You’ve heard the low end riffs and head bobbing plucks in Motown hits like “Bernadette” by the Four Tops and The Temptations’ “My Girl,” and now the man behind those grooves is being honored in his home state of South Carolina.
James Jamerson, the bass player behind those chart toppers, is being inducted into the Lowcountry Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 28, Kelly Rae Smith of Charleston City Paper reports.
The boom-boom man for Motown Records was born in 1936 in Edisto, South Carolina, which was then located in Charleston County. He spent much of his childhood with his piano playing grandmother and an aunt who sang in the church choir while he began developing his own musicianship. He was “incessantly listening to gospel, jazz and blues stations,” according to All Music.
In 1953 his mother, looking for work, moved to Detroit with Jamerson. In high school he began playing in Detroit’s jazz scene. He turned down a music scholarship from Wayne State University, believing he was already a working musician. One day, Jamerson joined in a jam session in the basement of 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the future home of Motown Records.
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Jamerson is credited for popularizing a more intricate style of bass playing that moved around the fret board, creating rhythms and riffs, instead of sticking with root notes and simple harmonics. He also became known for his distinct sound, created, in part, by using a large speaker in his amplifier to attempt to recreate the sound of an upright acoustic bass. In some of his early record, Jamerson combined electric and acoustic bass playing on records to make a clean round tone with punch.
“Jamerson was the hardest to handle because he was a jazz person,” Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, told Rolling Stone Italia in 2009. “I would say ‘James Jimmy Jamerson, you can’t do that.’ And so he would say ‘okay, okay,’ and he kept slipping little notes in.”
Allen Slutsky, who wrote a biography on Jamerson, told the State in 2009, “Anybody that has played the instrument and heard a Motown record has been influenced by him. Everybody knew about this guy, whether by name or not. He was the father of modern electric bass.”
Jamerson, along with the others in the Motown house band The Funk Brothers, would go on to record 30 number one hits, including other charting songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Gladys Knight and the Pips, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Jamerson could also be heard on many iconic tunes like John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.”
The bassist’s induction into the Lowcountry Music Hall of Fame, which started in 2015, is the latest in a hall full of accolades.
In 2000, Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the first class of backing musicians to be recognized by the organization.
“You can’t overstate the importance of James Jamerson,” Howard Kramer, chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the time, told The State in 2009. “Talk about someone who played as beautifully and mellifluously as he did.”
The Funk Brothers received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. In 2009 and 2014 the South Carolina State House passed resolutions honoring Jamerson. Recently, he was given the Dr. Martin Luther King Dream Keeper Award in Charleston.
For years, Jamerson’s cousin Anthony McKnight has advocated to have his relative inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame.