Phil Brodie Band ~Tribute Page
Motown bassist James Jamerson single-handedly revolutionized bass playing . Jamerson
was the nucleus of Motown's core musician's known, only to themselves, as the
"Funk Brothers" in the 60's. He played Bass guitar on over 95% of all
Motown music of the 60's and part of the early 70's. Jamerson played on over 80
hit number one songs for Motown, and played on literally everyone artists recordings.
Everyone from Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, Junior Walker and the All
Stars, The Marvelettes, the Velvelettes, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells,
The Temptations, Barrett Strong, Sammy Ward, Kim Weston, Marvin Gaye & Tammie
Terrell, The Four Tops, and hundreds more have experienced the artistry of Jamerson.
James Jamerson has influenced (whether they know it or not) every electric bassist to ever pick up the instrument. James' bass playing evolved from a traditional root-fifth cocktail style of bass playing into an astonishing new style built upon a flurry of sixteenth-note runs and syncopations, "pushing the envelope" dissonances, and fearless and constant exploration. He was, by any definition, a genius. "Jamerson terrified bassists all over the world," says Slutsky. "Still does." With Motown archivist Harry Weinger, Slutsky got a chance to hear Jamerson parts isolated from the other tracks. It was a breathtaking event. "I was floored. They were just dripping with testosterone, bad whiskey, bad breath," says Slutsky. "It was the funkiest, grungiest thing I had ever heard in my life. It was like every single note was ready to explode." But it was more than just the bass lines -- whether the familiar stutter of "Bernadette" or the one many call his best, Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." "The thing laymen have to understand is that music is built from the bottom up," says Slutsky. "James was the bottom. When he changed the way the bottom functioned and sounded, it changed everything up the line.", But alas neither James or any of the Funk Brothers where given any credits by Motown or by the singing stars who flew to fame from Motown ... the forgotten, unsung, underpaid heroes of Motown. 1972 marked the abrupt end of the "Motown Sound " when Berry Gordy moved the company from Detroit to Los Angeles, without warning leaving the Funk Brothers behind and unemployed. Some of the Funk Brothers including James Jamerson died of a broken heart because they were never recognized during their lifetimes.
JAMES IN A NUT-SHELL
29, 1938 original birthday, (late '70s seeing
Year 2000 ... Immortalized in the film "Standing In The Shadows Of Motown"
Feb. 25th 2003 ... Two Grammies
Feb. 6th 2003 ... Another Grammy
GERMAN UPRIGHT BASS
Funk Brothers Take
6, 2004 GRAMMY Magazine
the late 50's a group of true dedicated Jazz musicians played the bars and clubs
around Detroit they were known as the Joe Hunter Band, led by Mr. Joe Hunter on
piano. On the jazz scene too was a young aspiring songwriter, Berry Gordy Jr.
The Joe Hunter band show-cased Berry's work around Detroit and this built the
foundations of what came to be called "the Motown Sound". Legend has
it that Alabama-born Shorty Long christened the group ~ "Today" he would
announce, "we ain't playin' nuthin' but Funk, Brothers!" and the name
stuck! So the first Tamla "the Motown Sound" tracks were all backed
by the Joe Hunter Band. In 1963 Joe Hunter moved on from Motown, he was replaced
by the great Earl Van Dyke. The recordings were all done in a smokey, dimly lit
basement type room, originally a garage with carpets hung on the walls, the four
wooden steps leading down to Hitsville's basement were a bridge to a land of dreams.
But to the studio musicians who shaped the Motown sound, the stairs were a gateway
to a workplace, a cramped, smoke stained, dimly lit room they affectionately dubbed
"The Snakepit." at Hitsville, West Grand Blvd. in Detroit. They were
paid $10 per song. The Funk Brothers never went on tour together "Berry Gordy
was so tight on us he never let us out of the country. Robert and I went over
to England once on the Motortown Revue, but he kept Benny and James back in Detroit."
There was a separate touring band who backed the Motortown Revue, led by Choker
Campbell or George Bohannon, but the Funk Brothers on tour? No Way!" ~ quote
Earl Van Dyke. Earl also confessed The Funks moonlighted a bit in the early days.
