It could be very easily argued that without Motown America never gets around to full on desegregation (or if it does it takes a hell of a lot longer), as with their endless array of hits coupled with Curtis Mayfield in Chicago and Phil Spector in LA, white America had many of its racist preconceived notions forever undercut and turned on their face until nothing remained but an empty, hateful husk. From there little remained that couldn’t be demolished with the sudden togetherness that the music had birthed at regular clips just under three minutes at a time. That the music was so incredibly joyous in its often pained lyrics, made the clear humanity of black America seem as obvious as the songs seemed ready made for the dance floor.
Then, with that alarming importance in mind, remember that without James Jamerson, Motown probably never maintains such a long run of consistency and cross over appeal. You could talk about Berry Gordy’s mafia like control (great in the early days to keep everyone in line and working hard, bad as time progressed it just burnt everyone out), or the Supremes cross-over, world changing appeal (they rivaled the Beatles in the Sixties—imagine that; in a country with the problems that America had with regards to gender and racial politics, that a few black teenage girls would rise to such heights!) or the prolific pen of writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland (over 200 songs!), but to me, it all rested on the shape defining acrobatics of James Jamerson’s electric Fender Precision Bass. His style born out of a tasteful respect for the vocal harmonies and lead, working in tandem to drive the stomping dance shuffle, while letting the pipes of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Levi Stubbs, be the star. Some of his bass parts are miraculously intricate even if at first listen seem simplistic and instantly catchy. ‘Bernadette’, the Four Tops’ 1967 #4 hit (#8 UK), is often seen as his most recognizable masterpiece, is something else—it moves with a grace generally unknown to such pop things as the Billboard chart. But then I’ve always preferred dozens of other Four Tops classics (‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’ for one), so instead I decided on another band, the Jackson 5, and his work on ‘Darling Dear’. ‘Darling Dear’ was originally a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles B-side (the Jackson 5 pilfered the Miracles back catalog at this point in their career, and its why I’ve always seen them as little more than than second rate Miracles and Michael a pale Smokey Robinson rip-off, albeit it the Jackson are no slouches) and as great as that version is (though a B-side, it charted [#100] after the A-Side, ‘Point It Out’ peaked [#37] in 1969), without Jamerson’s bass work it just doesn’t pick up and move.
While Jamerson’s story would eventually be a sad one, there are singles upon singles bearing his trademark stamp, and I can’t think of a better place to start than ‘Darling Dear’. His work speaks for itself.
(I’d wanted today’s pick to be ‘April Fool’ by the great Ronnie Lane, but alas doesn’t have a bass part in it. Though, perhaps that’d have been the point of the pseudo-holiday no? Oh, well)