Charleston man remembers Lowcountry native who was a musician for Motown

James Jamerson was a member of the famous Funk Brothers.
Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 5:54 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 20, 2022 at 6:23 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - They were known as the Funk Brothers, the session or in-house musicians who brought the music to life for Motown’s biggest artists.

These jazz musicians provided the soulful sounds for the music of The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many others.

And one of the Funk Brothers, grew up in the Lowcountry. James Jamerson was born on Edisto Island in 1936.

He died in 1983, but his work lives on. And a relative wants the Lowcountry to know the important contribution Jamerson made to the music industry.

“Right now James is considered to be the most influential bassist of all times and that’s according to Rolling Stone magazine, he’s number one,” Anthony McKnight said.

McKnight is Jamerson’s cousin. Their mothers were sisters. Jamerson’s mom was Elizabeth, and McKnight’s mother was Evalina.

Before he began playing for big names like Stevie Wonder and others at Motown, Jamerson came from humble beginnings in Charleston. He was born on Edisto Island, and lived with McKnight’s family as a kid.

“But between Edisto and downtown Charleston, my mom’s actually raised James and his brother Richard. Cause what happened is that my aunt, his mother, she took off, moved up north to try to find work back in the early days, and she left her two sons with my mom’s,” McKnight said.

McKnight says when Jamerson wasn’t in school, he was making music.

“He used to have a little band on Edisto Island, going around, and a lot of people thought that the only thing he played was bass guitar, but James’ original instrument was the keyboard,” McKnight said.

Jamerson moved to Detroit to be with his mom where he graduated from high school. He played in jazz and blues nightclubs. According to the obituary, his big break came when he started touring with singer Jackie Wilson. Then Motown recruited him. He became part of the Funk Brothers, laying down the sound for Motown’s stars.

“Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Isley Brothers and even Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jr. Walker and the All Stars,” McKnight said.

Even if you’re not a Motown fan, a piece of Jamerson’s work you’ll likely be familiar with are the opening notes on the song ‘My Girl,’ one of the biggest hits by The Temptations.

“The bass line goes, doom doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, and then the guitar follows in, that’s James Jamerson,” McKnight said.

Jamerson played for Motown from 1959 to 1972. It wasn’t until the early 70′s that Motown started listing musicians on the album credits, recognizing Jamerson and the others for their crucial contributions to Motown’s success.

Jamerson died August 1983 at the age of 47.

You’re invited to attend a free tribute concert in Charleston in his honor this weekend. It’s set for 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday night, at the Cannon Street Arts Center.

“The uniqueness of James was that he never sounded the same,” McKnight said.