"When Berry heard 'his' boys had played on Edwin Starr's Agent Double-O-Soul
for a rival label, he fined us $1,000 each. Ric Tic Records owner Ed Wingate apparently
got to hear about it, and blagged his way into the annual Motown Christmas Party.
He then handed over the cash to pay our fines. He gave us a bonus too!" The
actual Funk Brothers would not have time to tour as they were the studio men,
the top musicians, who had to be on standby 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When
they weren't in the studio they would jam in the bars and clubs of Detroit City
sometimes under the name 'Earl Van Dyke and the Soul Brothers'. It is a shame
there are no recordings (that I know of) of the Funk Brothers when they left the
snakepit in an evening and played in the clubs at night, such as their favourite
"Chat Chat" bar. This is where they would get rid of their frustrations
(which JJ had many) and would 'really' play their first true love, that funky
jazz (and some proper R & B), where James would go wild, playing lots of solos!!
James was let loose to play how he really wanted and how he really felt it, which
Motown would not let him get too fussy it frightened them. Also they used to go
on jamming weekends to the older Jazz boys homes and learn new tricks and tracks
off each other. Many songs were handed down this way. On weekends and nights like
this James would play till his fingers bled at times, and back to the snakepit
early next morning for Motown, where they would put these new techniques they
had devised in their jam sessions into the songs which further enhanced the Motown
sound and kept it a head of others. By 1962 NO ONE could play bass like James,
& throughout the 60's he would have to rewrite a lot his bass lines so that
the travelling bass players could semi keep up with his studio work!!
IN THE SHADOWS
- Behind all of these songs stood musicians that were by definition the greatest
unsung heroes to walk into a studio...including bass player James Jamerson.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, THE
MOVIE [video &
The Funk Brothers as they were known only to themselves, played on dozens of hits by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Temptations and every other star label founder Berry Gordy uncovered in the glory days from roughly 1959-1971. This film is about trying to give some credit where credit is due. And "to make some money for those guys," is how the film's producer and musical director Allan Slutsky sees it.
Standing In The Shadows is a film about music and musicians and the life they choose. It can be exhilarating but it can also be demoralizing and spirit crushing. It recounts wild and crazy times in Detroit when nothing could go wrong and then a period where nothing seemed to go right for many of the principal players. It is about money, greed and fiscal carelessness and about some of the greatest recordings ever made. [Clips from New York Times]
Many great jazz men were born in the southern states. James Lee Jamerson was no exception, born on January 29th, 1936, on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to James Lee Jamerson Sr. and his wife Elisabeth. His father worked in shipyards and his mother was a domestic worker. When his parents divorced, Jamerson divided his time between his grandmother who played piano, an aunt who sang in the church choir, and practiced piano at his cousin's house. He began developing his innate musical talents while incessantly listening to gospel, jazz, and blues stations. I will mention before we get too much into the music, James' second love was karate, which he practised throughout his life... mainly in his backyard at home!!
After a bicycle accident, he spent a year in a wheelchair. Forced to wear high-topped shoes in order to walk, the incident left Jamerson with a slight limp and a gnawing self-consciousness that would haunt him for his entire life. In 1953, Jamerson's mother moved to Detroit to find work. A year later, she sent for her son. At Northwestern High, Jamerson picked up an upright bass that was lying on the floor in the music room and "found" his instrument. His music teacher said it would be ideal for him as he had such large hands. Never a solitary play-the-scales-millions-of-times type of musician, the budding young bassist honed his skills at jam sessions, in the high school jazz band, and by playing with some of Detroit's top jazz musicians like Kenny Burrell, Yusef Lateef, and Hank Jones. As his reputation grew, Jamerson began playing at dances, weddings, and frat parties with schoolmates Richard 'Popcorn' Wylie (piano) and Clifford Mack (drums). Years later, 1967, Jamerson played on a hit record of a song written by Wylie, "With This Ring" by the Platters.
Jazzman Jamerson was becoming a neighborhood hero, driving around Detroit with his upright bass sticking out of his car window. Still a minor, the Detroit police department gave him a permit to play in clubs that served liquor, enabling him to get more work. Just before graduation, he married Annie Wells, and turned down a music scholarship from Wayne State University, reasoning that he was already working in the music field. He had a growing family to support. His greatest love was his children, he was a devoted Father and Husband.
