By Barney Blakeney
Perhaps one of the most talented and innovative bass players in modern history was Edisto Island native James Jamerson. He played on most of the Motown Records hits of the 1960s and 1970s. And while Jamerson is recognized among the best to ever play the electric bass guitar, the distinction of being inducted into the South Carolina Music Hall of Fame continues to elude him. On October 28, Jamerson, along with vocalist Ann Caldwell, was inducted into the Charleston Lowcountry Music Hall of Fame and November 9 he was inducted into the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame.
For the past 21 years vocalist Anthony McKnight, Jamerson’s cousin, has sought to get recognition for Jamerson. As a member of Motown’s famous studio musicians who became known as “The Funk Brothers”, Jamerson played on most of the label’s history-making recordings. He is regarded as one of the most influential bass players in modern music history and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. As a session musician, he played on 30 Billboard #1 hits, as well as over 70 R&B #1 hits, more than any other bass player in both categories. He eventually performed on nearly 30 #1 pop hits – surpassing the record commonly attributed to The Beatles. On the R&B charts, nearly 70 of his performances went to the top.
Born and raised on Edisto Island on 1936, Jamerson moved to Detroit, Michigan with his mother in 1954. In a 2015 magazine article, College of Charleston senior J.L. Zemp chronicled Jamerson’s development as a musician who from childhood had experimented with multiple instruments, even teaching himself to play piano at age 10. Zemp quoted Charleston Jazz Initiative founder Dr. Karen Chandler who said, “Jamerson’s childhood musical meanderings led him to study and come up with an approach to his instrument that became the foundation for modern bass playing.”
Jamerson continued performing in Detroit clubs after graduating from high school, and his solid reputation started providing him opportunities for sessions at various local recording studios. Starting in 1959, he found steady work at Berry Gordy‘s Hitsville U.S.A. studio, the home of Motown. Eventually, Jamerson was put on retainer with Motown for $1,000 a week, about $7,037 in 2017 dollars.
His work includes Motown hits such as “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes, “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & the All Stars, “For Once in My Life,” “I Was Made To Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, “Going to a Go-Go” by The Miracles, “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and later by Marvin Gaye, and most of the album What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Bernadette” by the Four Tops.
Jamerson is noted for expanding the musical style and role of bass-playing in the popular music of the time. He created melodic lines that were still very tightly locked with the drum groove. His bass playing was considered an integral part of the “Motown Sound“. Jamerson died in 1983.
McKnight said Jamerson’s inclusion on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame as a member of the “Funk Brothers” is an indication that his failure to be honored by the South Carolina Music Hall of Fame can’t be an oversight.