Day 833: Tales From The Motown Snakepit

originally published April 12, 2014

The music that roared through the stucco and plaster of Hitsville U.S.A. to become the Motown sound that defined soul music in the 1960’s was crafted by some of the most formidable talent the music world has ever cradled. Unfortunately, while stars like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves are free to bask in the wondrous afterglow of their landmark careers, some of Motown’s elite suffered a premature closing curtain.

Mary Wells, the one-time Queen of Motown who helped to launch the label into the mainstream suffered from an unfairly tragic end, while the unappreciated fuel that fed the funk-tank, James Jamerson, is anything but a household name today. Both deserve to have their story told, if not within the fiery glow of a major studio bio-pic at least with the delicate and reverent touch of a kilograph written by an eternal fan.

By the time I was born, each of these individuals had already ridden the crest of their relative stardom. That means nothing to me – I grew up in an era when people paid actual money to own “We Built This City” on vinyl. The music industry, which has always been a pit of snakes and scammers, had become a wretched den of Milli-Vanillified lies. That’s why the music that rocked my youth was mostly culled from an era I’d never seen. And it’s fair to say that no one rocked my innards quite as much as James Jamerson.

James moved from Edisto Island, South Carolina to Detroit with his mother when he was a teenager, and he learned to play stand-up bass in high school. On nights and weekends he began playing in local jazz and blues clubs, which led to a steady gig at Barry Gordy Jr.’s studio in 1959. I don’t feel it is any measure of exaggeration when I say that James’ bass playing, which appeared on roughly 95% of Motown’s recordings between 1962 and 1968, was the most fundamental ingredient in the label’s extraordinary, genre-defining success.

Think of the hits he played on, and how the melodic bass lines defined the very oomph of their impact: “My Girl” by the Temptations, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes, “Dancing In The Street” by Martha & The Vandellas, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & The Pips… the list just goes on and on. He played bass on almost 30 number one hits (that’s more than McCartney with the Beatles) and close to 70 number one hits on the R&B charts.

While Barry Gordy and Motown seemed to go out of their way to exclude even the most modest slice of fame for their musical performers (known colloquially as the Funk Brothers – if nothing else they were tremendously respected among the musician community), Marvin Gaye insisted on putting Jamerson’s name on the sleeve of his What’s Going On album in 1971. That wasn’t enough to ensure a life-long career though.

James moved to California when Motown uprooted their operations for the west coast in 1972. A year later he was without a home base. He appeared on a few hit records throughout the decade, but his sound was no longer the trend. James wasn’t willing to adapt to slapping and thumping through repetitive disco grooves to make a buck. By the time his alcoholism caught up with him and took his life in 1983 he was practically broke and unknown.

Unknown to the public anyhow – pretty much every great bass player from Jaco Pastorius to Bootsy Collins to Flea have considered James an influence.

Mary Wells was fortunate enough to have achieved fame and success within the narrow parameters of Motown’s spotlight during the 60’s. Her name will forever be tied to one of the catchiest pop songs ever written, one of the label’s most gargantuan early hits. But she almost missed out on enjoying those glorious heights.

Mary grew up in a rough Detroit neighborhood. She was diagnosed with spinal meningitis at two years old and received the cruel slap of partial blindness, half-deafness and temporary paralysis as a small child. Oddsmakers would not have been kind to Mary’s future, in particular to her hopes of breaking beyond the church choir and making a go of singing for a living. But Mary had ambition. She had talent. And she had pluck, whatever the hell that is.

After paying her dues by helping her mother scrub cold floors for a dreary and meagre living, Mary caught the eye of Barry Gordy at the Twenty Grand Club one night. She had written a song, “Bye Bye Baby”, which she felt would be perfect for Jackie Wilson to sing. Barry had her audition the song right there on the spot. He was so impressed, he signed her to record the track herself. Mary made this ballsy move at the young age of 17.

If you only remember Mary from her biggest hits, you need to check out the unrestrained sexiness she brought to “Bye Bye Baby” – she was an R&B goddess before she’d smoothed out her soul chops. And it was this raucous wave that Mary would ride to the forefront of the Motown world. She was the label’s first female star.

Mary hooked up with Smokey Robinson – not like that, don’t be dirty – and together they concocted a triumphant parade of great records: “You Beat Me To The Punch”, “Two Lovers” and of course “My Guy” (which featured James Jamerson on bass, of course). That was the one that broke the proverbial bank, topping the R&B charts for seven weeks and even claiming the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for two straight weeks – very hard to do in 1964 when the Beatles were hogging that piece of chart real estate. Mary was the Queen of Soul before Aretha came along to snag that crown.

Barry Gordy spent a considerable amount of Motown’s “My Guy” money to promote Diana Ross & The Supremes. This didn’t sit well with Mary, and she spent the ensuing few months trying to get out of her Motown contract. She did, nabbing a cash settlement in exchange for giving up the royalties on all of her past hits.

The fact that every human being on the planet knows “My Guy” should suggest that this was not a good move.

Mary had some moderate chart success on 20th Century Fox Records and Atco, but by 1974 she retired to family life. Yes, she returned for “Gigolo”, a moderate disco hit (yep – it always comes to disco), but Mary was not destined to repeat her success. No big deal – a lot of 60’s stars hit that career wall when the 80’s rolled around. But Mary was destined for one more slap from God, from nature, from the Dark Side of the Force, whatever you believe.

In 1990 Mary was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. Her voice – the very thing that helped her survive childhood illness, poverty and hard labor – was being attacked from within. A number of former Motown stars and various admirers helped to raise money, as Mary’s finances were completely depleted by her medical treatments. She passed away in the summer of ’92, her name enshrined in music history but her fortune ravaged by an unforgiving medical system.

James and Mary might not have ended their lives on a happy note, but dammit they gave their lifetime allotments of happy notes to the rest of us. For that, they deserve our eternal thanks.

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