Why do we love James Jamerson so much?

Iconic “Funk Brother” cited by many obvious – and not-so-obvious – bassists

By Jon Liebman
Photo: Experimento69
September 13, 2018

Ask any bass player about his or her bass influences and you’ll often hear many of the same names: Jaco, Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Geddy Lee…

Another name that comes up as much as the others is that of Motown “Funk Brother” James Jamerson.

Having interviewed some 500+ bass players, I’ve heard Jamerson’s name over and over when asking about bass influences. It seems like a pretty safe bet that the audience reading this will agree that the biggest reason those Motown hits sounded – and felt – so good was due, in no small part, to those incomparable James Jamerson bass lines.

It may seem natural, even obvious, for Jamerson to have been mentioned by players like Chuck RaineyNathan EastJerry Jemmott“Ready” Freddie Washington and other bassists known for their R&B grooves. But Jamerson is also mentioned as a major influence by Billy Idol bassist Stephen McGrath, jazz upright player Larry Grenadier, rockers Garry TallentJohn Lodge and Peter Cetera, punk veteran Mike Watt, and music icons Paul McCartney and Jack Bruce.

So it should come as no surprise that in this week’s interview, Hal B. Selzer also cites Jamerson as a major influence. In case you don’t know Hal, he’s the bass player for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. And a huge James Jamerson fan. How cool is that!

Great playing is great playing. It’s not uncommon to find good musicians admiring players outside their traditional comfort zones, recognizing true talent when they hear it. When I interviewed classical double bass virtuoso Gary Karr last year, I was not expecting to hear names like John PatitucciVictor WootenMichael Manring and Jaco Pastorius come out of his mouth. But they did! And my first interview with Billy Sheehan included names like Bach, Debussy, Oscar Peterson and Paco de Lucía. Go, Billy!

I encourage you to revisit some of Jamerson’s classic bass lines. Study them. Analyze them. Learn them. Know them. Remind yourself of how all those nuances, ghost notes, rhythmic variations and syncopated lines blend together so beautifully to create that “Jamerson magic.” It’s even more amazing when you consider that Jamerson did all that plucking with only one finger, his right index finger, aptly nicknamed “The Hook.” Unbelievable, when you think about it. If you don’t have a copy of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the meticulous transcription masterpiece compiled by Alan Slutsky (a/k/a/ “Dr. Licks”), I highly recommend it. You can get a copy here.

Have a thought about James Jamerson or any “unlikely” bass influences? Feel free to leave a comment.

In the meantime, check out my interview with Hal here.

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