He grooved for years in the Snake Pit at Motown Records laying down the bassline for hit after hit, song after song. For performers like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, and Smokey Robinson, his bass playing was essential. You’ve heard him on classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Bernadette,” “For Once in My Life,” and countless others. But to the rest of the world, he was an uncredited studio musician — one with an unmistakable bass-playing style that defined the Motown groove.
That bass player was James Jamerson, a Lowcountry native born in Edisto, who grew up to become one of the most influential bassists of all time. His first liner-note credit came more than a decade after he started playing in Detroit, on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 record What’s Going On, a funky concept album defined by the dirty groove pulsing underneath Gaye’s velvety voice.
On that groundbreaking album, Marvin Gaye credited 39 musicians — known collectively as the Funk Brothers — a move that was part of a larger change in the music industry. During the ’60s, studio musicians like the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, Booker T. and the M.G.’s in Memphis, and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section in Alabama performed on untold records, backing up famous performers like the Beach Boys, Wilson Pickett, and the Staple Singers. The studio musicians, many trained in jazz and blues, were versatile and accomplished, playing what was required while still providing that extra bit of style or soulfulness needed for the music to come alive. Jamerson was considered the best of the best, a musical genius who had perfect pitch and could play even while lying on the floor on his back, drunk. Or maybe that’s just a legend as told by his fellow Funk Brothers in the documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. As the story goes, Marvin Gaye was looking all over Detroit for Jamerson and found him playing music in one of the bars. He asked him to come by the studio after his set. Jamerson arrived in the studio too drunk to stand but not too drunk to play. He was never too drunk to play and proved it by laying flat on his back and plucking out a perfect groove.
During the heyday of studio work, musicians like Jamerson could earn a good living just being part of the band and playing gigs around town. In Detroit, Motown president Berry Gordy paid his musicians well but gave them no credit as a way to avoid competing with other producers for talent. But as music changed from pop stars and girl groups to rock bands like the Beatles and the Stones, fans became more interested in knowing who was playing the actual music. And once Gaye credited his players, the industry as a whole moved to crediting everybody who contributed.
Jamerson may have been recognized by his fellow performers and by the musicians around the world who were desperately trying to emulate his distinctive style — bassists like John Entwistle of the Who and Paul McCartney of The Beatles — but he remained an obscurity to most, even though the songs he played on have become classics. Over the years, though, that obscurity has begun to give way. Jamerson passed away from complications of alcoholism in 1983, but since his death, he has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Musician’s Hall of Fame, and the Fender Music Hall of Fame. He’s also received two lifetime achievement Grammy Awards and been the subject of a book and documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
But his home state has yet to recognize his contributions in the most significant way, by inducting him into the South Carolina Hall of Fame (SCHOF). His cousin Anthony McKnight has been nominating Jamerson for the honor every year since 1998. “I been doing this for 20 years, long enough to raise a whole family,” says McKnight, who first hit upon the idea when he moved back to Charleston in the late ’90s.
“I went to Myrtle Beach and found the Hall of Fame,” he says. “I was looking through [the inductees] and got to Dizzy Gillespie, and thought, here we go, here are the musicians, but that was it — no James Jamerson — and that’s when I started my fight.”
Jamerson isn’t the only musician missing from the S.C. Hall of Fame. You won’t find James Brown (born in Barnwell, S.C.) or Eartha Kitt (from North, S.C.), not even Darius Rucker and Hootie and the Blowfish. What you will find is a hodgepodge of notable South Carolinians, including one slave (Dave the Potter), a collection of slave owners (also known as the founders of South Carolina), some Revolutionary War heroes, a black astronaut (Ron McNair), lots of educators (boring), Civil War activists (Septima Clark), staunch racists (John C. Calhoun), aristocratic ladies, and Pat Conroy. It’s a fitting testament to our little state, full of brave characters and plenty of old, rich white men. You’d be hard-pressed to say the inductee list lacks diversity or inclusiveness — there’s even a Catawba Indian chief, King Hagler. The trustees have done a fine job sifting through the history of the state’s dusty corners to find people of interest, but what about the big contributors? The people who are recognized the world over for their talents? What about James Jamerson?
For McKnight, it’s a no-brainer, and he’s brought considerable resources to bear in pitching his nominee to the trustees.
