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How James Jamerson Became the Iconic Bass Player for Motown Records

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How James Jamerson Became the Iconic Bass Player for Motown Records

How James Jamerson Became the Iconic Bass Player for Motown Records

James Jamerson’s playing is legendary, but how did he become the iconic bass player for Motown records? Tim Fletcher investigates

James Jamerson was arguably the first ‘virtuoso’ bass guitar player. He was one of the bass players who gave the electric bass its own ‘voice’, one that was separate from the double bass that it was to gradually replace in popular music. Jamerson was able to create distinctive and interesting bass lines that were as recognisable within the songs he recorded as any of the other instruments. He helped to define the ‘Motown Sound’, and influenced bass players for years to come.

How James Jamerson Became the Iconic Bass Player for Motown Records
Photo: Experimento69 / CC BY-SA (

James Jamerson was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1938 (although he later discovered that the correct year was 1936), and he grew up in a musical family.

His grandmother played piano a little, and his aunt sang in the local church choir. He played the trombone while he was at elementary school, and also visited his cousin’s house in order to practice the piano, which he was soon able to play in church. His love of music grew as he got older, and he became an avid listener of pop, jazz, gospel and R & B songs being played on the local radio stations. When his mother moved the family to Detroit in 1954, James enrolled at Northwestern High School. With a desire to play music, James decided to sign up for the school jazz band, and he chose to play the double bass. He mastered it quickly, and by the following year, he was able to play jazz bass-lines in the style of Ray Brown and Paul Chambers. Soon, Jamerson was gigging regularly at wedding parties and dances with his friends Richard ‘Popcorn’ Wylie and Clifford Mack (who would both also later play for Motown), and he was establishing a strong reputation as a bass player on the local scene. 

When he graduated from High School, he started to play for ‘Washboard Willie and the Supersuds of Rhythm’. This band played regularly around Detroit, and James Jamerson’s playing developed rapidly. In 1958, local singer and record label owner Johnnie Mae Matthews saw Jamerson playing with Washboard Willie and hired him to play on sessions for her new Northern Records label. This quickly established his reputation as a studio player, and other local studios began to hire him for their sessions. Around this time, Jamerson also played in Jackie Wilson’s backing band, whose big hit ‘Reet Petite’ had been written by Berry Gordy…

Berry Gordy had first found some success in the late 1950s as a songwriter, and his songs for Jackie Wilson and Barrett Strong were very successful. 

He then became an independent producer, leasing the tracks to other labels. Wanting to start his own label and studio to enable more of the profits to remain in his hands, Gordy borrowed some money from his family, bought a two-track tape recorder, and in mid-1959 he bought a former photographic studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit where he converted the first floor into a basic recording studio.

Later in the year, producer Hank Cosby invited Jamerson to attend a recording session at Gordy’s new studio, later to be the recording headquarters of Motown Records. The bass player on the session was Tweed Beard, but he wasn’t able to get the right feel on the song. Jamerson was asked to try, and he managed to make it work immediately. The producer was impressed and began to call Jamerson for more sessions. 

The first recording Jamerson played on for Gordy’s new Tamla label was for The Miracles song ‘Way Over There’ which was released in January 1960.

When Gordy set up Motown Records in April that year, he invited Jamerson to become one of the core group of studio musicians later known as ‘The Funk Brothers’. Jamerson played double bass on his early Motown sessions, but in 1961 he was persuaded to try a Fender Precision bass by Horace ‘Chili’ Ruth. He was reluctant to play the electric bass at first, but he soon found that the slimmer neck and narrower string spacing enabled him to play even more complex runs and sophisticated rhythms. His first recording on electric bass was on the 1962 song ‘Strange I Know’ by The Marvelettes. The Precision bass soon became the instrument of choice for both Jamerson and his producers, but he didn’t drop the double bass completely – he would often persuade producers to let him play it on sessions if he thought the song would sound better, or blend the sounds of the two instruments.

James Jamerson played on hundreds of sessions for Motown and others and featured on twenty-three Billboard Number One hit singles.

This enabled his playing to be heard across the world: Paul McCartney was to later cite Jamerson as the biggest influence on his playing. Sadly, due to Motown’s policy of not naming their session musicians (he wasn’t credited until Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album ‘What’s Going On’), his name wasn’t well known until after his death. After Allan Slutsky’s book ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ book and a later documentary about the Funk Brothers, Jamerson’s work became better known, and he has become one of the world’s most revered bass players.

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