DETROIT — The son of a Motown Records behind-the-scenes legend and inspiration for bassists the world over said he’s planning to pay tribute to his father the best way he knows how.
James Jamerson Jr. said he will strap on a bass Friday and play his father’s part on “What’s Going On,” the Marvin Gaye hit that the elder Jamerson “always bragged about.” He will play during the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, Calif., and join his mother, Annie Jamerson, and other family members to accept the International Bassist Award on behalf of James Jamerson Sr., who died in 1983.
“It’s a great honor. I wish he was alive for this,” said James Jamerson Jr., an accomplished bassist himself who has played with the likes of the Temptations, Bruce Springsteen, various members of the Jackson family and even Luciano Pavarotti.
Jamerson, 54, said he’s amazed at “just how many bassists” his father “touched around the world — not just in the U.S. or Detroit,” including Nate Watts, Stevie Wonder’s longtime bassist and music director, a 2010 winner of the same bass award and driving force behind Friday’s tribute.
The elder Jamerson was a founding father of Motown’s Funk Brothers, the label’s house band. The session veterans included guitarist Robert White, keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, and drummers William “Benny” Benjamin and Uriel Jones.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who played on many of the label’s hits recorded in Detroit from 1959 to 1972 was largely unknown to the wider public until the release of a 1989 book called “Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson,” and a 2002 documentary, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”
His son remembers spending much of his childhood hanging around Studio A inside the Hitsville, U.S.A., building at 2648 West Grand Blvd., and credits his father as well as many of his Motown “surrogate fathers” for inspiring him. His first break came at age 14, when he was in the studio and played on Smokey Robinson’s “Flower Girl.” He was surprised later when his father told him that the label was using his contribution.
“All I did was imitate him, everything he did,” Jamerson said.
Much work followed, including sessions and shows that his father passed on and encouraged him to take.
“For my own father to have that much faith in me — he’d say, ‘Sit in for me,’ or ‘Call my son’ — that says a lot,” Jamerson said. “That meant more to me than anyone else.”
Annie Jamerson, 70, said the award reminded of her the time she walked in on her husband — who usually listened to jazz — “playing the old Motown stuff” in their living room.
“He wiped a tear from his eye [and] said, ‘I did it, I did it — I did all of that,'” his wife recalled. “He couldn’t hardly believe it himself.”
She said he likely would take great pride in being honored for the instrument that he helped pioneer.
“I can see that wide grin of his, and he probably would shed another tear,” she said.