IT’S MASTERCLASS, EVERYONE, WHICH means a detailed dissection of a bass line played by a high-level pro, along with insight from the player who gave us this amazing thing to learn from. But this one’s different in that our featured artist, Nashville-based A-list producer/bassist/ songwriter Tommy Sims, consciously sought to emulate someone he’d been studying for years: the immortal James Jamerson. And when someone who’s written, played, and produced for Eric Clapton (“Change the World,” anybody?), Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Kelly Clarkson, CeCe Winans, the Neville Brothers, and Garth Brooks says he’s studying someone, it’s best to just listen to what he has to say in full.
“Jamerson’s brand of Motown was like ‘oldie but goodie’ music when I was growing up. I’d been hearing it practically every day since I was born, but when I got to record-buying age, it was Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Verdine White, Boosty Collins, Stanley Clarke, and later Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller. That was what I had to go through before I could circle around and really be able to hear Jamerson. I heard my uncles and older guys talk about Jamerson, but I just couldn’t hear what they were saying, because it was kind of ‘old fogey’ to me and my crew. We didn’t know shit, of course. Poppin’ and slappin’ all day long—if those other cats were college, then Jamerson was graduate work. I had to grow into his thing before I could even hear what he was doing and how it had the power to literally write the song. He was Gershwin. The standard.”
Sims’s road to Jamerson University started as a Chicago kid from a musical household. He picked up a beater Sears bass at age 11 and took just six weeks of formal lessons. That led to playing gospel music at his grandfather’s church, a quick move over to other instruments in high school while soaking up Detroit R&B, music study at Western Michigan University, and eventually commuting between sessions in Nashville and L.A. before Bruce Springsteen picked him up for a tour in 1992, launching his career into the stratosphere. All the while, playing bass as masterfully as he did was only a small part of his overall package—as evidenced by legendary soul singer Michael McDonald hiring Sims to produce 1997’s Blue Obsession [Ramp]. The disc’s opening track, “All I Need” (which Sims co-wrote), is one of the most authentic modern homages to Jamerson that’s ever been laid down, by explicit design. “I was just doing my best impression of Jamerson and the Funk Brothers thing,” says Sims. “That was the premise of the song, so we just tried to follow that through, right down to the double drum track thing they used to do. We were just trying to capture that feel.”
Sims took no chances with the tone, using a mid-’70s Fender Jazz with a little foam stuck in the bridge (to ever-so-slightly mute the notes), direct into a Neve board with no compression during tracking, with both pickups up and the tone knob rolled all the way off. Most important, he cut the track with his thumb and index finger only, “just like the man himself used to do it.” When it came time to play, Sims didn’t mess around, either. In Ex. 1, he starts off with some classic Jamerson syncopations and chromatic passing tones in bars 1–3 (note the F# , C# , G# , and A# ), keeping most notes short and laying hard into each bar’s last eighth-note. It’s tricky enough playing it with traditional fingering; how about trying it with your index finger only? Tough stuff.
Now check out the monster lick in bar 4; it’s pure Jamerson goodness, but it also emphasizes one of Sims’s trademark moves, the 5th scale tone (in this case, B) under the I (tonic) chord, E. “That’s one of my favorite things—when the opportunity arises—to play the 5th counter to the I. That’s a very gospel thing to do. It makes the I much more reverent.” Sims goes there again in the last bar of the seven-bar phrase, leading into a chorus repeat that’s just as cool as the section we chose to run, as is the line throughout the entire song.
He’s a master player, no doubt. But nowadays, Sims rarely lays down his own tracks. For bassists who want to study at Sims University, there’s his one best-kept-secret, his highly acclaimed solo album Peace and Love [UMVD, 2000]. For the rare occasions when he’s played on his own productions in the past five years, try Marvin Winans’s Alone But Not Alone [EMI Gospel, 2007], Robert Randolph’s Colorblind [WEA, 2006], and Bonnie Raitt’s Souls Alike [Capitol, 2005]. “I’ll play if I’ve written a specific part,” Sims explains. “Otherwise, these days I’m enjoying hearing how other cats would interpret it.” And how might you get hired by Tommy Sims to do a record? “Play out live as much as you can, but don’t overplay when you do. That’s where I’ve heard and met almost all the bassists I use on sessions.”
Even for someone who’s a producer first and bassist second, the lessons learned at Jamerson U. live on. “If what you play doesn’t have the power to assist the composition, then you ain’t playin’ nothin’ but a bunch of notes. Anybody can play notes. Jamerson is the higher calling—10,000 hit records cannot be wrong.”