James Jamerson – One of the Most Influential Bassist of the 1960’s

James Jamerson

James Jamerson

If you’re like me, you’re probably going, “What!?  Who the heck is James Jamerson???”  It’s really odd to think think that a bassist that’s played on more number one hits than The Beatles could be almost completely unknown.  Even the band he was part of, The Funk Brothers, is not that well known.

Jamerson and The Funk Brothers were in essence the house band at Motown Records from around 1959 to 1972.  They performed as a backing band for artist such The Miracles, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, The Contours, Jackson 5 and The Four Tops, just to name a few.

The reason that Jamerson and rest of the band remained unknown was due to Motown’s policy of not crediting background musicians.  But despite that, he influenced countless other bassist such as, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorius, John Paul Jones, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten and Paul McCartney.  Just to name a few.  He has probably influenced modern bass players in a manner similar to the way that Robert Johnson influenced generations of blues guitarist.

Listening to Jamerson now is a bit like watching an old Alfred Hitchcock movie.  I mean that in the way the way that his style has been so heavily copied that it doesn’t seem all that unique today.  But in its day it was like nothing you’d heard before.  Jamerson’s style was born in era where bass players were stuck playing “roots and fifths”.  Nobody was playing melodic bass lines and forget having the bass as prominent part like a solo or intro.  Jamerson changed all this.  Other musicians that played with him would say, “I thought he was just about the best bass player in the world.”

Jamerson started off playing upright (double) bass and switched to electric bass around 1960.  It’s amazing to think that his main bass, the Fender Precision, hadn’t been around for even a decade and the current model was only about three years old.  In those early years electric bass was still pretty uncommon, but this new instrument was to provide for Jamerson a platform for a style that couldn’t have made it’s way through the mix with an upright bass.

Jamerson’s main bass was a 1962 Fender Precision, sunburst with a tortoise shell pickguard and a rosewood neck.

Better than talking about Jamerson, is listening to his playing.  And fortunately there are a number of “isolated bass” videos on YouTube these days.  His sound is pure 60’s.  From a time before roundwound strings.  It classic, inventive, melodic and rock solid.

Despite his phenomenal success as a session player by 1973 he’d parted ways with Motown.  Partially due to his reluctance to follow new trends in bass playing, he found it harder and harder to find work.

Toward the end of his career he was bitter about his lack of recognition and drank heavily.  By the 1980’s he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and on August 2, 1983 he died from heart failure and pneumonia.

James Jamerson’s legacy lives on in the legendary sounds and riffs that are part of the sound of the 1960’s


Available from Amazon — James Jamerson’s 25 #1 Hits Check out this list.  It really is a who’s who of Motown classics.

Fender has reissued the classic 1962 Fender Precision. Very much like the one played by James Jamerson
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