Secrets Of The Motown Vault

December 1, 2009

0.0bp1209_jame_1354.jpgCALL IT A PERFECT STORM OF BASS. The setting is Studio A at Universal Mastering Studios East, in midtown Manhattan. Sitting at opposite ends of the board are Anthony Jackson and James Jamerson Jr., the world’s foremost authorities on the style and substance of Motown master James Jamerson. Harry Weinger, VP of A&R for Universal Music’s catalog division, with a menu of original session tapes at his fingertips, starts the Supremes’ 1968 single, “Reflections.” Instantly, and without noticing the other, Anthony and James Jr. begin intently playing air bass, each precisely matching the notes emanating from the speakers. And what notes they are. With several instruments turned off in our custom mix, and Jamerson’s bass boosted, his part is more than just ghost-in-the-machine groove, it’s a living, breathing entity that can physically move you—as we learn when one of his token drops causes our collective bodies to bend sideways in delighted reaction. Recalling his vault experience in BP’s December ’02 cover story.0.0bp1209_jamerson4.jpg

Standing in the Shadows of Motown author Allan Slutsky described Jamerson’s isolated tone as “reeking of bad breath, cheap booze, and body odor.” Our noses twitch at that very accurate notion while our ears marvel at the warm, round, slightly overdriven sound of the ’62 P-Bass “Funk Machine” captured direct to console.

It was at the suggestion of Slutsky, and with the aid of Weinger and his crack staff, that we decided to visit “the vault” to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Motown, the label that launched the legendary career of the father of the bass guitar. As James Jr. noted, “When you say, ‘the Motown sound,’ you might as well say my dad. Take his bass off all of those tracks and then see what you have. What still amazes me is how he developed a different style for each Motown artist; he could be busy for Stevie Wonder, melodic for Marvin Gaye, cool and laid-back for Smokey Robinson, deep and resonant for the Temptations, and come up with something else for the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Martha Reeves.” Indeed, for countless bassists worldwide, whether they knew his name or not, Jamerson forged the rudimentary template for the instrument, as well as the creative inspiration to reach higher on it. One teen disciple was Jackson, who recalls going to clubs and draping himself over the jukebox to feel Jamerson’s parts. “He was my greatest teacher. In my formative years on the bass guitar it’s astounding to think of how prolific he was; there was a new masterful performance hitting the airwaves every week. For me, in terms of contributions to his instrument and his art, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with such singular musical giants as Charles Ives, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix.”

Over the next four hours we would experience some of Jamerson’s best-known “hits” up close, enhanced with the secrets contained in the masters. An alternate vocal take of “I Was Made to Love Her” began with Stevie Wonder chiding, “It’s a crying shame that a sighted guy can’t work a recorder!” And laughing to a fellow musician, “You’re so wrong you can’t even do wrong right!” It ended with the discovery of a cello part in the fade that both doubled and played contrary to Jamerson’s famed bass line. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” revealed guitarist Robert White’s penchant for doubling the bass in overdubs, as well as eliciting one of James Jr.’s many straight-out leg thrusts—the same move his father made when a track was really happening. And with only the original room sound around it, “What’s Going On,” Jamerson’s personal favorite song and album of his work, sounded as fresh and relevant as if it were cut in Motown’s “Snakepit” last week. Adding to the vinyl-era vibe, ex-Supreme Mary Wilson phoned in to express her support for the proceedings.

The hits, however, were not what brought us together. We were on site to hear tracks hand-selected by Jackson and Jamerson Jr.; songs that for the most part were B-sides at best, but are seminal within the Jamerson lexicon [see sidebar]. To that end, the real find of the day occurred while searching for all the available multi-track masters of a song entitled “If You Let Me,” recorded by Jimmy Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and the Four Tops. On one of the tracks for Ruffin’s single version was a 1968 complete demo sung by the song’s composer and producer, Frank Wilson. As the tape rolled, a few warm-up tugs on the bass strings heard during the count-off were a telling sign. After a three-bar intro, Jamerson burst forth with a staggering steady- 16th-note part outlining the descending changes, mirrored by the string section soon after. With Wilson’s scratch vocal and a light drum part, it was the ultimate in-your-face subhook, almost over the top even for King James. Adding to the magic was James Jr.’s sudden realization that he was in the Snakepit the day it was recorded. He offered, “I remembered as soon as I heard the introduction. Frank always let Dad be himself. There was a period where live audiences were complaining the songs didn’t sound like the records, while coincidentally, the road bassists were complaining that dad’s parts were too hard to play, so Motown sort of reined him in for a while. This part probably reflects both the frustration of that situation and the start of his return to stretching out, which peaked with Marvin Gaye letting him loose on What’s Going On.”

