model. (A ’ 57 Precision Bass was different in
many important ways from its ’ 51 predecessor, yet it carried the same name.) Leo finally
changed his mind, probably with some prodding from the company’s sales office.
The Fender Jazz Bass was developed in 1959
and introduced the following year. Its name
was intended to send the message that this
new instrument was a “high-end” model for
advanced players (or at least ones who liked
to play fast), because it had a slim neck that
was narrow at the nut: only 1 7/16” compared to 1 3/4” on a Precision. Of course,
most jazz bassists played the upright—which
has a much bigger neck than the P-Bass.
The Jazz Bass also had a more elaborate
two-pickup configuration and a sleek, offset
body shape. As it turned out, it would not
be used by a notable jazz player for quite a
few years—when a guy named Jaco came
along—but it was adopted by many rock
and R&B bassists.
James Jamerson. Photo from the Phil Chen Archives.
Armed with his Jazz Bass, Osborn built a
reputation as an innovative player who always
got a great sound on tape. By 1963 he was a
top L.A. session man, and he would contribute his distinctive tone and creative fills to a
long string of hit songs by the Mamas & the
Papas, the Carpenters, Johnny Rivers, Glen
Campbell, and many others.
While Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, and the surf
bands were sending their low-end messages
from California, the range of expression made
possible by the Fender bass was also being
explored by a bassist working anonymously
in a small studio in Detroit: James Jamerson.
Unlike Kaye and Osborn, he was not a converted guitarist. After dabbling with the piano as a
child, Jamerson studied acoustic bass in high
school. He was a quick learner, and before
long he was playing jazz and trying to emulate
such heroes as Paul Chambers and Ray Brown.
Jamerson’s ability as a club musician came to
the attention of several local producers, including Motown’s Berry Gordy, and he began to
get calls for session work.
Jamerson Teaches the
Old Dog New Tricks
Jamerson started to work for Motown
in 1959. At first he played upright, but
even on the “big doghouse” his approach
was dramatically different from that of
other bassists. Allan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky,
the author of the authoritative Jamerson
biography, Standing in the Shadows of
Motown, described his early style: “Gone
were the stagnant two-beat, root-fifth
patterns and post-‘Under the Boardwalk’
clichéd bass lines that occupied the bot-
tom end of most R&B releases. Jamerson
had modified them or replaced them
with chromatic passing tones, Ray Brown-
style walking bass lines, and syncopated
eighth-note figures—all of which previous-
ly had been unheard-of in popular music
in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”
Sometime in 1961, Jamerson began to play
a Precision Bass after a fellow bassist, Horace
“Chili” Ruth, urged him to try it.