A native of Edisto Island (near Charleston), South Carolina, Jamerson moved with his mother to Detroit, Michigan in 1954 and began playing in Detroit area blues and jazz clubs. His son, James Jamerson, Jr. (1958–2016), was also a professional bassist.
Jamerson continued performing in Detroit clubs after graduating from high school, and his increasingly solid reputation started providing him opportunities for sessions at various local recording studios. Starting in 1959, he found steady work at Berry Gordy's Hitsville U.S.A. studio, home of the Motown record label. He played bass on the Marv Johnson single "Come to Me" (1959), John Lee Hooker album Burnin' (1962) and The Reflections' "(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet" (1964). There he became a member of a core of studio musicians who informally called themselves The Funk Brothers. This small, close-knit group of musicians performed on the vast majority of Motown recordings during most of the 1960s. Jamerson's earliest Motown sessions were performed on double bass, but in the early 1960s he switched to playing an electric Fender Precision Bass for the most part.
Like Jamerson, most of the other Funk Brothers were jazz musicians who had been recruited by Gordy. For many years, they maintained a typical schedule of recording during the day at Motown's small garage "Studio A" (which they nicknamed "the Snakepit"), then playing gigs in the jazz clubs at night. They also occasionally toured the U.S. with Motown artists. For most of their career, however, the Funk Brothers went uncredited on Motown singles and albums, and their pay was considerably less than the main artists or the label received. Eventually, Jamerson was put on retainer with Motown for $1000 a week (US$7,600 in 2016 dollars), which afforded him and his ever-expanding family a comfortable lifestyle.
Jamerson's discography at Motown reads as a catalog of soul hits of the 1960s and 1970s. His work includes Motown hits such as, among hundreds of others, "You Can't Hurry Love" by The Supremes, "My Girl" by The Temptations, "Shotgun" by Jr. Walker & the All Stars, "For Once in My Life," "I Was Made To Love Her" by Stevie Wonder, "Going to a Go-Go" by The Miracles, "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and later by Marvin Gaye, and most of the album What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Bernadette" by the Four Tops. According to fellow Funk Brothers in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Gaye was desperate to have Jamerson play on "What's Going On," and went to several bars to find the bassist. When he did, he brought Jamerson to the studio, who then played the classic line while lying flat on his back. He is reported to have played on some 95% of Motown recordings between 1962 and 1968. He eventually performed on nearly 30 No. 1 pop hits—surpassing the record commonly attributed to The Beatles. On the R&B charts, nearly 70 of his performances went to the top.
Jamerson is noted for expanding the musical style and role of bass-playing in the popular music of the time, which (in 1950s and '60s R&B, rock and roll, and country) largely consisted of root notes, fifths and simple repetitive patterns. By contrast, many of Jamerson's basslines relied heavily on chromatic runs, syncopation, ghost notes and inversions, with frequent use of open strings. His nimble bass playing was considered an integral part of the "Motown Sound". He transcended the standard "bass line" and created a duet with the singer, melodic, but still very tightly locked with the drumgroove. Prominent bassists who have claimed Jamerson as a primary influence include James Brown's bassist Fred Thomas, Bernard Odum, Bootsy Collins, John Paul Jones, Tim Drummond, Sweet Charles Sherrell, Gary Thain (Uriah Heep), Larry Graham (Sly and The Family Stone, Graham Central Station), Bernard Edwards (Chic, Robert Kool Bell, Mark Adams (Slave), James Alexander (Bar-Kays), Johnny Flippin (Fatback Band), Clarence Hadley (Joe Tex Band), Steve Washington (Aurra, Slave), Paul McCartney (The Beatles), Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Kevin McCord (One Way), Marshal 'Rock' Jones (Ohio Players), Richard Finch (Sunshine Band), Louis Risbrook (B.T. Express), Doug Gibson (Jimmy Castor Bunch), Rocco Prestia, Bill Wyman, Roger Glover (Deep Purple), Mel Schacer (Grand Funk), Andy Fraser (Free), Suzi Quatro, Bob Babbitt, Tommy Cogbill, Ron Asheton (The Stooges), Pete Quaife (The Kinks), Jim McCallister (Mitch Ryder), Tony Sales (Iggy Pop Band), Chris Campbell (Bob Seger), Donald 'Duck' Dunn (Booker T. & The MG's), Pino Palladino, Alan Gorrie (AWB), Rick Danko, Jerry Jemmott, John Entwistle, Glenn Hughes, Nathan Watts, Will Lee, Chuck Rainey, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Matt Noveskey (Blue October), Tommy Shannon (Double Trouble), Peter Cetera (Chicago), Phillip Chen (Jimmy James and The Vagabonds, Rod Stewart), Michael League (Snarky Puppy), Geddy Lee (Rush) and Michael "Flea" Balzary (Red Hot Chili Peppers). The Rolling Stones recorded "My Girl", "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", "Just My Imagination", and "Going to a Go-Go". Phil Collins covered "You Can't Hurry Love" and Hall & Oates did "Man Eater" while The Jam's "Town Called Malice" got old Motown beat include James Jamerson's bassline.