As our time wound down, both appreciative aficionados reflected on the impact Jamerson had on their early playing careers. Said James Jr., “Of course, for me it started when I was 14 and at the session for ‘Flower Girl’ [from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ A Pocket Full of Miracles, 1970]. Dad stormed out for one reason or another, and Robert White and Earl Van Dyke told me to pick up his bass and play! That was my first recording. Dad was so busy with Motown, tracking all day and playing clubs at night that I’d see him at Hitsville as much as at home. Still, he was very helpful and supportive, insisting that I learn to play upright before I played bass guitar, guiding me, and later recommending me; he took pride in my career.” Jackson recalled, “There were no credits on the albums, so I didn’t know his name for years. Finally, it was listed it on the back of the Four Tops’ Still Waters Run Deep [1970] as, ‘Bass personified: James Jamerson.’” He continued, “When I started doing sessions, I was trying to do Jamesand- more, and none of the producers would have it; only Jamerson was allowed to play the way he did. But it was a great discipline; it forced you to find another way to make a powerful statement without shining the light in people’s eyes, so to speak; through judicious note choices, phrasing, touch, and dynamics—concepts I’d learned about from Jamerson in the first place.” Summed up James Jr., of this latest look at his father’s legacy, “Somewhere, dad is once again smiling, knowing his work wasn’t in vain. The one gig he always wanted was to be a music teacher at the high school or college level. Well look at all the players he has reached now; he’s teaching the world.”

“REFLECTIONS”

ALBUM: Reflections, Diana Ross & the Supremes, 1968

DESCRIPTION: Suitably trippy for the time, this brooding classic rides Jamerson’s bouncing groove rife with his singular brand of syncopation and chromaticism. Ex. 1 shows a typical four-bar transition between the verse and chorus.

Anthony: “To start with, the orchestration here is unheard of in pop, even 40 years later: Two electric guitars, bass guitar, simplified drum kit with hi-hat, bass drum and snare drum, accordion, Wurlitzer electric piano, piccolo, and string quartet. That was the brilliance of the writer-producers, Holland-Dozier-Holland. It’s also a class-one, outstanding Jamerson performance that shows his gift for musical solutions to complex challenges. His use of open strings, such as the A-naturals in bars 3 and 4, work more as a melodic line than notes that strictly follow the harmony, making them ‘extraharmonic.’ He knew taking a consonant set of changes and using chromatics for a melody creates great contrast; it moves by quickly and doesn’t linger, so there’s no sense of wrong-sounding notes.”

James Jr.: “In addition to the orchestration, given the limited amount of tracks Hitsville had, it’s fascinating to hear what instruments they would bounce to one track, like say, bongo, tambourine, and vibes. But they always kept Dad alone on his own track.”

“THE HAPPENING”

ALBUM: Diana Ross & the Supremes Greatest Hits, 1967

DESCRIPTION: What is essentially a show tune with a near-corny “two feel” co-written by L.A. film composer Frank DeVol becomes a laboratory for Jamerson. His between-the-beat ghost-notes, drops, and climbs single-handedly provide the feel and attitude, and make the song hip. Ex. 2 shows the first four bars of the verse, with a devastating drop in bar four that has to be heard isolated to be fully appreciated.

Anthony: “This track really shows Jamerson’s first-rank musicianship. The chord changes move around, alluding to different key centers, and there’s even some doubling of the melody in what was no doubt a written part. You can hear the effect of the passing tones he uses, being dictated often by open strings. Most remarkable is that when the tune goes up a half step, from G to Ab, most players would change their part, or at least where they play it. Jamerson doesn’t. He uses the same open strings to preserve the impact and integrity of his bass line.”

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 James Jr.: “The key here is this track was cut in Los Angeles with another bass player but then they sent it back to Detroit to rerecord the track; they felt it needed my Dad. The same thing happened later with the Temptations’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone.’ The producers at Motown in L.A. began to think that way: What would this song sound like if we put Jamerson on it?”

