From Bass Player Magazine SPRING 1990 (used by Permission)
James Jamerson: Interview With
Ghosts are people who died with unfinished business, or so they say. Trapped in the ethereal mists, they are forced to haunt the land of mere mortals until their business is concluded. For several years before his tragic death in 1983, James Jamerson tried in vain to interest the media in his story. Unfortunately, there were only a few takers (most notably, Dan Forte of Guitar Player and Nelson George of Billboard), and the full story of Jamersonís accomplishments was never told.
The Ghost Of Studio A
By Dr. Licks
The great Motown bassist died with this unfinished task on his mind. By 1987, he was nearly a forgotten man-even to most bass players. That same year, I began breaking ground for the book/cassette documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown: The Life And Music Of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson. After some detective work which led me to Jamersonís widow Annie, I took off for Detroit, royalty contract in hand, to negotiate a simple James Jamerson Motown bass line book. Little did I know that someone was looking over my shoulder.
What was supposed to be a one-hour meeting turned into three days, as tale after tale poured out from Jamersonís family, friends, and fellow musicians. As they fondly recalled his impact on their lives and music, it became increasingly apparent that a book of transcriptions wasnít going to be enough. The story was much bigger than just a collection of bass lines. It would grow even larger when I had my first visit from the ghost.
I had been up until 3:00 A.M. talking to Annie Jamerson, and she suggested that I take a nap on her couch before my 6:30 A.M. flight back to Philadelphia. Lying there in the dark, I was in awe as the realization swept over me that this was the house where James Jamerson lived while helping to create pop masterpieces such as "I Was Made To Love Her," "Get Ready," "Ainít Nothing Like The Real Thing," "You Keep Me Hanging On," and dozens more by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and many other Motown artists.
As I recalled the events and conversations of the last three days, something directed my attention to the wall behind the stairway. I was suddenly transfixed by a large photo of James. As we stared at each other, it was almost as if he were saying, "Help me get my story out."
While I never got the chance to speak with James about his music, I interviewed the Funk Brothers-the great Motown rhythm section led by keyboardist Earl Van Dyke-and many other musicians who played with him during the "glory years" of Motown (1963-68). And, most important, I spent many hours talking to his son, James Jr. Drawing on that background, I constructed this interview with the ghost of James Jamerson.
* * *
Your Motown career entailed massive output and great variety and creativity. Was the hit-factory mentality stressful?
No, not in the beginning. But towards the end of the í60s, it started to get on my nerves. We were recording around the clock, sometimes six and seven days a week, and it got to the point where we started hiding out at local bars and clubs just to get the hell away from the studio and the producers.
It was also hard to play the same stuff over and over. Motown began recutting songs that had hit earlier with other groups. Like recording "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" with Marvin Gaye a year after Gladys Knight and the Pips hit with the same song. [Ed. Note: The original versions of most Motown albums are out of print, but many of the songs mentioned in this interview can be found on current anthologies. For transcriptions of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and 46 more Jamerson bass lines, refer to Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.] Taking something you had recorded previously and redoing it in a totally different style with all new ideas was tough, because you always heard the original version in your head. Then youíd get angry at yourself and play it a different way just to get out of the studio.
During the glory years of Motown, were your working conditions very different from the early í60s, when you were with Jackie Wilson and then the Miracles?
Well, we werenít cutting as much in the early days of Motown. And besides, in 1960 and í61, I had only been playing bass for about a year or so, and I was basically just digging into my jazz thing from playing upright, because thatís all I knew. Jackieís music wasnít very sophisticated harmonically, and neither was the early Miracles stuff. A lot of that music was easy 12/8-feel ballads or shuffles that I could play standard walking-bass type things on.
But even then, my style was different from the rest of the guys on the scene. It was more syncopated and chromatic. Iíd probably have to credit that to my jazz background also. If you check out a í62 Marvelettes tune called "Strange I Know," you can hear how I was taking a standard í50s type of line and giving it a new twist.
Were your approaches to the upright and electric much different?
