When you think “Motown,” iconic songs like Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” or the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” come to mind. The record label’s signature sound featured polished, well-produced vocals and backgrounds over a hard-grooving rhythm section, with songwriting that easily crossed over to the pop market. But it didn’t necessarily start that way. Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records in January 1959 after several years in the industry as a songwriter (he penned the Jackie Wilson hit “Lonely Teardrops”), and the earliest releases were fairly conventional for the time. However, as the fledgling label grew, glimpses of genius began to appear, and the paradigm-altering bass contributions of James Jamerson can be heard in their nascent form.
The first single released by Tamla was “Come to Me” by Marv Johnson, a classic I–VI–IV–V progression played with a gospel-influenced even-eighth-note feel. Even at this early stage, Berry must have understood the power of a strong bass line, as he has the upright bass tripled with bass vocals and baritone sax. While Jamerson did start recording for Gordy in 1959, this session was said to be anchored by “Professor” Joe Williams on bass. However, a conversation with Andy Skurow, vault manager, reissue producer, and Motown historian at Universal Music Group revealed that James Jamerson is in fact listed as the player on this track in the liner notes of The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 1. While he admits that Motown didn’t really get its personnel record-keeping solid until mid 1962, this info comes from the official source. Listening to the song, there is nothing to suggest it’s him either way. The performance is solid if not exceptional, but it was a period of rapid growth for the young player. The bass plays a typical rhumba-type triad line hitting on beat one, the “and” of beat two, and the downbeats of three and four, which I introduced in an earlier column as the tresillo rhythm. The baritone sax, however, uses an eighth/quarter/eighth syncopated figure on beat three that anticipates the downbeat of the next bar. It’s kinda funky. Doubling the sax is a bass vocalist (singing “bum, bum, bum, bum”) placed very high in the mix. While these discrepancies cause some slop, the blend makes it sound like the upright is playing a much busier part—perhaps foreshadowing things to come. Example 1a shows the upright line, while Ex. 1b is the baritone-sax part—by today’s highly sanitized pop production ethos, it’s hard to imagine something like this making it on to a record, but by the end of the track, all three bass instruments have congealed into a unified groove.
While the first Tamla/Motown track Jamerson played on has been subject to question, in his groundbreaking book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Alan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky states that “Way Over There” by the Miracles is the first significant track that can be definitively credited to James. An interesting point about this song is it was recorded and released several times. They are identified primarily by the instrumentation: The first version is without strings, while the second has lush orchestration. The first version is a rougher performance with audibly out-of-tune rhythm guitar, poorly recorded bass, and an overall lack of polish to the mix. But from a bass-playing standpoint, the track is a formative moment in Jamerson’s career, and it gives us a glimpse into his developing concept when compared to his second shot at the tune. The song is a simple I–VIm vamp in Ab, except the original version has a brief interlude at the 1:52 mark where the bass plays the 5th under the I chord before going to the VIm. The second version replaces it with an orchestrated string break over the normal progression before the outro vamp.
Example 2a shows the basic pattern James plays over the vamp, a Latin rhythm that was in common use. As you listen to the track, you can hear James altering the pattern, but not in the thematic way he would eventually master, as he was still searching for the part. Example 2b simplifies the pattern in the first bar with a half-note—the space feels good, but he only does it once. He experiments with a half-note in the second bar of the phrase (Ex. 2c), but once again, he does not repeat it. Example 2d is a busier variation that introduces the idea of the repeated Eb note; he does this a few times, but eventually drifts back to the original idea in Ex. 2a. Still, it is interesting to note its similarity to the rock-solid pattern on the second version of “Way Over There” (Ex. 3). No longer fishing for his line, Jamerson approaches the part with a firm attack and authority, providing the rhythmic drive he became famous for. Examining the two parts, there are many similarities, but the extra pickup note on the “and” of beat three makes a surprisingly big difference in the line’s effect. The repeated Eb gently breaks the mold of a typical upright part, and with Gordy’s improved production, the bass sits front-and-center in the mix, pumping the thump for perhaps the first time on a Tamla/Motown record. The "strings" version of "Way Over There" was also remixed for the 1961 album Hi! We're the Miracles, as well as a remix for a compilation called Ooo, Baby Baby.
James Jamerson’s history at the label is epic, and there are many gems, groundbreakers, and blown minds ahead as we look deeper into the work of this giant of the bass. In addition to Dr. Licks’ book, it is mandatory that you watch the film adaptation. This part-dramatized, part-documentary film features many of the then-surviving members of the Funk Brothers, the fabled group of players that made up Motown’s session crew, of which Jamerson was the undisputed King of Bass. In addition, check out my book The R&B Masters; The Way They Play [Backbeat Books], which features a chapter on James and his contribution not only to our instrument, but to the world of R&B Gold. Special thanks to Paul Damien Barker at the Motown Museum, and Andy Skurow, for their invaluable help.
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee. edfriedland.com