 “MUTINY”

ALBUM: Roadrunner & Home Cookin’, Junior Walker & the All-Stars, 1966 (cut in 1964 on three-track)

DESCRIPTION: A halftime-starting, doubletime- ending, swinging blues jam, with solos by Walker on alto sax, Victor Thomas on organ, and Jamerson on a pre-“Funk Machine” P-Bass. His intense, uprightfounded walking lines build to a breathtaking crescendo by track’s end and his solo is melodic and well paced. Ex. 3 shows three bars of his solo starting from the IV chord, at the 2:21 mark. Note the stock jazz lick in measures 1 and 3, and the thunderous drop in measure 2.

James Jr.: “When I first put this on the record player at home I was completely blown away. Dad came down the steps with a little smirk and was like, ‘Uh-huh; okay, let’s see you play this.’ Although he rarely talked about or wanted to hear Motown music at home, he would occasionally let me know when he liked something he played on, like What’s Going On, Shorty Long’s Here Comes the Judge [Soul, 1968] and Houston Person’s The Real Thing [Eastbound, 1973]. He came home with Houston’s album one night and said, ‘Your daddy did the thing on here.’”

“I’M WONDERING”

ALBUM: Stevie Wonder: Greatest Hits, 1968 (first issued as a single in 1967)

DESCRIPTION: A down-home, feel-good track jam-packed with textbook “Jamersonics.” Ex. 4 shows the four-bar chorus at the 0:14 mark. Note the numerous open-string and fretted passing tones and the delay in getting to the Ab root in bar 4 (with the Db on the downbeat, momentarily reharmonizing the chord).

Anthony: “This is a very bold, busy, improvised part loaded with notes outside the chord that are as important as the consonant notes; as such it almost functions as percussion accompaniment—it even sounds more heavily-muted, like he might have had more foam onboard that day. Because all the inside and outside notes are played in a repeated pattern the part sounds well thought out and not random. Still, by itself it doesn’t really suggest a lot. But in the context of the track it works splendidly. As I’ve speculated in the past, Jamerson likely conceived of his open-string approach to facilitate position shifts, particularly when followed by a fretted note on the next lower string in one raking motion. But it soon became an essential part of his style, as is visible here in bars 2 and 4, where some open strings are followed by ascending pitches.

“How was he able to play so many notes without sounding busy? In short, he simply had the magic formula—a musical intuition for how to give and take, and pick his spots. People have pointed to Benny Benjamin’s solid, steady style, with his trademark quarter- notes on the snare drum, as freeing up Jamerson, but I believe he still would have sounded the way he did without Benny. Together, they were a team without equal.” James Jr.: “Just incredible; my dad is dancing on the bass right there. I had to record that part verbatim for [guitarist] Al McKay; he wanted it exact—it kicked my butt around the room!”

“MY WHOLE WORLD ENDED (THE MOMENT YOU LEFT ME)”

ALBUM: My Whole World Ended, David Ruffin, 1969

DESCRIPTION: A medium pop tune with a bouncy, doubletime undercurrent that rides a (Four Tops) “Bernadette”-like ostinato shown in Ex. 5. A key to the line is the ghosted note on the second 16th of beat two, which Jamerson lays back on. While he repeats this figure through the C-Bb-F-C chord pattern, dig his in-between fills and climbs.

James Jr.: “This is one of my favorite tracks for the syncopation dad has going on and the way he’s digging in. He rarely finessed the bass, he would pull on the strings like he was playing his upright. As a result, he could make one note sound like a thousand. A lot of the younger bassists think he’s playing more notes than he is, and they overcompensate. They haven’t learned yet how to come with the power—how to make one note sing.”

“MY CHERIE AMOUR”

ALBUM: My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder, 1969

DESCRIPTION: The classic Stevie bossa is the best-known hit on our list and a stellar example of Jamerson’s modus operandi. Ex. 6 shows the first four bars of the verse, at the key change (1:56).

Anthony: “This is another top flight example of Jamerson’s mastery of an improvised bass line, which also happens to be well up in the mix. He starts off with simple roots in the intro, and when the verse enters he’s off to the races. Yet because he begins so sparsely there’s a sense of contrast and relief when he gets moving. He then plays each of the verses the same way, with minimal variation—even when he modulates— demonstrating complete control of the part. There’s no ego factor nor a sense of ‘wait till you hear my next set of licks in the second verse.’ Jamerson might play a complex phrase in a song but he would repeat it later, which showed he was listening and knew what he was doing. Also of note here is that due to a light drum part, the bass carries the groove. The Four Tops’ ‘Baby, I Need Your Loving’ is another example of this. It has an offbeat, Charleston-like drum part, so Jamerson’s upright provides the pulse and pushes the music forward.”