That depends on what period of my life youíre talking about. In the early í60s, when I had only been playing Fender bass for a few years, I was trying to play it more like an upright because that was my background. By around í64, I started to find my own identity on the electric and started moving away from the walking-type things I had been doing. But donít get me wrong, I still walked on electric. One of my favorite Fender walking parts was "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game" by the Marvelettes. I was nasty on that. Paul Chambers would have been proud of me.
When did arrangers start writing specific parts for you, as opposed to just giving you chord sheets?
Around í67-í68, particularly when [songwriters] Ashford and Simpson came in. They started to put reins on me a little bit, but Iíd still stick stuff in that was all me. Nobody could really write for me, because Iíd always come up with a better part than was on the paper. A lot of times, these guys were just writiní out old lines of mine anyway and using them in new tunes. On Marvin Gayeís "Whatís Going On?" Dave Van dePitte had studied my style and wrote out a whole bunch of my old lines that worked in that tune.
All your parts were distinctive, but you really seemed to shine more with certain stars than others. Why?
There were two reasons for that. Take the Supremes or the Contours. Their music didnít need real busy types of lines. The simple stuff worked better for them. You got to play what works best for the artist, not yourself. Now on Stevie Wonder, or Marvin Gaye, or the Four Tops stuff, Iíd really lay into it. Also, if I liked the person a lot, Iíd put out a lot more. Like Shorty Long. Most people just remember him for that "Here Comes The Judge" shit, but he was one of the funkiest guys at Motown. I loved that guy, and my bass playing on his records showed it. The Here Comes The Judge album is some of my best work.
Did you miss the road after Berry Gordy pulled you off in 1964?
Once in a while, but for the most part, I was happy to be at home with my family. I loved to cook and eat, and I couldnít do that on the road. I couldnít get shit to eat when I wanted it the way I wanted it. Even in the late í70s, when I did roadwork it was lousy. I remember I used to make everybody sick on the Joan Baez tour I was doiní at the time, because Iíd be backstage before a show eating sardines out of a tin can. That ainít no way to live.
How did your live playing differ from your studio approach?
Not at all. Your approach should change from song to song and artist to artist, but where youíre playing shouldnít make a difference. Let the sound crew worry about that stuff. I know guys who play simpler in a big boomy hall. Thatís wrong, see? You got to play what you feel, ícause if you hold back, youíre not giving the audience your best, which is what they paid for. You could say that I tried to make my live performances like a record date, in that I wanted them to be perfect.
Many people told me that you could make the Fender sound like an upright and vice-versa. How did you do that?
I think the two sounded similar because I treated the Fender the same way as the upright in a lot of ways, like using a lot of open strings and fingering the Fender like an upright. I used that half-position a lot down low, where a lot of electric bassists get into guitar fingering. My hands were unusually strong from originally being an upright player. I think most guys who went right to electric donít have the hand strength, so itís hard to get that upright sound. Probably the most important reason, though, was that I always picked with just my index finger, and that gave me an evenness and consistency in my sound. It didnít matter what kind of instrument I was playing. It always sounded like me.
James Jr. told me that you never used any other fingers on your right hand, no matter how complex the passage was. Itís hard to believe that you could execute a very technical bass part like "Bernadette" and pull it off so cleanly with just one finger.
Thatís why they called that finger "The Hook." This first finger of mine would be danciní around pretty good on my bass when I was in the mood. If Wes Montgomery was playing all that fast stuff with just his thumb, why couldnít I do the same thing with just my index finger? But see, I didnít do it for show. I did it for the sound-always the sound.
With your open-string concept, you created many interesting dissonances in some straight-ahead pop harmonies. It was very adventurous for the times.
The open-string thing wasnít as planned out as you make it sound. On the upright bass, itís a standard technique to play an open string almost like a ghost note to help you shift positions or cross over strings. The dissonance only sounds for a very short time. Itís actually a lazy trick to cover up the position shifts. But sometimes, I did kind of lay on a dissonant note because I liked the effect and the tension it created. Especially in the flat keys where the open strings arenít diatonic. Like in "Home Cookiní" by Junior Walker. The tune is in Ab, but Iím playing all these open Dís. Your ear tells you something is a little strange there, but it works. I could have played Eb instead of the open Dís, but it wouldnít have sounded as good and it would have played and felt more stiff. The big thing about the open-string technique is that it wonít work as well with the modern roundwound strings. Theyíre too alive, so the dissonances become overbearing.
