James Jamerson

James Jamerson is the finest bass player in the history of recorded music. I know that sort of declaration is usually pretty absurd, but I can’t listen to the first half of Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On without almost crying, and I think it’s Jamerson’s fault. Oh I guess the singing and the hand percussion and the sweeping strings might be the culpable too, but it’s that endlessly swirling, syncopated bassline that burrows right into my spine and rides the nerves right out to my hands and feet and fingers and toes.

When I first heard that album, I had no idea who James Jamerson was and he became my favorite musician after approximately four bars. Then I realized that not only did he play on What’s Going On, but pretty much every Motown hit the label released before it moved to LA. This clip, which comes off of one of those great Reelin’ in the Years DVDs, shows the man onstage with Marvin, in easy mastery of his instrument. Pay attention: you’ll notice that Jamerson never uses more than his pointer-finger to pluck, no matter how complex or difficult the bass part gets.

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