James Jamerson didn’t really live long enough to enjoy much of the limelight that has latterly shone on his work with the Funk Brothers, the musicians who were the very essence of the Motown sound. He died on 2 August 1983, at the age of only 47. But at least there are, these days, more people who know his name and the indelible mark he made on the label’s first decade.
Born on 29 January in 1936 near Charleston, North Carolina, Jamerson made his fateful move to Detroit with his mother when he was 18, in 1954. Originally a student of the stand-up bass, he was soon playing in local clubs, and when Berry Gordy opened his Hitsville USA studio in 1959, Jamerson became a fixture.
With his fellow Funk Brothers, as they referred to themselves (although if they were credited at all in those days, it was as the Soul Brothers), James and his cohorts practically lived in Studio A, the space they called the Snakepit. Alongside Benny Benjamin, Earl Van Dyke, Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, Joe Hunter, Paul Riser, Robert White and many others, he helped weave the very fabric of Tamla Motown’s imposing and infectious sound.
Throughout the 1960s, Jamerson would add his authoritative and funky bass lines to the vast majority of the company’s ever-expanding catalogue. This was the age when musicians who played on record dates were hardly ever even credited on the sleeve, and although he played on many other hits after leaving Motown in the early 1970s, he passed away largely in obscurity.
But even if most record fans beyond the Motown cognoscenti never even knew this overlooked pioneer, the label’s sonic imprint would have been immeasurably poorer without him. Allan Slutsky’s 1989 book Standing In The Shadows Of Motown began the process giving the Funk Brothers their proper recognition, inspiring the 2002 documentary that truly put their name in the public eye. Sadly, it all came far too late for Jamerson to witness.
Here’s a playlist of some of his finest moments, starting with the first Motown side he is definitely known to have played on, the Miracles’ ‘Way Over There,’ released in early 1960. We’ve chosen some indelible highlights and lesser-known cuts from a sessionography that’s almost a Motown A-Z in itself — including the chance to relive what it must have been like in the Snakepit, with his incredible isolated bass part from the Four Tops’ ‘Bernadette.’
Follow the James Jamerson playlist for more classic riffs.