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James Jamerson

Motown's tormented genius, James Jamerson is unanimously acclaimed as the first virtuoso of the electric bass. James has influenced (whether they know it or not) every electric bassist to ever pick up the instrument. Arriving at Motown in 1959, James' bass playing evolved over the next decade from a traditional root-fifth cocktail style of bass playing into an astonishing new style built upon a flurry of sixteenth-note runs and syncopations, "pushing the envelope" dissonances, and fearless and constant exploration.

From 1964 to 1972, the entire Motown era flourished in large part due to the driving sound of James Jamerson's innovative bass playing. Up until 1968, his brilliant playing appeared on virtually every song. He was purposely emphasized in the mix to be clearly heard over a car radio, and the wide popularity of Motown contributed to the ascension of the bass as the key ingredient in R&B and soul music. Like the blues before, the influence of a prominent bass would spread far beyond these genres to pop, rock and jazz and fusion.

James Jamerson was born on January 29, 1938 in Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 1950s, he moved to Detroit and began playing the bass in high school after picking it up in the band room on a whim. Within a year he was adept enough to begin playing with other musicians, where his admiration for jazz bassists Paul Chambers and Ray Brown would show up in his accompaniment. All through high school he gigged, jammed, rehearsed, and was "mentored" by great Detroit musicians such as Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, and Yusef Lateef in the clubs. Upon graduation he was offered a musical scholarship to Wayne State University, but turned it down to play professionally in order to support his expectant wife.

In 1958, Jamerson began doing sessions for a succession of local Detroit labels including Northern, Tri-Phi, Fortune, and Anna Records, owned by Gwen Gordy, sister of Berry. Around the same time a group of fellow musicians invited him to check out a recording session at a local studio. When he got to Motown Records at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, he was asked to try his hand on a track that another bassist was having trouble with, and cut the gig with ease. Though it would take several more years for the nickname "Hitsville, USA" to carry real meaning at Motown Records and for Jamerson to be "the bassman in demand," he had found the outlet for his genius.

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