Unlocking a SC musical history mystery

otaylor@thestate.comJuly 22, 2012 

  • On the air “History Detectives” airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ETV, Time Warner Cable channel 11. ONLINE See a clip from the “History Detectives” show and a segment from “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” Look for links with this story at thestate.com/living.

James Jamerson, the bass-playing South Carolinan who was the unquestioned backbone of The Funk Brothers, the house band that created the music for hits sung by the greats of Motown Records, will be featured on Tuesday night’s episode of PBS’s “History Detectives.”

The purpose of the segment featuring Jamerson is an attempt to trace the provenance of an Ampeg B-15 amplifier that has Jamerson’s name stenciled on the side. Did it once belong to the legendary bassist? In addition to an answer, the program’s viewers get a historical tour of Motown, and an explanation of how Jamerson was pivotal in making the label’s signature rhythm and blues music popular.

Jamerson, who died 29 years ago, played on more No. 1 hit songs than Elvis, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Beatles — combined. In music circles, his technique of playing — treating the electric bass like it was an upright acoustic, plucking notes with his right index finger in a style he called “The Hook” — is credited as changing the sound and mix placement of the bass guitar.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

“James Jamerson was to bass what Jimi Hendrix was to the guitar,” Steve Fishman, who owns the amp, says in the episode.

The episode will add more steam to Anthony McKnight’s quest to get his cousin inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame.

“I’m not going to let this go away. I’m sorry,” said McKnight, who was not interviewed for the show. “I think Jamerson ranks above Dizzy Gillespie. I’m not taking anything away from Dizzy’s credit, but James has more credits.

“They put in who the heck they want to put in there. How can you ignore all the stuff that’s going on with one of your native sons?”

Forgotten history

James Lee Jamerson was born in 1936 on Edisto Island, near Charleston. In the mid-’50s, he and his mother joined the migration of southern blacks to Detroit where he picked up the upright bass during high school band class. It wasn’t long before he was playing “The Hook” in local clubs where he met Jackie Wilson, who introduced him to Motown legend Smokey Robinson. Because of his connection to Robinson, Jamerson found steady session work at Berry Gordy’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio, the home of Motown Records.

“Nobody wanted to record unless they had Jamerson on the track,” McKnight, a Charleston resident, said.

Jamerson was known to include jazzy flourishes in his lines, which irked Gordy.

“Jamerson was the hardest to handle because he was a jazz person,” Gordy told Rolling Stone Italia in 2009. “I would say ‘James Jimmy Jamerson, you can’t do that.’ And so he would say OKokay, and he kept slipping little notes in.”

But Gordy, who wanted to protect Motown’s trademark sound, didn’t fire Jamerson because he knew he wouldn’t be able to replicate his sound. Gordy hid session players like Jamerson because he didn’t want to engage in a bidding war for their service.

“If I was producing I’d always have to have Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass,” he said in Rolling Stone Italia.

Motown’s indelible hits such as Robinson’s “The Tears of a Clown,” The Temptations’ “My Girl” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” were recorded in Hitsville’s Studio A, colloquially known as The Snake Pit. Eduardo Pagan, the host of Jamerson’s “History Detectives” segment, understood the significance of filming inside the studio.

“I told the crew that I felt like we needed to remove our shoes,” said Pagan, the Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History at Arizona State University. “It was just amazing. The concentration of talent in that relatively small space was sort of phenomenal.”

Pagan, a fan of Motown’s music, admittedly was not familiar with Jamerson before his quest to reveal the amps authenticity.

“I think like many, even those who appreciate Motown, it’s the artist you knew about,” he said.

James Jamerson Jr., an accomplished bassist himself who has laid session bass lines for Randy Crawford’s “Street Life,” Lenny Williams’ “Cause I Love You” and The Temptations’ “Treat Her Like a Lady,” grew up in The Snake Pit before Motown’s operations was moved to Los Angeles.

“The room is basically a museum now,” he said from his home in Detroit. “Still, sometimes I look up and I say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I was around all those legends.’ I didn’t know my father was a legend and a pioneer. He was just dad to me. I didn’t get the gist until we moved to L.A.”

The Motown sound is an integral part of music history, but before Allen Slutsky published “Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson” in 1989, Jamerson was a forgotten piece of the label’s history. The book was adapted into “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” 2002’s critically hailed documentary film about The Funk Brothers.

“Anybody that has played the instrument and heard a Motown record has been influenced by him,” Slutsky told The State in 2009. “Everybody knew about this guy, whether by name or not. He was the father of modern electric bass.”

Howard Kramer, chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said Motown wouldn’t have been the same without Jamerson.

“You can’t overstate the importance of James Jamerson,” he told The State three years ago. “Talk about someone who played as beautifully and mellifluously as he did.”

‘Incomparable’

Through researching personal items and artifacts, “History Detectives” hunts for the truth within each object’s past. At the start of the investigation, Pagan was skeptical about the amp’s authenticity.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to go on,” he said. “As artifacts go, you want to have documentation.”

There wasn’t a photograph of Jamerson playing with the tube amplifier. Jamerson’s son, who was visited by Pagan and the show’s crew in January, said the amp had too many knobs. Pagan also visited Hewitt’s Music, a Dearborn, Mich., store where Jamerson purchased equipment, but the owner couldn’t verify that the amp was sold there.

The trail led Pagan to Dennis Coffey, a member of The Funk Brothers who was able to provide an answer that satisfied Pagan, one that won’t be revealed here. At each stop, a bit more was revealed about Jamerson and his connection to Motown. For Pagan, “History Detectives” is not just about tracking down artifacts.

“Our ultimate goal is to really teach history,” he said. “Our goal is sharing history. Sharing what we know is an important part of the show.”

At the end of the episode, Fishman, the owner of the amp who said he would donate it if it was authentic, jammed with Coffey and Jamerson Jr., who learned how to play on his father’s bass. The 1962 Fender Precision, with its tortoise-shell pickguard and chrome finish was known as “The Funk Machine.” The younger Jamerson tried to play with The Hook.

“Two fingers was much easier for me,” he said. “When he saw I got serious he got me my own. He got tired of me asking to play his bass.”

Before Jamerson died in 1983 from complications of pneumonia, cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure, “The Funk Machine” was stolen. He was 47 and said to be bitter about his legacy. It wasn’t until 1971 that he was acknowledged — as “the incomparable James Jamerson” on the sleeve of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — on a major Motown release.

The fight for recognition in South Carolina continues.

“He changed the history of bass playing,” Jamerson Jr. said. “That’s where he was raised at before he came to Detroit.”

Nominations for the S.C. Hall of Fame are made each year by the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies, the hall’s official selection organization, which has 10 districts in the state. The nominations are voted on by the hall’s board of trustees. Only two people are inducted each year — one living and once deceased — and the competition is stiff. It took Pat Conroy, author of novels such as “The Prince of Tides” and “The Lords of Discipline,” six years to get inducted.

Jamerson was a 2012 finalist, said J.R. Fennell, the confederation’s incoming president.

“Any kind of musical innovation like that deserves to be recognized,” he said.

Fennell, the executive director of the Lexington County Museum, couldn’t confirm whether or not Jamerson would remain on the ballot.

A message left at the S.C. Hall of Fame, which is in Myrtle Beach, was not returned. McKnight, who has campaigned for his cousin’s inclusion for me than a decade, said Jamerson’s resume is worthy.

“His contribution to Motown Records and his contribution to music period,” he said. “What else do you need to do?”

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

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