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James Jamerson Biography

One of the unsung heroes of the Motown sound, James Jamerson was described by Motown founder Berry Gordy as “a genius on the bass... and incredible improviser in the studio and somebody I always wanted on my sessions.” He was the anchor of the in-house group at Motown dubbed the Funk Brothers. Although few among the record-buying public ever never knew Jamerson by name, they were well-acquainted with his work, which included the bass lines on such Motown classics as “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops, “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder  and “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes. His groove-oriented melodicism brought about a broader awareness of the role and possibilities of the bass guitar, and no less an authority than Paul McCartney rates him as an influence on his own playing. In a 1995 interview with Bass Guitar magazine, McCartney recalled his training on the instrument: “I started listening to other bass players mainly Motown. As time went on, James Jamerson became my hero... because he was so good and melodic.”

Born in 1936 in Charleston, South Carolina, Jamerson moved to Detroit in the early Fifties. He took up the bass in high school and joined Jackie Wilson’s band later in the decade. In 1959, Jamerson became a founding member of Motown studio band, and his inventive work on the Fender Precision bass proved a defining element of the Motown sound. In 1964, he stopped touring to devote himself exclusively to studio work at Motown’s “Hitsville” headquarters on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. One of the guarded secrets of the Motown sound was the interaction between bass and drums. According to Motown keyboardist and bandleader Earl Van Dyke, “We were sworn to secrecy, and one of the secrets was between James and [drummers] Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones.” Jamerson followed the company west when Berry moved Motown’s headquarters to Los Angeles, but the association between Motown and Jamerson ended in 1973. Jamerson, who’d been battling alcoholism, died of pneumonia in 1983 at the age of 47.