The S.C. Hall of Fame was recognized as the official state hall of fame in 1963. It is run by S.C. Hall of Fame, Inc., an eleemosynary corporation, whose purpose is not private gain or profit, but to administrate the charitable organization that inducts nominees, honors them at an annual event, and exhibits their stories online and in a museum in Myrtle Beach. About half of their support comes from public entities, according to their 2015 tax report.
Each year, nominations are submitted and vetted by the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies, which has representatives from 10 districts in the state. Charleston’s representative is Ginny Zemp at the South Carolina Historical Society. McKnight counts her as an ally in his mission to get Jamerson inducted, but she declined to discuss the matter with us. McKnight did provide a letter from Faye Jensen of the South Carolina Historical Society who wrote to him, “As a member of the board of the SCHOF, I have voted for Mr. Jamerson for the past two years and will continue to do so in the future.”
Once the Confederation vets the nominations, it recommends 10 deceased and 10 living nominees each year to the Board of Trustees, who are not listed or named on the Hall of Fame website, who then vote for one in each category to be inducted.
Nomination forms can be accompanied by as many supporting materials as the nominator wants to include. McKnight has been no slouch in this department. He’s gotten state Rep. Wendell Gilliard to pass a House resolution honoring Jamerson. He’s had then-Gov. Nikki Haley write a letter in support. State Sen. Marlon Kimpson even recorded a video that included a soundtrack of Jamerson’s most impressive work.
In 2016, Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. was inducted — much to the annoyance of McKnight. “Mayor Riley has been supporting Jamerson being inducted since 1998, but he gets in first? That just ain’t right.” In a letter to SCHOF chairman Rodger Stroup, McKnight’s frustration with the process bubbled up, and he challenged it as a racist move.
Stroup’s reply asserted that it was nothing of the sort and outlined the process once the 20 nominees are passed along from the Confederation of Historical Societies.
“Their nominees are forwarded to the SCHOF board and we MUST select our inductees (only one per year from each category) from this list,” he wrote in his letter dated April 17, 2017 to McNight. “During our discussions board members are encouraged to voice their support for a specific individual and indicate why they believe that person should be inducted. The deceased category is usually particularly difficult because there are almost 350 years of potential nominees. … By the way, our elections are done by secret ballot and each inductee must receive a majority vote.”
The 2017 inductees announced last May were Stanley Donen, a film director and choreographer who made Singin’ In the Rain with Gene Kelly and received an honorary Academy Award to recognize his work in Hollywood. In the highly competitive deceased category, the inductee this year was David Bancroft Johnson, the founder and first president of Winthrop University. If McKnight thinks his fight has been a long slog, he should take a look at the 30-year campaign Johnson’s supporters kept up.
According to a story at Myrtle Beach Online, Susan McMillan of Conway wrote the first nomination for Johnson back in 1984 as a fresh Winthrop graduate and has continued to nominate him every year since. A historian herself, McMillan has served as president of the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies and last year was named to the S.C. Board of Trustees.
During last September’s SCHOF selection meeting, McMillan finally got to make her case directly to her fellow trustees — and was persuasive enough to get Johnson inducted after her 30-year campaign.
For McKnight, getting on the Board of Trustees isn’t an option, so he’s going about his campaign another way — simply by raising awareness of Jamerson within the community. And in that sense, he’s succeeding.
Earlier this summer, at Edisto’s Jane Edwards Elementary School, McKnight, with the help of Edisto Island Museum Director Gretchen Smith, organized a two-day event called “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” to celebrate Jamerson’s accomplishments. McKnight also spoke at a Town of Edisto Beach council meeting and received support for his efforts to get him recognized and inducted into the SCHOF.
His latest plan is to donate a poster and plaque for the school to display in honor of Jamerson.
Recently, he’s been surprised to be contacted by a school in Hilton Head, where students made a film about Jamerson, and from a teacher at Sanders Clyde, who told him a student did a report on Jamerson as a famous native South Carolinian.
He shakes his head in disbelief when telling this story, “The kids know about him but the Hall of Fame people don’t know nothing.”
Whether that’s true or not is debatable, since Jamerson’s been a finalist for several years and has certainly received enough attention in the press thanks to McKnight’s persistence. But the fact that he remains shut out of the Hall of Fame is enough to keep McKnight pushing forward.
McKnight has a picture of Jamerson on the wall of his Ashley Avenue apartment that haunts him. “I keep looking at that picture and saying, why you keep dominating my life? But I gotta do what I gotta do.
“After 20 years, I’d be a fool to give up now.”