Despite his indisputable genius, Jamerson’s increasingly erratic behavior and drinking problems had lowered his standing with Motown by the 1970s.

Musician. Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936, in Charleston, the son of James and Elizabeth Jamerson. He demonstrated an aptitude for music at an early age, playing piano by age ten, studying trombone in elementary school, and soaking in jazz, gospel, and blues music from local radio stations.

By 1954 Jamerson had moved to Detroit, where his mother had gone the previous year in search of employment. Enrolling in Detroit’s Northwestern High School, he took up a new instrument: the upright bass. He began playing with local jazz and blues bands, quickly establishing himself as one of the hottest bassists in the Motor City. He was soon in demand by most of Detroit’s recording labels. He then came to the attention of a songwriter and producer named Berry Gordy, the talented and ambitious owner of the fledgling Motown label. Jamerson began session work for Gordy around 1959. By the early 1960s, Jamerson had become “Motown’s premier groovemaster.” As a cornerstone of Motown’s renowned studio band, the “Funk Brothers,” Jamerson’s skill and style on the bass became legendary. He played on almost every Motown record during its 1963–1968 heyday, providing the groove for such immortal records as “Bernadette,” “Ain’t To Proud To Beg,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On. By some accounts, Jamerson played on more number one records than any musician in the history of rock and roll.

Despite his indisputable genius, Jamerson’s increasingly erratic behavior and drinking problems had lowered his standing with Motown by the 1970s. He moved to Los Angeles in 1973 and for a time enjoyed a full schedule of session work, touring, and recording. Alcohol and emotional problems, however, gradually eroded demand for his declining talents. Jamerson died in Los Angeles on August 2, 1983. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Miller, Michael. “From the Bottom to the Top, S.C. Bass Player Invented the Foundation of Motown Sound.” Columbia State, April 22, 2003, pp. D1, D3.

Slutsky, Allan. Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson. Milwaukee, Wis.: Hal Leonard, 1991.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Jamerson, James
  • Author Tom Downey
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/jamerson-james/
  • Access Date November 14, 2018
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 8, 2016
  • Date of Last Update November 1, 2016