Without African American music, there would be no American music

Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Big Mama Thornton, Sam Cooke, STAX records, James Brown, The Drifters, Funkadelic, Michael Jackson, Bill Withers, Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker, The Spinners, Earth Wind and Fire, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, The Impressions, The Ink Spots, Curtis Mayfield, The Staple Singers, The Meters, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Lena Horne, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Sly And The Family Stone, Bob Marley, Lee Perry, Bunny Livingston, Peter Tosh, Mahalia Jackson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Quincy Jones, Dionne Warwick, The Isley Brothers, Prince, WAR …

I had to stop. This list could go on forever and each artist could fill a column on their own merit. My trusty editor suggested a recognition of Black History Month in this edition of “Astute Observations.” Easy. I venture to say that without African American music, there would be no American music. To put it simply, African American music is American music.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any Motown artists on this list, save for Michael Jackson (Jackson 5). A glaring omission to be sure. This was not a clerical error nor a colossal blunder. I have a reason. The musician that has had the most profound effect on my musical life was a member of the classic Motown Studio band known as the Funk Brothers. His name is James Jamerson, and he was the greatest bass player of all time. His performances at Motown from 1959 through 1970 in Detroit and later in Los Angeles have done more for the way we listen to and experience pop music than any other musician I can think of.

His preternatural grasp of the groove, the melody, his ears, and his ability to make the bass part a song within the song, complementing and enhancing the vocal melody, inexorably changed the way bass is played. Before those Motown records hit the airwaves and became the sound of young America, pop music bass players played non-melodic patterns in support of the basic chords of the song. It served its purpose in occupying the bottom end of a recording and not much else. James Jamerson changed all of that.

As a kid listening to the radio, buying records, and picking up my first bass in the early ’80s, I gravitated to the obvious bass heavyweights: John Entwistle of The Who, Geddy Lee of Rush, and most importantly, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. They formed the trinity of rock bass players for me, if you will. (What can I say, I went to Catholic schools.) I spent countless hours trying to master their parts, placing the needle down, picking it up, back and forth. I had cassettes too, of course. Play, rewind, play over and over. I liked the LP artwork much better. It sparked the imagination.

As I began to dig deeper, reading interviews in rock and musician mags, my heroes kept repeating the same mantra, Jamerson, Motown, Jamerson, Motown. Of course, I was familiar with Motown from oldies radio — and the ubiquitous Big Chill soundtrack — but I wasn’t listening to that music as intently as the rock stuff. Like most folks, I heard the singers and the songs and thought nothing of the players until John Paul Jones told me to listen closer. It was his playing in particular that led me to the maestro.

As I listened and began to hear and understand how Jamerson’s mastery influenced the bass players with whom I was so impressed and enamored, I was hooked on his playing from then on. There would be no “Lemon Song” without “Bernadette”. Listen to Paul McCartney’s melodic bass playing and you will clearly hear Jamerson’s influence.

A Fender bass pioneer in the early 1960s, Jamerson became a studio and ensemble virtuoso. In his own words, “The producer would give me the chord sheet, they’d let me go on and on and ad-lib. I created, man. I’d hear the melody line from the lyrics, and I’d build the bass line around that. I always tried to support the melody. I had to. I’d make it repetitious, but also add things to it. It was repetitious, but had to be funky and have emotion.”

To me, that is the definition of a studio bass player. Make it groove, support the melody, add little touches to keep it interesting throughout the song, and make it funky. James did it first and he did it best. Although largely and sadly unsung in his 47 years on the planet, he changed pop music forever. He is the definition of an artist and a hero. All I can say is, “Thank you, sir.”

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