He has been called the most influential electric bass player in the history of rock and roll by his peers. The most noted comments came in a 1995 interview, when Paul McCartney recalled his training on the instrument, saying "I started listening to other bass players, mainly Motown. As time went on, James Jamerson became my hero . . . because he was so good and melodic." Motown founder Barry Gordy described him as "a genius on the bass . . . an incredible improviser in the studio and somebody I always wanted on my sessions."
James "Igor" Jamerson was the undisputed anchor of the Motown house band known as "The Funk Brothers." With the drummers Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, the famously unknown rhythm section played on more number one hits than the Beatles. The Sound of Young America pumped out successful 45s throughout the 1960s with nary a session credit mentioned anywhere on record sleeves or newspaper stories. It took he 1988 book by Alan Slutsky on Jamerson and the subsequent excellent documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown to bring Jamerson and other Funk Brothers to the forefront. [The story of Jamerson's recording of the bass lines on Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On is worth a view of the movie alone.]
Jamerson died tragically at the young age of 45 in 1983. He was posthumously elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. It would have been his birthday today, so let's celebrate his genius by spinning a few of his most endearing performances:
Taken from the rarely seen documentary Save The Children, Marvin Gaye sings 'What's Goin' On" and "What's Happening Brother" in concert from 1973. About 2:30 into the clip, watch for Jamerson and observe his unique index finger bass playing style (known as "the hook").
Now isolate the bass on your stereo and marvel at the bass line Jamerson delivers on Stevie Wonder's smash "I Was Made To Love Her."
And one of the crowning achievements of the Motown catalog: The Four Tops sing "Bernadette" in 1967. Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Levi Stubbs on lead vocal. Jamerson scales the heights of the bass matching the driving beat of Benny Benjamin.