Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #2 James Jamerson



As with the first in our series, Carol Kaye, you may not know the name of today’s subject, but you will certainly know their work. And what a body of work it is too.

James Jamerson played the bass on a huge amount of Motown’s hit records between 1959 and 1972 and his playing style has influenced generations of bass players since. From the classic opening to The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’ via Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ by The Supremes, Jamerson’s legacy is monumental in the pantheon of popular music. Like many artists touched by genius, his was a tortured soul and, tragically, it wasn’t until after he died a depressed alcoholic, having not worked for years at the age of 47 in 1983, that he gained widespread acclaim for his work.

James Lee Jamerson was born January 29 1936 in Edisto, South Carolina, moving to Detroit in 1954. He picked up a double bass in high school and found an immediate affinity with the instrument. He cut his teeth on the Detroit jazz and blues circuit and, much like Carol Kaye, was recruited by a local record producer to play on his recording sessions in 1958. That record producer was one Berry Gordy who used Jamerson, along with other musicians from that circuit, to record in his Hitsville USA studio – home of the Motown record label. That group of musicians (the self titled ‘Funk Brothers’) played, uncredited, on the vast majority of Motown hits in the sixties, and Gordy, the ultimate cutthroat businessman paid them a pittance for their work. After a day’s session in Studio A at Hitsville (which the Funk Brothers named ‘The Snakepit’), they had to supplement their income by playing the jazz clubs by night.



For the first couple of years for Motown Jamerson was still playing double bass, but in 1961 his friend and fellow bassist Horace Ruth convinced him to try a Fender Precision electric bass. By all accounts he didn’t really care for the instrument at first, but before long he was developing a style incorporating syncopated melodic lines, string mutes and chromatic passing tones (more on this later) which were groundbreaking and forged a new role for the electric bass. He transferred his right hand double bass technique by resting his third and forth fingers on the bridge guard of the bass and plucked just using his index finger with up strokes. Dubbed ‘The Hook’, it’s incredible to think that those syncopated, intricate lines were created in this manner. He eventually acquired a 1962 sunburst finish Precision which he called ‘The Funk Machine’ (carving the word ‘FUNK’ with a ballpoint pen into the heel of the instrument). Using flatwound strings which he never cleaned or replaced until they broke: his mantra being “the gunk keeps the funk”, this was the bass that featured on the majority of those classic tracks. Sadly, the bass was stolen days before he died and has never since been recovered.

Jamerson was long troubled by alcoholism and when Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972 he followed, but struggled without the support of his fellow Funk Brothers. As a result, the work dried up and the demons set in. He died, in 1983, of complications related to cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia, broke and bitter about his lack of recognition.

Jamerson did eventually get worldwide recognition. Six years later Allan ‘Dr Licks’ Slutky’s book/CD package featuring transcriptions of his basslines and accolades from well known¬†bass players started the ball rolling which culminated in Jameson being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the film documentary “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown’ in 2002.

So let’s have a look at some of Jamerson’s techniques and examples of his work with Motown. Firstly, I want to share my favourite bassline of his with you: ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder. I’ve already covered this one in a previous blog about my becoming a bass player, so to put a different slant on things I want you to listen (and watch) this piece on YouTube to demonstrate his amazing style. The bassline is Jamerson’s with a visual representation of the notes played, overlaid with the melody of the song. If you do nothing else on this blog, I urge you to watch this.

It’s a fascinating insight into his technique, with his trademark chromatic runs (up and down) between key notes, plunging note drops (he often used open strings as passing notes, something most likely learned from his jazz upright days) and just downright funky phrasing by the means of syncopation; in other words, he hardly ever plays a note dead on the beat, he’s always pushing forward or laying back to create a groove. Not only that, like many of his tracks, he never played exactly the same thing twice. Quite astounding.

‘What’s Going On’ – Marvin Gaye

Jamerson used to record his parts in ‘The Snake Pit’ standing up. For this track there was some alternate positioning involved.
By 1970, his drinking was starting to become a bit of a problem (he apparently used to keep a bottle of the Greek sprit Metaxa in his bass case) and he had a very high tolerance to alcohol at this point. The story goes that Marvin Gaye had to go searching the Detroit clubs to find Jamerson to get him to lay down a bass track for ‘What’s Going On?’ Gaye found him playing a set and brought him down to Hitsville when he had finished. The only problem was that Jamerson was absolutely smashed. Legend has it that he looked over the chord charts and, unable to stand or even sit in a chair, he lay down on his back and recorded the track from the studio floor.
It certainly didn’t impair his performance with a fantastic groove, replete with those characteristic syncopations, chromatic runs and beautiful melodic flourishes.

