Most often, many gifted people are recognized first far beyond their homes. Some are only appreciated after they are dead and the scope of their work and contributions are realized in retrospect. South Carolina native James Jamerson is one of those people. Ask the average person on the street who were the Funk Brothers and they’ll give you a puzzled look. But ask him or her to hum the music of their favorite Motown tune and they know every note and part.
Born on Edisto Island on January 29, 1936, Jamerson moved with his mother to Detroit’s west side in 1953 after his parents divorced. Things that made sounds fascinated the boy. In the movie, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown,” Jamerson is quoted as telling a friend he made his first musical instrument by stretching a rubber band on a stick and sticking it into an ant hill so he could, “make the ants dance.” By the time he got to Detroit’s Northwestern High School he began playing the upright bass. He also picked his other lifelong partner and, shortly before graduation, married Annie Wells.
Within a year of picking up the bass he was playing with professional musicians and mentored by some of Detroit’s greats such as Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef. Upon graduation from high school Jamerson was offered a musical scholarship to Wayne State University, but turned it down to play professionally in order to support Annie who was expecting the first of their four children.
In 1958, Jamerson began doing sessions for a number of labels to include Northern, Tri-Phi, Fortune and Anna Records that was owned by Gwen Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister. Jamerson was the “bassman in demand” and his rep as a talented young player grew quickly. Gigs picked up. Berry Gordy heard him and in 1959 brought him into Motown’s Studio A at 2648 West Grant Boulevard.
Even after Jamerson became a regular “Hitsville, USA” (Motown’s nickname) session’s player, he continued to play with a number of bands, including Jackie Wilson’s. While touring with Wilson in 1961, he switched from the upright to an electric Fender Precision bass. Legend has it he mastered the instrument in two weeks. But it was while playing with Wilson that he invented the way the bottom end sounds on Motown records.