Shortly after Motown moved their headquarters to Los Angeles, California in 1972, Jamerson moved there himself and found occasional studio work, but his relationship with Motown officially ended in 1973. He went on to perform on such 1970s hits as "Neither One Of Us" by Gladys Knight & The Pips (1973), "Boogie Down" (Eddie Kendricks, 1974), "Boogie Fever" (The Sylvers, 1976), "You Don't Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)" (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., 1976), and "Heaven Must Have Sent You" (Bonnie Pointer, 1979). He also played on recordings by Robert Palmer (Pressure Drop, 1975), Dennis Coffey (Instant Coffey, 1974), Wah Wah Watson (Elementary, 1976), Rhythm Heritage (1976), Al Wilson (1977), Eloise Laws (1977), Smokey Robinson (1978), Ben E. King (1978), Hubert Laws (1979), Tavares (1980), Joe Sample & David T. Walker (1981), and Bloodstone (1982). However, as other musicians went on to use high-tech amps, round-wound strings, and simpler, more repetitive bass lines incorporating new techniques like thumb slapping, Jamerson's style fell out of favor with local producers and he found himself reluctant to try new things. By the 1980s he was unable to get any serious gigs working as a session musician.
Long troubled by alcoholism, Jamerson died of complications stemming from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983, in Los Angeles. He left a wife, Anne, three sons, James Jamerson Jr. (R&B, member of disco band Chanson), Ivey (Joey), and Derek, and a daughter Doreen. He is interred at Detroit's historic Woodlawn Cemetery on Woodward Avenue.
James Jamerson (as is the case with the other Funk Brothers) received little formal recognition for his lifetime contributions. It was not until 1971, when he was acknowledged as "the incomparable James Jamerson" on the sleeve of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, that his name even showed up on a major Motown release.
Jamerson was the subject of a 1989 book by Allan Slutsky (aka "Dr. Licks") titled Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The book includes a biography of Jamerson, a few dozen transcriptions of his bass lines, and two CDs in which 26 internationally known professional bassists (such as Pino Palladino, John Entwistle, Will Lee, Chuck Rainey, and Geddy Lee) speak about Jamerson and play those transcriptions. Jamerson's story was also featured in the subsequent 2002 documentary film of the same title.
In 1989, Jamerson was awarded a bust at the Hollywood Guitar Center's Rock Walk.
In 2000, Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, part of the first-ever group of "sidemen" to be so honored.
In 2003, there was a two-day celebration entitled "Returned To The Source" which was hosted by The Charleston Jazz Initiative and Avery Research Center of The College of Charleston.
In 2004, the Funk Brothers were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2007, Jamerson along with the other Funk Brothers was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 2008, James Jamerson was awarded the Gullah/GeeChee Anointed Spirit Award.
In 2009, Jamerson was inducted into the Fender Hall of Fame. Among the speakers was fellow legendary Motown session bassist and friend, Bob Babbitt.
In 2009, Jamerson received a Resolution from the South Carolina House of Representatives.
In 2012, Jamerson received the Hartke, Zune, Samson 2012 International Bassist Award.
In 2013, the Funk Brothers received their Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2014, Jamerson received a State Resolution from the South Carolina Senate.
In 2016, Jamerson received the Independent Tone Award Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2017, he was awarded a Resolution from the Town of Edisto Island, South Carolina.
James Jamerson's double bass was a German upright acoustic bass that he bought as a teenager and later used on such Motown hits as "My Guy" by Mary Wells and "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas.
Jamerson played mainly the Fender Precision Bass, but is known to have briefly used a Fender Bass V and a Hagström eight-string later in his career.
His first electric bass was a 1957 Precision Bass, refinished in black, with a gold-anodized pickguard and maple fretboard, nicknamed "Black Beauty". That bass was a gift from his fellow bass player Horace "Chili" Ruth. In the sixties, it was stolen.
After his 1957 Precision Bass was stolen, he acquired a stock 1962 Fender Precision Bass which was dubbed "The Funk Machine." It had a three-tone sunburst finish, a tortoiseshell pickguard, rosewood fretboard and chrome pickup and bridge covers (the latter containing a piece of foam used to dampen sustain and some overtones). On the heel of the instrument he carved, with a ballpoint pen, the word "FUNK". He typically set its volume and tone knobs on full. This instrument was also stolen, just days before Jamerson's death in 1983. As of 2017, it has not been found.
James Jamerson used La Bella heavy-gauge (.052–.110) flatwound strings which were never replaced, unless a string broke. He did not particularly take care of the instrument, as he stated: "The gunk keeps the funk", and it is possible that the neck eventually warped, as many claimed it impossible to play. While this made it more difficult to fret, Jamerson believed it improved the quality of the tone. Early in the '70s, a producer attempted to modernize James Jamerson's sound by asking the bassist to switch to brighter-sounding roundwound bass strings, but Jamerson politely declined.
One aspect of James Jamerson's upright playing that carried over to the electric bass guitar, was the fact that he generally used only his right index finger to pluck the strings while resting his third and fourth fingers on the chrome pickup cover. Jamerson's index finger even earned its own nickname: "The Hook". Another aspect of Jamerson's upright playing which carried over was his use of open strings, a technique long used by jazz bass players, to pivot around the fretboard which served to give his lines a fluid feeling.
Jamerson's amplifier of choice at club performances was an Ampeg B-15; in larger venues, he used a blue Naugahyde Kustom with twin 15" speakers. On both, the bass was typically turned up full and the treble turned halfway up. On most of his studio recordings, his bass was plugged directly into the custom-made mixing console together with the guitars from Eddie Willis, Robert White and Joe Messina. He adjusted the console so that his sound was slightly overdriven and had a mild tube compression.