‘Bernadette’ – The Four Tops

Another candidate for best Jamerson bassline is ‘Bernadette’. Like a lot of bass players (before and after) he built many basslines around the simple root-fifth-octave shape and you can hear this in the main chorus of the song. Again, it’s how he plays that shape, with chromatic passing notes between the chords and oodles of funk.

‘I Was Made To Love Her’ – Stevie Wonder

This bass part is so busy, yet it never gets in the way of anything, least of all Stevie’s voice. Much like on ‘For Once In My Life’ Jamerson’s bass acts as a glorious counterpoint to the vocal line. He switches to some down and dirty chromatic (there, I said it again) runs up the neck for the breakdown, and then it’s back to those flurries of notes. These aren’t notes for notes sake, God damn it; it’s all about the song.


Leon Wilson


Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #1 Carol Kaye



There are a handful of bass players, unknown to the majority of the general public, who were hugely influential in the world of pop, rock, blues and soul. They played on literally thousands of hit records from the 1950’s onwards.

This is the first in a series of blogs where I aim to shed some light on some of these players and show some examples of their top notch work.

I thought that the best place to start would be with one of the most prolific session musicians of the past fifty years, Carol Kaye.

Born in 1935 in Everett, Washington USA, Kaye was born into a family of musicians. When her parents divorced, Kaye and her mother relocated to California. Her mother bought her a guitar aged 11, and by the age of 14 she was playing jazz gigs semi-professionally and helping her guitar tutor teach some of his other students. She continued to learn her trade playing guitar in the California jazz clubs throughout the 1950’s and got her first studio session backing Sam Cooke in 1957.
Many of the top record producers of the time frequented the jazz clubs in order to recruit session musicians. “Jazz musicians invented rock lines”, says Kaye. “We could cut rock and roll real fast. Rockers weren’t good enough to play their own music. They had poor technique and the sound and feeling were wrong. They were stars, not musicians. We made people into stars ”

Over the next few years she played guitar on a number of hits like ‘La Bamba’ by Richie Valens, and various classics for the maverick producer Phil Spector, including ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals and ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ by The Righteous Brothers.
The switch to bass in 1963 actually happened by accident, rather than design. She showed up as usual to a session at Capitol Studios where the bass player failed to show. “They put me on bass, and I found that I liked it immediately. I saw the potential for it, because I realised then that a lot of the hit records depended upon the role of the bass. And it was much more fun to invent on bass than the rinky-dink guitar stuff that I had to do. It just felt comfortable”

By 1964 she was the ‘go to’ session bassist on the West Coast and subsequently played on thousands of songs and hundreds of hit records. There were also themes and soundtracks to numerous films and tv shows (Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Mission:Impossible’ to name just two). She played a part in developing Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, she played on The Beach Boys seminal ‘Pet Sounds’ album (influencing one Paul McCartney in his bass playing in the process) and she came up with, and played, the intro to arguably one of the best songs of all time ‘Witchita Lineman’.

So here are just three picks from the fantastic Carol Kaye (all, coincidentally, from 1966).

River Deep Mountain High – Ike and Tina Turner

First of all, you can see why Phil Spector’s productions were dubbed as the ‘Wall of Sound’. The sheer number of musicians involved (allegedly over 30 on this track) doubling and sometimes tripling parts, all smothered in reverb, created a unique sonic landscape. The song starts with Kaye’s descending electric bass figure doubled by James E Bond’s upright acoustic bass in order to give an attacking sound with some huge bottom end. They stop dead to allow Turner’s vocals to set the scene with the bass(es) playing a persistent fifth-root figure which bounces the verse along. The whole thing builds towards the chorus where the strings and myriad of backing vocals push towards the stratosphere. A great use of dynamics sees the wall of sound come to a halt at the end of the chorus where the descending bass figure leads us into verse two. After the second chorus there’s a great bridge with a repeated line underpinned by some manic bongos which steadily builds until Turner can’t take it any more, and lets rip with a primal scream into the final chorus.

God Only Knows – The Beach Boys

This Brian Wilson classic from ‘Pet Sounds’ started life from a prayer session in the studio and it’s another interesting arrangement with snare drum, sleigh bells, accordion, strings and horns creating the celestial mood. Kaye’s bass maps out the chords, loping through the song like a muscular Ghurka; never letting the listener stray from the mountain path of the melodic journey. The stars of the track though are The Beach Boys’ vocals: Carl Wilson’s beautiful, delicate lead vocal and the carefully woven intertwining lines of the rest of the band towards the end of the song.

I’m a Believer – The Monkees

This Neil Diamond song, covered by The Monkees (they sang on it while session musicians backed them), is driven by a tight bubbly bassline which perfectly compliments the upbeat nature of the track.

Carol Kaye continues to teach bass to this day (she recently turned 80) to musicians of all abilities (even spending time with talentless no-hopers like Gene Simmons from Kiss…). So let’s hear it for our unsung hero of the bass guitar.


Leon Wilson