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April/May 2015

by Rob Burns

Deep Thinking: What’’s Going On with James Jamerson

by Rob Burns

Deep Thinking: What’’s Going On with James Jamerson

Following the James Jamerson lines we looked at a few issues ago, I thought that we might look at a different side of his playing in this issue. The lines I have transcribed are from What’’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, which was released in 1971, at which point Gaye and Berry Gordy (the founder of Tamla Motown) had a very strained relationship. While Gaye had been married to Gordy’’s daughter, the two men were at odds over what kind of material Gaye should be releasing, and Gaye was becoming increasingly politicised in his lyrics concerning the treatment of Afro––Americans at the time. Gordy, however, did not want Tamla Motown to be associated with political issues. 
Another Gaye song that addresses Afro-American problems is Inner City Blues, also released in 1971. Gaye was also aware of the extremely high number of Afro–American youth being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Consequently, What’’s Going On nearly remained unreleased, but it went on to become one of his most famous songs and one of the first that he produced himself. Gaye always preferred Jamerson for his bass lines and so the rhythm track for this song was recorded in Detroit (because Jamerson did not like living in Los Angeles), and then finished in LA.
Legend has it that Jamerson did not arrive on time for the session and was found in a local bar, rather inebriated. He is said to have played the whole track lying on his back but still able to read the arrangement –– but that’’s just an anecdote I’’ve heard over the years!
More interestingly though, Gaye did not use either of the Motown house drummers (‘Pistol’ Allen or Uriel Jones –– Benny Benjamin had died in 1969). Gaye wanted a different feel to the solid ‘four to the bar’ almost rock feel in the drum parts that is very common in Motown’’s earlier repertoire. Wanting instead a more ‘current’ sound for the time, he chose drummer Chet Forest, among other non-Motown musicians.
I have transcribed the first verse because, despite working with a different drummer that he was not used to, and the presence of several new musicians, the line flows with an almost swing feel, and still has the Jamerson trade marks, such as the ties that occur in most bars and which add syncopation to very solid drum and conga parts.
The drum part is more contemporary than earlier Motown material, with the inclusion of congas providing an important point of difference as well.
I have also transcribed the first bridge. Here, Jamerson plays in his more familiar territory using short ‘rakes’ between the higher tonic note and the note a fourth below. He again uses ties that create the ‘funk’ of the track that both locks in with the drums yet provides all the funky groove. (Maybe I’’m biased though.)
The final two bars of the 12-bar bridge have him playing chromatically (in semitones) and finally playing a fast, raked B minor figure against an A major chord leading to the next verse in E major. You can hear the track on Youtube here and, even better,  live with Jamerson.
 (Dr. Rob Burns is an Associate Professor in Music at the University of Otago in Dunedin. As a former professional studio bassist in the UK, he performed and recorded with David Gilmour, Pete Townsend, Jerry Donahue, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, James Burton, Ian Paice and Jon Lord, Eric Burdon and members of Abba. He played of the soundtracks on many UK television shows, such as Red Dwarf, Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones. Rob is currently a member of Dunedin bands Subject2change and The Verlaines.)