After graduation, he began playing with Washboard Willie and the Supersuds of Rhythm. The experience was both a blessing and a curse. By playing with the blues-based band, Jamerson learned how to play the blues, while on his other gigs he played all kinds of jazz. But he also began drinking alcohol, something he had abstained from up to that point.
In 1958, Johnnie Mae Matthews, owner of Northern Records heard Jamerson at a Supersuds club gig and asked him to play on sessions for the label. His unique style came to the attention of other Detroit-area labels, and the 22-year-old Jamerson began cutting sides for Fortune, Tri-Phi, Anna Records, and others. In 1959 Joe Hunter spotted James "When I first saw him or heard him play, it was with a group called Washboard Willie. This cat used to play a washboard, like drums. Jamerson was playing with him. I think Jamerson developed his style playing with Washboard Willie. Later on, I took him over to Motown. They heard Jamerson play, they knew that was something else. It was exactly what we needed" . So Joe invited Jamerson into Joe Hunter Band band, which led to sessions at a small basement studio in a converted house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, which eventually became the recording base of Motown Records.
In 1961, Jamerson switched to the newly created electric Fender Precision bass. The move made his bass lines stand out more on records. On some tracks he started out recording the bass line with his trusty acoustic and then doubled the bass line with the Fender to give the bass part an extra punch. His playing was so precise that it was difficult to hear that there were two basses on the record. When the bassist wasn't touring with Jackie Wilson or recording for Motown or touring with their acts, Jamerson would travel to nearby Chicago to cut sides for VeeJay or Brunswick. He can be heard on John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" (number 16 R&B chart, summer 1962). The musician became so crucial to Motown's hits that recording dates would be postponed until he was available. In the very early days James toured endlessly with Jackie Wilson, Marv Johnson and The Miricles. Berry became tired of holding recordings up, put Jamerson on a retainer, so it was full time in the snakepit for James.
Though Motown wasn't too keen about Jamerson and the rest of the Funk Brothers recording for other labels, the Detroit music community and several music entrepreneurs, local and otherwise, took advantage of the situation, offering the band more money, leading to the Funk Brothers being heard on a lot of "backdoor sessions." For the local Golden World and Ric-Tic label owned by Twenty Grand Club owner Ed Wingate, the band can be heard on "Agent Double-O Soul" (number eight R&B chart, 1965) and "Stop Her on Sight" (number nine R&B chart, 1966) by Edwin Starr, and "I Just Wanna Testify" by the Parliaments (number three R&B chart, 1967). For Ollie McLaughlin's Karen label, there was "Cool Jerk" by the Capitols (Top Ten R&B chart, number seven pop chart, July 1966). The band can also be heard on records issued by the numerous labels that sprang up in the wake of Motown's phenomenal success.
Making the trips to nearby Chicago, they cut several hits for producer Carl Davis and Jackie Wilson. "Whispers (Gettin Louder)," recorded on August 8, 1966, and released September 1966, went to number five R&B chart and number 11 pop chart in the fall of 1966. "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" set the stage for Wilson's mid-'60s comeback and was his second number one R&B single (pop chart number six) on October 7, 1967. Other hits included "Since You Showed Me How to Be Happy" (number 22 R&B chart, November 1967), "I Get the Sweetest Feeling" (number 12 R&B chart, June 1968), and "(I Can Feel Those Vibrations) This Love Is Real" (number nine R&B chart, November 1970). The success of these records, both commercially and aesthetically, suggest that if Wilson had been signed to Motown he would have had a more consistent career. It's even more ironic given that Gordy's first big break came as one of Wilson's early songwriters in the late '50s. The band also traveled south to record in Muscle Shoals and Atlanta, among other cities. By 1968, Jamerson asked for and received a salary increase of $1000 a week, bringing his yearly income up to $52,000 a year. That's not counting moneys earned from bonuses, club dates, and "backdoor sessions." But the following year, things began to change. Jamerson lost one of his closest friends, Motown drummer Benny Benjamin, to heroin addiction. Because of high demand, Motown hired another bassist Bob Babbitt in an effort to keep up with the ever-expanding recording schedules; Jamerson couldn't be in two places at once. The label's music became more dependent on written musical arrangements and less on the Funk Brothers' "off the cuff" interplay. It was hard for Jamerson to adjust to the seemingly more rigid way of doing things.
