“Dad would never touch the gunk that had built up on the fingerboard. He told me, ‘The dirt keeps the funk’”: Inside the sound and style of Motown master James Jamerson

James Jamerson Jr. attends the opening night of "Motown The Musical" at The Fisher Theatre on October 22, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. Photo of Hank CROSBY and Larry VEEDER and Joe HUNTER and James JAMERSON and Mike TERRY and FUNK BROTHERS and Benny BENJAMIN Studio still life of a 1992 Fender James Jamerson Tribute Precision Bass guitar, photographed in the United Kingdom.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There’s a scene in the 2002 film Standing in the Shadows of Motown where Nathan Watts and Ralphe Armstrong take turns lying on their backs in Hitsville's Studio A while playing the bassline from Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, trying to recreate how James Jamerson reportedly recorded his part. It's a fitting image, because Jamerson has been flooring bassists for years. 

Unfortunately, mass recognition for the pioneering bass genius didn't come until after his 1983 death at age 47. Six years later, Allan “Dr.Licks” Slutsky's Hal Leonard book/tape package, Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, brought on the first wave of props, culminating in Jamerson's election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. 

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Chris Jisi was Contributing Editor, Senior Contributing Editor, and Editor In Chief on Bass Player 1989-2018. He is the author of Brave New Bass, a compilation of interviews with bass players like Marcus Miller, Flea, Will Lee, Tony Levin, Jeff Berlin, Les Claypool and more, and The Fretless Bass, with insight from over 25 masters including Tony Levin, Marcus Miller, Gary Willis, Richard Bona, Jimmy Haslip, and Percy Jones.