I have no idea whether Berry Gordy did it on purpose, but it was one more bit of genius—plus perfect and form following perfect function, thank you American automotive industry — to build Motown’s studio band around a great bass player, maybe the best bassist in popular musical history.
That bass player was James Jamerson, who played the bass on more No. 1 pop hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Rollin’ Stones and The Beach Boys combined.
Of course, other primo ingredients went into this Cadillac of all session bands — a great couple of drummers, three guitarists who took an orchestral approach to their recorded efforts, great songwriters and producers, and Gordy’s quality standard, discipline and persistence, to name a few.
But underneath it all was Jamerson and his mastery of his instrument, the one virtuoso in the mix (and I firmly believe there were others) allowed to go where he wanted. Just as long as he showed up for work every damn day, just like the rest of the Motown session men (and women, a few), and executed.
Which he and his comrades, known fondly as the Funk Brothers, did. And, in true Motor City fashion, the approach worked in cranking out more high-quality pop-song vehicles than any other single entity during a golden age the ‘60s and ‘70s).
I learned of this bit of music history from this week’s episode of Let It Roll, the podcast that continually reminds me of the grace provided in massive helpings to us Baby Boomers, who have spent the decades since the ‘60s and ‘70s (me included) patting ourselves on our increasingly aging backs taking credit for simply being born and existing at a certain time, akin to a “foodie” taking credit for the food his favorite restaurant serves.
God bless Motown and those Mighty Brothers of FUNK!!!!!
Ed Legge (@freebirdyeller) is a life-long musician, long-time journalist and sometime corporate dweeb who’s writing a book about originating rock ‘n’ roll’s most absurd tradition.