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jamerson 1983: the musician interview...



Standing In The Shadows Of Motown by Nelson George


Standing In The Shadows of Motown is the title of an article written by Nelson George way back in 1983 for Musician Magazine. It was the first in-depth piece written about the near-anonymous session players of Motown Records, and James Jamerson was one of the players George interviewed for the piece. Ironically, the issue hit magazine stands in August of 1983, the same month Jamerson died in Los Angeles.

Although the great title has since been stolen for various projects, it's actually Nelson George who deserves full credit for coming up with it, as well as for writing a brilliant and revealing article about The Funk Brothers years before anyone else thought to do so. To my knowledge, Nelson's 1983 interview and the earlier 1979 Dan Forte interview for Guitar Player Magazine are the only two Jamerson interviews that exist.

Here are the few excerpts from Nelson George's piece that contain direct quotes from Jamerson:


On drummer Benny Benjamin:

"Oh man, Benny was my favorite," adds Jamerson joyfully. "When he died I couldn't eat for two weeks, it hurt me so bad. He and I were really the ones who tightened up the sound, the drum and the bass. We didn't need sheet music."


On Holland-Dozier-Holland:

Bassist James Jamerson was one of the first Motown staff musicians, working for Gordy and company from 1959 to 1973 following a gig in the band of another gifted Detroit native Jackie Wilson. Jamerson remembers the early Motown years clearly from twenty years' distance: "Holland-Dozier-Holland would give me the chord sheet, but they couldn't write for me. When they did, it didn't sound right. They'd let me go on and ad lib. I created, man. When they gave me that chord sheet, I'd look at it, but then start doing what I felt and what I thought would fit. All the musicians did. All of them made hits."


On his playing style for Motown:

"I'd hear the melody line from the lyrics and I'd build the bass line around that. I always tried to support to support the melody. I had to. I'd make it repetitious, but also add things to it. Sometimes that was a problem because the bassist who worked with the acts on the road couldn't play. It was repetitious, but had to be funky and have emotion."

"My feel was always an Eastern feel. A spiritual thing. Take 'Standing In The Shadows Of Love'. The bass line has an Arabic feel. I've been around a whole lot of people from the East, from China and Japan. Then I studied the African, Cuban and Indian scales. I brought all that with me to Motown."

"I picked things up from listening to people speak. From the intonation of their voices. I could capture a line. I look at people walking and get a beat from their movement. I'm telling you all my secrets now."

And on what tune was Jamerson's bass line formed by the sight of someone walking? "There was one of them heavy, funky tunes the Temptations did... I can't remember the name, but there was this big, fat woman walking around. She couldn't keep still. I wrote it by watching her move."


On his own favorite bass parts:

Jamerson now says his favorite bass parts are on the Four Tops' "Reach Out", "Bernadette", "Standing In The Shadows Of Love", Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."

"There was also this semi-jazz album Marvin Gaye did that had a version of 'Witchcraft' that I liked," Jamerson adds.


On his memories of working at Motown:

The pleasure of his Motown memories is diminished by his feelings that "in certain ways" he and his fellow musicians were exploited: "There is also sometimes a tear because I see now how I was treated and cheated. I didn't see that until I got a little older. Everybody, as time went on, got sort of strange. Especially after Motown moved out to California. If they see you, they're glad to see you. They just change their phone numbers so much. I don't believe some of them know I'm still alive."

Health problems have frustrated Jamerson's efforts as a player and producer in recent years. When we talked he was resting in a suburban Los Angeles hospital from a recent illness. Still, he wants everyone to know, "I'm ready, willing and able. Just give me a call."


On his lack of credits at Motown:

Jamerson, however, feels some bitterness: "We were doing more of the job than we thought we were doing and we didn't get any songwriting credit. They didn't start giving any musician credits on the records until the 70's." Did he complain about it? "I always asked. No one ever said anything. It did make me sort of mad, but what could I do?" Did he ever speak to Gordy about it? "Yes, but they felt that as long as you got paid your name didn't have to be on the record... I wrote some tunes, and they cut some of them, but they just put them on the shelf. They never got out."



The full reprint of Nelson George's article can be found in his book Buppie, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes On Post-Soul Black Culture. For more info on this great American writer, visit his website at