender Precision Bass which was dubbed "The Funk Machine." Jamerson bought it after his first Precision (a gift from fellow bassist Horace "Chili" Ruth) was stolen. It had a three-tone sunburst finish, a tortoise-shell style pickguard, and chrome pickup and bridge covers. He typically set its volume and tone knobs on full. This instrument was also stolen, just days before Jamerson's death in 1983. To date, it has not been found.

James Jamerson used La Bella heavy-gauge (.052-.110) flatwound strings that he never changed. He never took care of the instrument, and it is possible that the neck eventually warped, as many claimed it impossible to play. While this made it more difficult to fret, Jamerson believed it improved the quality of the tone. On occasion, Jamerson also tucked a piece of foam underneath the bridge cover to lightly dampen the strings' sustain. Early in the '70s, a producer attempted to modernize James Jamerson's sound by asking the bassist to switch to brighter-sounding roundwound bass strings. Jamerson politely declined.

One aspect of James Jamerson's upright playing that carried over to the electric bass guitar was the fact that he generally used only his right index finger to pluck the strings while resting his 3rd and 4th fingers on the chrome pickup cover. Jamerson's index finger even earned its own nickname: "The Hook". [87298]

Jamerson's amplifier of choice at club performances was an Ampeg B-15; in larger venues, he used a blue Naugahyde Kustom with twin 15" speakers. On both, the bass was typically turned up full and the treble turned halfway up. On most of his studio recordings, his bass was plugged directly into the mixing console.


  • Talor, Harold Keith, The Motown Music Machine. Jadmeg Music Publishing, 2004
  • Slutsky, Allan, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1989
  • Andr, Motown Bass Classics. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998
  • Posner, Gerald, Motown : Music, Money, Sex, and Power. Random House, 2005
  • Rubin, Dave, Motown Bass (Bass Signature Licks). Hal Leonard Corporation, 2000

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