James Jr.: “The bass indeed carries the whole song rhythmically, and is important melodically, too. What caught my ear is the different tone of the bass; either dad was playing another P-Bass or more likely he had new strings on the Funk Machine.”

“TOO MANY FISH IN THE SEA”

ALBUM: The Marvelettes: Greatest Hits, 1966 (first issued as a single in 1964)

DESCRIPTION: Jamerson anchors this classic early-’60s groove with just two notes, waiting patiently to make it his own. Think Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” with a simpler bass line. The first measure and the first ending of Ex. 7 show the main bass part. The second ending contains a typical pickup he adds, starting at 1:58 and con- tinuing in subtly varied forms through the fade. Note the C on the last eighth-note of the second ending, an anticipation of the C coming on the downbeat of the next measure, without being tied to it, and held over the bar line. At other points Jamerson leads up the C downbeat chromatically.

Jackson: “I first heard this in someone’s car when I was 15 and it really made me sit up and take notice. Everyone plays their same parts throughout, until the end, where only Jamerson stretches out. Although under the radar, the impact of his musical decision, whether dictated to him or not, is as powerful and important as his more standout tracks. When it comes to Jamerson’s use of theme and development of a simple part, however, his performance on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Uptight’ is unsurpassed.”

“HOW LONG HAS THAT EVENING TRAIN BEEN GONE”

ALBUM: Love Child, Diana Ross & the Supremes, 1968

DESCRIPTION: A laid-back, ultra-funky 16th-note feel that brings to mind the kind of New York City grooves Chuck Rainey and Jerry Jemmott were playing at the time (with Jaco on the horizon). Anthony Jackson analyzed and transcribed the part for the Standing in the Shadows of Motown book/CD.

Anthony: “My cousin had a copy of Love Child so I put it on and this was the third song; by the time it was over I was in shock. I’d been listening the Jamerson for some time, but this was staggering. It became the song I’d practice to and work on first and last every day. All the key Jamerson elements are here, dissonance as an effect, use of open strings as both a rhythmic and melodic device, powerful groove, and great sound. It has been said that Chopin had a touch of the influence of two other pianists of his time, but for the most part he came out of nowhere, much of his music was not as easily digested and was technically demanding. The same can be said of James Jamerson. Even five decades on his genius is just impossible to trace.”

James Jr.: “Man, ‘How Long’ is one funky track. If he could have kept playing like this I often wonder where else he could he have taken it to. There might have been a whole ’nother level after that!”

“HONEY BEE”

ALBUM: Love Child, Diana Ross & the Supremes, 1968

DESCRIPTION: A bright, eighth-note-driven track that’s deeper than it seems.

Anthony: “On the surface it sounds almost like a throwaway track that the Funk Brothers just went in and ran down. But it’s classic Jamerson: heavily muted, aggressive, not that many notes, and strong. The second chorus opens with James playing a rake so powerful it stands as a peak example of him using that particular technique; it’s the E on the D string, down to the B on the A string, to the open E—real fast and twice in a row.”

James Jr.: “It’s one of my favorite Motown tracks; it really moves.”

“IF YOU LET ME”

DEMO: Producer Frank Wilson on vocals for Jimmy Ruffin version, 1968 (Ruffin version issued on single as “If You Let Me, I Know I Can”)

ALBUM: People... Hold On, Eddie Kendricks, 1972

DESCRIPTION: The first four measures of the verse bass line in the demo version described in the main story are shown in Ex. 8. Most intriguing is how Jamerson plays the 16th-notes straight against a feel that has a 16th-note swing to it. Also, note his use of C# ’s against the D chord in the last two beats of bar two. His decision to dispense with the harmonically correct D likely has to do with him thinking ahead to the octave-5th-root shape on beat four. Equally impressive is Eddie Kendrick’s reggae shuffle version, with Jamerson’s deep, bouncing groove and sextuplet pickups seemingly impossible to play with one finger (he also plays the correct F# -D interval over the D chord in the example above). Although not heard the day we were in the vault, the Four Tops’ version of the song—on their 1972 album, Nature Planned It—is closer in feel to the Wilson demo, but with Jamerson scaling back from 16ths to eighth-notes.

Anthony: “Both are great tracks. My feeling is the demo line was probably not written; perhaps Wilson showed him a basic idea on piano and Jamerson ran with it.”

 “IT’S WONDERFUL (TO BE LOVED BY YOU)”

ALBUM: Ruff ’N Ready, Jimmy Ruffin, 1969

DESCRIPTION: A well-written, eighth-notebased pop song that cleverly pivots between C major and C minor.

