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Legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson dies

Bassist James Jamerson, who laid the foundation of the Motown sound, dies of pneumonia on this day in 1983.

There was a time in pop history when you could hear a record for the very first time and have a pretty good chance of guessing where it was recorded. Record labels like Stax, Chess, Atlantic and Philadelphia International made the distinctive sounds of Memphis, Chicago, Muscle Shoals and Philadelphia internationally famous in the 1960s and early 1970s. But for every fan of that era’s music who can pick out a record made in those cities, there are probably more who can pick out one that was made in Detroit, home of Motown Records and “The Sound of Young America.”

When you think of Motown in the 1960s, you tend to think of performers like the Temptations and Marvin Gaye or legendary songwriters like Smokey Robinson and Holland/Dozier/Holland. But unless you’ve seen the 2002 documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown, you probably don’t think of bassist James Jamerson. Along with men like drummer Benny Benjamin, pianist Earl Van Dyke, guitarist Richard White and percussionist Jack Ashford, Jamerson was a member of the Funk Brothers—a rotating cast of unsung, uncredited and non-royalty earning studio musicians drawn from the cream of Detroit’s jazz scene who laid the foundation of the Motown sound.

It was the Funk Brothers, working in a studio they called the Snake Pit in the basement of Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters, who arranged, orchestrated and performed nearly every instrumental track of nearly every classic Motown record. It was James Jamerson’s unconventionally melodic bass lines that made many of those records great. “My Girl” by the Miracles, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes, “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, “Dancing In The Street” by Martha and the Vandellas—these are among the dozens of timeless Motown hits to which Jamerson made a critical contribution.

Unlike many of his fellow Funk Brothers, Jamerson moved west with Motown Records when it pulled up stakes and left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972. His relationship with Motown ended shortly thereafter, however, and 10 years later, when the company celebrated its anniversary with the Motown 25 concert and broadcast, Jamerson was a paying member of the audience sitting in the back rows rather than an honored guest performing onstage.

After a long struggle with alcoholism, James Jamerson died on August 2, 1983, at the age of 42. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 17 years later, in March 2000.

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