Clearly the most important instrument in funk and R&B music – OK, together with the drums – is the electric bass. While Leo Fender first introduced the electric bass in 1951, it wasn’t until about ten years later that the instrument started making an impact in popular music, thanks to James Jamerson, session bassist for Motown Records in Detroit. Following in the footsteps of Jamerson were many notable bassists, most of whom at the time were uncredited and unknown.
In this edition, we will explore legendary funk and R&B bassists of the 1960s. In a past column, we covered the bassists for James Brown, including Bernard Odum, Tim Drummond, and Charles “Sweets” Sherrell, who provided the foundation of funk in the Sixties for the Godfather of Soul. But there are many others who provided some of the most memorable basslines in popular music during the decade. Some of the most prominent are featured here.
Jamerson is widely credited as the man who brought the electric bass into the forefront of popular music. He played on countless seminal recordings, backing such artists as Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Junior Walker. Surprisingly, Jamerson plucked the strings using only his index finger, known as “the Claw.” This technique can be seen on this very rare appearance of Jamerson on video, backing Marvin Gaye on “What’s Going On?”
Donald “Duck” Dunn was a member of Booker T and the MG’s, which served as the house band at Stax Records in Memphis. There he backed such artists as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave, as well as holding down the bass chair in the MG’s, known for instrumental hits like “Green Onions” and “Hip Hug Her.” In 1977, he joined John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd as part of the Blues Brothers Band, and can be seen in the “Blues Brothers” movie. Here he is with Booker T’s band.
A large influence on players such as Jaco Pastorious (listen to Jaco’s “Come On Come On Over” and “The Chicken”), Jerry Jermott played on many important records of the Sixties and Seventies. He came into prominence when he joined King Curtis’s band in the late Sixties, culminating in the recording of two of the greatest R&B records of all time – “King Curtis Live at the Fillmore West” and “Aretha Franklin Live at the Fillmore West.” One of his most well-known basslines can be heard on B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” Here he performs “Memphis Soul Stew” with King Curtis.
George Porter, Jr.
George Porter Jr. co-founded the Meters in 1965 and remains today the most respected practitioner of New Orleans funk bass. Porter has also backed the likes of Dr. John, Maceo Porter, David Byrne, and Paul McCartney. In this video, he is seen with the Meters in 1974.