Your bass, and the way it was set up, was critical in your approach, wasnít it?
My thing was heavy bottom. Thatís why I played a Fender Precision, and thatís why I used LaBella flatwounds. That was the only combination that gave me the sound I wanted. You canít get that with a lot of the modern basses and them rubber-band strings that everyone is playing now. I wanted my bass to sound like a bass-big, fat, and round. You also never hear fret buzzing on any of my performances and again, that was because of the flatwounds. My action was very high, which also helped a lot. Most bassists couldnít play my bass, but it felt easy to me because I was used to the upright. And the mute and the bell that most bassists usually take off-hell, thatís half the sound. [Ed. Note: For many years, stock Precision Basses had a metal bridge cover with a foam rubber string mute and a metal "bell" over the pickup.] They ainít just pieces of hardware for looks. And another thing, I hardly ever changed strings; not unless they broke or started to unravel. I used to say, "The dirt keeps the funk."
The key to my approach was that I wanted to lay down the bottom for the whole recording. I didnít want to solo and I didnít want to draw too much attention to myself. I just wanted to make the rhythm section kick ass so that people would get up and dance. My bass was set up to do just that. There was one time I did solo for Motown. That was on a cut called "Mutiny" by Junior Walker. I really took it out, but that was rare for me.
On some of the new Motown CDs, you can hear your playing very distinctly. There is amazing variation in your touch. You push certain notes and lay back on others, and not just on obvious accents.
Stevie Wonderís "Uptight" is a great example. If I felt I had to be strong on a certain note, Iíd play it that way. Or if I needed to lay back somewhere, Iíd do that. Itís all in the attitude. And not just pushing the notes but pushing and pulling the beat around also. Sometimes, I would stretch the key and the beat out so far, the band couldnít find where the beat was at. At times, it would get so funky there was too much music for the singers to handle, and weíd have to recut the whole damn song. I was just trying to make things interesting. If you constantly have a solid one and two and three and four, what you get is Lawrence Welk. You have to create tension rhythmically as well as harmonically. You donít always have a strong downbeat in every measure. You can tie some notes over on beat one, or use a rest and come in on the upbeat.
But thatís all very technical. I really didnít think about those things. I just did them and felt them. Dig this-this is the kind of approach I like more: When you walk down the street, is every footstep the exact same way? Of course not. Musicís the same way-it has to breathe. My best ideas didnít come from textbooks or computers or synthesizers. They came from life. Just look at a flower, or a wave in the ocean, or the way someone walks, and if you really look close, youíll see music in those things. Visual images are very important to a musicianís creativity.
One of my favorite Motown tunes is the Isley Brothersí "This Old Heart Of Mine." Your performance was a sign of things to come in rock, particularly when you pedaled those eighth-note roots.
Yeah, I was hearing a lot of rock and roll bands in the late í70s getting into that kind of thing. But I did it in í65. On that tune, I needed something driving, and it just felt right. My style was to have no style at all. You couldnít predict what I would do. "Too Many Fish In The Sea" [by the Marvelettes] could be played by a little kid, it was so simple and easy. But then youíd get into "For Once In My Life"[by the Temptations], "Reach Out" [by the Four Tops], and songs like that, and I was all over the place.
Again, you have to go with what the song needs and how you feel. Take songs like "Precious Love" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell or "Get Ready" by the Temptations. I had to play those lines exactly the same every time because I was being doubled by the guitar. On "Too Many Fish," nobody was doubling me, but still I kept it the same every time. You canít make rules and get too analytical. Go with your heart, and it will always be right.
Motown producer/songwriter Frank Wilson said that when you played, it was "a song within a song." What do you think he meant by that?
