James Jamerson, the Funk Brothers and Reflections…
By Bob Burnham

I think I am mostly elated that the U.S. has elected its first African American President.  The number of African Americans who have had a positive impact on my life will probably continue to grow! 

I’m not merely a dumb geeky “techie” white guy even if that’s what I appear to be!  

I was passively listening to an oldies station yesterday and I heard the Motown classic from the Supremes, “Reflections” and the brilliant bass line reached out and literally sucked me into a song I’d heard a million times before.  The legendary late great James Jamerson who dug those bass grooves so many years ago, was the man responsible.

As you may know, I’m not only a radio and techie guy – I’m also a musician.  My favorite instrument is bass.  

I have literally grown up with the Motown sound.  I was a Detroit Public Schools student in the 1960s and had friends of all religions and races during that time.  I was a listener of all the great Detroit radio stations of the time including WXYZ, CKLW and WKNR.

My family later moved to the suburbs but I took a piece of that with me, and part of it was the groove of Motown music.  By then, I was already playing guitar myself and the Beatles and Stones were obviously already on the scene.  These English dudes already had a taste of OUR music and they were feeling it as well.   

True musicians and singers really have to feel it to play it the way it should be played or sung.

In the earliest days, bands played strictly by charts or written music.   James Jamerson, however, took a piece of music and applied his own interpretation to it.  He used syncopation, stops and he even recorded double parts first with an acoustic bass, then a Fender electric bass.  His grooves were so accurate, you couldn’t tell there were actually two parts.  The point being they were HIS grooves… not just an exact duplicate of what was on the charts.  

While Motown had other great bass players, they only had one James Jamerson.
No one else could duplicate his work.  Someone else could do THEIR version of whatever was on the written music, and parts of it might be close, but never exactly the way he would play it.

Any piece of music in fact. can be played “straight” EXACTLY as it was written, OR with some interpretation.  I’ve played bass since the 1980’s, learning mostly by listening and studying the work of others.  

There is an art to imposing your own interpretation on someone else’s song without harming what the writer had in mind.  

I worked for many years with former “Badways” front man, Todd Luneack.  He told me I played “melodic” and generally liked everything I did with the songs he wrote as well as covers.  Others thought I “over-played” but what I was doing was imposing lead guitar parts I thought were “missing” –on bass  (I am also a fan of bassist, Stanley Clarke).

When the instrumentation is sparse, my tendency was (and still is) to “fill in the holes.”

Depending on the circumstances, I will either “hold back” – or not.  

As I would discover, just a few years ago, when pressed into service as lead guitarist of “Wherez My Limo,” everything I was picking up on bass translated over to a six string guitar as well.

The instrumentation is sparse, yet creative and brilliant on the Supremes’ “Reflections.”

So here I was yesterday re-discovering this major radio hit simply by zeroing in on the bass line, which was completely unlike any traditional approach.  Jamerson was throwing in notes that completely fit and were totally in the right key, yet were also totally unexpected.

To me, this is what makes music so exciting – to discover things you missed over forty years after the tune was recorded and I can ALMOST forgive that oldies station for having such a limited playlist.

“The Funk Brothers” were the studio musicians who did such an incredible job at Hitsville when Motown was entirely Detroit-based.  None of the stars who came out of that building would have made it without such top notch musicians who created the sound and groove of those records.    They were not credited at the time, but featured in the film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”   I was lucky enough in my more recent radio career to work with people who were part of that scene in some way. 

 The late Martha Jean “the Queen’s” Steinberg’s radio station, WQBH-AM kept people like Jay Butler and Ray “Raymon” Henderson on the air for many years.  They were part of WJLB when it was on the AM band.  These guys had passions for Motown, R & B and blues music unlike any I’d worked with up until then.  They were also super people to work with at the radio station where I was a maintenance engineer several years. 

The same passion can be found in Mark “Paz” Pasman of the Motor City Blues Project on WCSX.  Paz invited me to sit in with him at some of his "super sessions" with some of the finest musicians in town.

So if I do a good or even a “reasonable” job playing bass or anything else.  If I do even a passable job at any of my gigs scheduled in 2009, it is only because I have sponged up whatever “groove” I could working with, listening to or gigging or practicing with many of the best in the business.  And it didn’t hurt to grow up in the Motor City, either.   

Thank you Mr. Jamerson, where ever you may be, for your deep grooves as well.  

Donnie Hopps
1/24/2009 01:52:13 am

Bob, all I can say is wow!! It is though we were separated at birth by bass bro. Much respect comes your way for your words and thoughts. On a side note (not meaning to name drop here) Last week with the 50th anniversary of Motown, we had the Duke Fakir, the last remaining member of the Four Tops in at FOX 2. I was lucky enough to not be directing that hour, so I got to spend some time with him. Very cool dude, kind and polite. And I guess the point is that the major topic of our conversation was James Jamerson. Maybe finally he will get more of the recognition he so deserves and so desperately missed out in in his relatively short time on this earth. As long as you and me and the others keep playing "in the pocket" we can thank James. And on a separate note, I hope all is well with you and yours.

Be Well.

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