Anthony: “I first came across it many years later on the BBC; the single was only released in the U.K. It’s just a great song with a terrific, active Jamerson performance.” James Jr.: “This is my first time hearing this song and it is wonderful! I probably haven’t heard half of my Dad’s work, they did so much recording. And there are songs I remember listening to while they were being cut that I’ve never heard on record or radio. Often, after the take I’d ask Dad who it was for he’d say, ‘I don’t know, whoever.’”

“SHOE LEATHER EXPRESSWAY”

ALBUM: Sugar n’ Spice, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, 1969

DESCRIPTION: A funky bass riff and openvoiced chords on acoustic piano make for an offbeat but compelling track. Ex. 9a shows the two-bar phrase, which is always the same in bar 1, with bar 2 serving as an improvised or fill measure. Here, note the ultimate Jamerson “extra-harmonic”: landing on the Bn on the (second) downbeat of a Gm7 chord. Ex. 9b shows the killer bass break at 1:39.

Anthony: “This is a stellar example of Jamerson’s use of dynamics, which is the key to making his repetitive part breathe. The highly original track also reminds that Motown was a collection of people who knew just how far to push, from Berry Gordy on down. Especially the Funk Brothers, who always seemed to find a niche—even if their parts were written—and do their own thing, while maintaining the wishes of the composer, producer, arranger, and artist.”

JAMERSON FILE

LIFESPAN: Born January 29, 1936, in Edisto Island, South Carolina. Died August 2, 1983, in Los Angeles, California, from a combination of cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure, and pneumonia.

MOTOWN CAREER: 1959-1979. An upright bassist by training, he first picked up a P-Bass in 1961 on the advice of bassist Horace “Chili” Ruth.

KEY NON-MOTOWN ARTISTS: Jackie Wilson (“Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher”); The Sylvers (“Boogie Fever”); Al Wilson (“Show and Tell”); The Hues Corporation (“Rock the Boat”); The Crusaders

BASSES & STRINGS: Jamerson favored Fender Precision Basses, having a few stolen until in 1966 he found “The Funk Machine,” a stock sunburst ’62 P-Bass with high action, foam under the bridge cover, and LaBella flatwounds gauged .052-.110. According to James Jr., the E and A strings were “killer,” and the Bb on the A string “just exploded from the bass.” Although his father would occasionally polish the body, he would never touch the gunky buildup on the fingerboard, famously noting, “The dirt keeps the funk.” Unfortunately, the instrument, on which Jamerson carved the word “funk” into the neck heel and filled it in with blue ink, remains missing. His Motown German-built upright, however, now resides in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

AMPS AND RECORDING: Generally, when Motown switched from three-track to a hand-built eight-track recorder, Jamerson recorded direct at Motown’s Hitsville Studio A, plugging into one of five wall inputs. He would boost the volume on the input to get the VU meter slightly in the red, giving him a bit of warm overdrive from the tube console. A Fairchild limiter and Pultec EQ also figure into his sound, which he heard through a Bozak studio monitor. Later sessions would sometimes include a miked Ampeg B-15.

TECHNIQUE: It has become legend that Jamerson plucked only with his index finger, notoriously known as “the Hook.” James Jr. supports this, saying his Dad played upright the same way. Jackson, however, recalls Jamerson using two fingers when trying out Jackson’s bass in their lone meeting. Usually, Jamerson plucked the strings just in front of the metal pickup cover, with his thumb hanging freely and his pinky, index, and middle fingers anchored on the cover.

AJ & JJ

Although they hadn’t seen each other since the 1989 book release party for Standing In the Shadows of Motown, Anthony Jackson and James Jamerson Jr. have much in common besides their expertise in Funk Brother #1. Both are working on feature projects. Jamerson Jr., who can list the Temptations, Teena Marie, Chaka Khan, the Crusaders, and his ’70s session-man band Chanson among his extensive credits, is more than halfway through the recording of his solo debut with the help of Cameo saxman Melvin Wells. He plans on releasing his cover of “I’ll Be There,” in tribute to the late Michael Jackson, as an advance single. Anthony Jackson, who after the vault visit appeared as a guest speaker at “The Motown Legacy” class being taught by Harry Weinger at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, is putting the wraps on a new project by Greek composer/bassist Yiorgos Fakanas [BP, Dec. ’08]. The CD showcases the bass work of both men, with music orchestrated for a large ensemble that includes Dave Weckl, Frank Gambale, and Mitch Forman.

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