I didnít want to play standard bass patterns my whole career. I mean, I had some stock things that I would dip into from time to time, but I usually tried to hear something in my head and communicate it to my fingers. Even when I played a root-fifth type of figure, I always tried to make it melodic. Bass players are allowed to play melody, you know. Like on "Bernadette." Thatís built off a root-fifth thing, but you can sing it like a song. Probably my best melodic performance was on the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell version of "Ainít No Mountain High Enough." I should have written a pop tune off that melody. I could have retired to Jamaica. A lot of bass players play patterns because they fit nicely under their hands. When you just play what you hear and feel, it takes you into places on the neck where it might be harder to play, but you have to get over that. Otherwise, youíre just a machine.
You used to mess around a lot at Motownís Studio A, didnít you? Goofing around was a big part of the scene with you and the rest of the Funk Brothers.
Well, probably me more than anyone else. See, now I donít have any problems: no pressure, no heartaches-just total peace. But it amazes me when I think how crazy I was sometimes with all the fightiní and drinkiní. In that situation, you had to do some crazy things just to keep from losing it. You know what itís like to cut a track over and over-25, 30 times in a row? Iíd play it differently each time, and theyíd all be good, but they kept making me do it over. On one Smokey session, we were doing a song called "Flower Girl" and I got so sick of repeating it, I stormed out of the studio. My son was sitting there, and when I walked out, he wound up cutting the song. But usually, Iíd just start messiní around to lighten things up before I walked. Otherwise, I might have hit somebody.
How important were [keyboardist] Earl Van Dyke, [guitarist] Robert White, and the rest of the Funk Brothers to your musical groove and your emotional stability?
My eventual failure in Los Angeles should tell you that. [Ed. Note: Motown Records moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. Although Jamerson and other musicians followed, the Funk Brothers never worked together again.] That was the baddest rhythm section in the history of the world. I loved those guys. It was such a creative experience. I understood them, and they knew where I was coming from. Going out to the West Coast, where no one knew who I was and what I could do, was frustrating. A lot of the time, they just made me read-no creativity at all. I had a hard time with that. The Funk Brothers were like my family, and I guess I needed to be surrounded by that to be at my best musically.
There was so much magic in your Precision Bass. The Funk Brothers looked at it with a kind of reverence. Its theft in 1983 must have hit you hard.
That almost killed me more than the booze. We had been together day and night for 20 years. But Iíll tell you, I know exactly where it is. The only problem is, weíre not allow to interfere with stuff in the world of the living. You know, they got their rules up here, just like Berry Gordy did at Motown. Who knows? Maybe the person will come forward and turn it in. Iíd love to see it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Any parting words for our readers?
Yeah. Iíd like to thank all those bassists you got to participate in the Standing In The Shadows book. I never dreamed that everyone would come out for me like that. It was really an honor. Itís nice to know I wasnít forgotten.
Jamerson Sidebar - Help Us Find The Funk Machine
James Jamerson played the bass lines for dozens of hit songs on one instrument: his 1962 Fender Precision. This bass, known as "The Funk Machine," is one of the most important instruments in the history of popular music. Unfortunately, it was stolen from Jamersonís Los Angeles house shortly before his death in 1983.
Bass Player would like to see "The Funk Machine" where it belongs: in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. With the co-operation of Fender Musical Instruments, we are offering a simple swap. Return Jamersonís bass to us and you will receive a brand-new í62 Precision from Fenderís Vintage series. No questions asked.
The authenticity of any instrument submitted will be determined by James Jamerson Jr. "The Funk Machine" is described in Standing In The Shadows Of Motown this way: "There was nothing extraordinary about it. It was a stock í62 sunburst Fender Precision … The only part of the instrument that wasnít stock was the heel of the neck, where James had carved the word ĎFunkí into the wood and filled it in with blue ink." In addition to the carving, there are some other characteristics which only Jamersonís son would recognize.
If you think you might have Jamersonís bass (or if you have information about its location), please call us at (650) 513-4414. Help us put this historic instrument into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
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