Jamerson’s bass playing made a certain fabric of my life visual. — Stevie Wonder
If I could attribute the title of “Most Tragically Overlooked Musician” to anyone, it would probably be the guy who played on nearly seventy number-one hits on the R&B charts and almost thirty number-one hits on the pop charts. If you’re counting all the charts, he’s laid down the foundation for more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys — combined.
It would probably be the guy that was paid tribute for musical excellence by James Brown’s band, John Mayer’s band, Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Average White Band, The Band, Chic, Metallica, Stone Temple Pilots, R.E.M. and legendary musicians Victor Wooten, Billy Sheehan, Geddy Lee (from Rush), Jaco Pastorius, John Patitucci, Anthony Jackson, Bob Babbitt and even Paul McCartney.
On top of playing on the vast majority of Motown hits in the sixties, he played for Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. In fact, Marvin Gaye wanted him to play so badly on the social-injustice-inspired What’s Goin’ On that he personally searched out several bars in Detroit to bring him to the studio. Even though he was so drunk that he had to lay flat on his back while he played the part, the title track he played on was later ranked number four on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles would hold up sessions in Detroit until he showed up, because, as Robinson notes, “none of the producers wanted to cut without him. That’s how important he was to the Motown sound.”
Oh, and did I mention that every song he played on he played with only one finger?
His name was James Jamerson, and he played the electric bass guitar. He and his band, informally deemed “The Funk Brothers,” went about ten years without getting credit for their brilliant work. They were the minds that created the entire Motown sound, and even though their work was the background to hits that were being played on the radio continuously, no one knew who they were. Jamerson was broke, depressed and bitter at his lack of recognition in the last years of his life. He died August 2nd, 1983 at age 47 as a result of complications from liver cirrhosis, pneumonia and heart failure.
Thankfully, he’s starting to get the credit he deserves. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and was featured in a fantastic documentary in 2002, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. You can watch the trailer for it here, and it’s cheap to rent from the iTunes store. You can also hear the isolated bass line to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” here. Jamerson was renowned for his amazingly solid and lyrical bass lines. He doesn’t show off unless it fits. Everything he played, above all else, fit perfectly.