Despite his alcoholism, and the opinion of some Motown staffers, Gordy refused to fire Jamerson. He believed that the bassist still had the music in him. The loyalty paid off, as Marvin Gaye enlisted Jamerson to play on his 1971 multi-platinum What's Going On. In 1973, Motown moved to Los Angeles and Jamerson followed shortly after. However with his strict contract finished Jamerson had more freedom. The following year, the bassist's work schedule seemed to be his busiest ever as he toured with Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, and Maria Muldaur, and recorded jingles, movie scores, TV themes (Starsky and Hutch), the Hues Corporation's "Rock the Boat" (number two R&B chart for two weeks, number one pop chart, spring 1974), the Sylvers' "Boogie Fever" (number one R&B chart, number one pop chart, late 1975), "Theme From S.W.A.T." by the studio group Rhythm Heritage (number 11 R&B chart, number one pop chart, late 1975), and Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.'s "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)" (number one R&B chart, number one pop, fall 1976). He can also be heard on Robert Palmer's "Which of Us Is the Fool" from his 1976 Island LP Pressure Drop.
Another gold hit that featured Jamerson was "Then Came You" by Dionne Warwick and the Spinners (number two R&B chart, number one pop chart, 1974). As far as Warwick was concerned, this was a continuation of a long collaboration. During the '60s, Warwick's songwriting/producing duo, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, would have clandestine rendezvous with the Funk Brothers.
By 1979 things began to sour for Jamerson as chronic alcoholism, emotional problems, and medication-related mishaps plagued the bassist, leading to his eventual exclusion from the A-list of first-call session players. But the main root problem being emotional and a very deep depression. He found it very differcult to adjust to the differences between Detroit & LA methods of recording and most of the classic Motown artists had left the Motown Label. Another reason, new producers wanted him to use different strings, to alter his sound, they were writing music and not letting James put his soul into it. Everyone wanted him to sound different. They were gradually sapping him. It got to a stage where James would sit for hours listening to his old motown records where he played his funky bass lines, and remembering the freedom of his wild jamming nights, it was stressful and painful for him and for his family watching such a great musician so broken. As James Jamerson Junior said "Imagine someone going up to Dizzy Gillespie or Hendrix or some other inventive musician and demand that they play like everyone else. They were telling my Dad to stop being James Jamerson, It's not that he couldn't do it, he wouldn't". When the Funk Brothers came down to record with him late 79 they said he was a shadow of himself , it was as if someone had taken out his heart.
Much of the last 2 years of Jamerson's life was spent in and out of hospitals and mental institutions, though in the last few months he managed to produce some sides for singer / songwriter Kenny Koontz. She recalls how kind he was "With all his problems he was still trying to help everyone else, the grandad of the block. When my grandma died he drove me the 2000 mile round trip for her funeral" Strangely the last song title James ever played bass on was Kenny Koontz' "LA Is The Place". ( I think we will all agree LA helped killed him) Within weeks James was bed ridden, one final evil blow struck this amazing soul, someone came into his home and stole his friend of 21 years, his 1962 Fender Precision. Two days later he sadly slipped away, almost forgotten and still unknown to the world. Slipped away just four months after the May 1983 NBC-TV broadcast of Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, in which neither James or the Funk Brothers, never got even one tiny mention, James Jamerson died from complications due to cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure, and pneumonia on August 2, 1983, at the University of Southern California County Hospital. More than 600 people paid their last respects to Jamerson in churches in Detroit and LA.
Callously overlooked in Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,. . . , the Funk Brothers finally got their due in the excellent 1997 ABC-TV special, Motown 40: The Music Is Forever, originally airing Sunday and Monday, February 15th and 16th. Despite his tragic latter life, James Jamerson is remembered by his family and peers as being a kind and giving man who was always willing to help. For the world's pop music lovers and to the countless musicians that he inspired, he's remembered as the genius whose core contributions helped define the Motown sound. And remember there isn't a solid bass guitarist living who isn't influenced by this great player.. whether they reolise it or not .. and that is fact.