Documentary maker Paul Crutcher is on the hunt to find James Jamerson’s ‘Funk Machine’ Fender Precision. He tells Ben Cooper that he’s closing in on the prize.
Despite legions of world class musicians reciting versions of the mantra ‘the sound is in your hands’, musical instruments – especially those used by revered players – can take on an iconic status among us mere mortals. The fetishisation of Jaco’s ‘Bass Of Doom’, Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Frankenstrat’ and others approaches near-religious fervour, hence the burgeoning market in replica instruments that mimic every scratch and ding.
If one instrument can make claim to be the holy grail for bassists, it’s the late Motown star James Jamerson’s Precision, the legendary Funk Machine. Paul Crutcher is on a quest to find this mythical instrument, which was stolen from James in the final days of his life. As he reveals, the trail is far from cold.
What prompted you to undertake a documentary about James Jamerson, and the Funk Machine in particular?
I’ve been interested in Motown and James Jamerson for many years. I loved Allan Slutsky’s book Standing In The Shadows of Motown, but I found the accompanying documentary focused more on [the other session musicians] the Funk Brothers than just Jamerson. Those guys definitely needed to be recognised, but Tom, my co-producer, and I thought we needed to go deeper on Jamerson. He and drummer Benny Benjamin were really the heart of Motown. I spoke to someone recently and he said, “You know, we never grooved to the lyrics. It was that rhythm section that got everyone dancing.”
Are Jamerson’s family involved?
They are. I began speaking to his son James Jr., who still lives in Detroit, and I got his blessing to proceed. I’ve also spoken with James’ cousin Anthony McKnight. He lives in South Carolina and is trying to get James into the South Carolina Musicians’ Hall of Fame, which incredibly he isn’t in. I spoke to Annie Jamerson too.
Even if you don’t successfully locate the Funk Machine, what do you hope to achieve with the documentary?
We have a responsibility, while the people involved in Motown are still with us, to do our job as journalists, filmmakers and music lovers and record what happened. Most of these guys are 70-plus, so the clock is ticking. Even if we don’t find it, at least we will ensure that future generations know who James Jamerson was, and how much he contributed to music.
Do you have any leads to go on?
I now have an eyewitness account from a reputable source about seeing the instrument at a vintage guitar show in 1993 in California. This gentleman worked for the Bass Center in Los Angeles, which was the first bass-only store in America. He had worked with the Fender custom shop to recreate an exact replica of the Funk Machine. At the show, a guy in his early 20s came by the table and said, ‘Hey, wanna see something?’ He opened up a plastic Fender case and inside was a 1962 or ’63 Fender Precision with all the right markings. The young man said ‘This is the Funk Machine’. I’m in contact with the people who put that show on, and I’m going through the booth and vendors list and trying to track down people who were at the show on that day. I’m talking to people and we’re following up every lead we get.
What is it about Jamerson that still enthrals us?
James would play things that were familiar and quite common, and then he would suddenly do something that would lift everything to the stratosphere. A gentleman called Dan Garrett, who is writing a thesis on James Jamerson, wants to quantify what it is about James’ playing that worked so well. Even when you speak to the big names, they have fairly vague answers like ‘He played with soul’, ‘He played with feeling’, ‘He was in the pocket’… but Dan wants to work out exactly what it was that made him so unique.
When you’ve approached artists for their involvement, Gene Simmons of Kiss for instance, has the response been positive?
Overwhelmingly so – there is great respect for James. David T. Walker, who played guitar on ‘Let’s Get It On’, told me a story about when he first met James at a Motown summer picnic. Everyone was there having fun: the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye. In the distance stood this solitary figure casting a fishing pole into the water: it was James. He was away from the crowd. It’s those moments of colour that I love and want to bring to the documentary.
What has been the process behind the search?
At first it began with word of mouth. I began by speaking to Phil Chen, who played bass with Rod Stewart. He knew James and knows a lot about him. Phil passed me onto Bonnie Raitt’s bassist Hutch Hutchinson, so I spoke to Hutch and he then passed me to the bassist Don Wood, and through this kind of referral process I’ve picked up more information and more names. Singer-songwriter Kenny Koontz’s name came up again and again. He knew James at the end of his life, and I’ve spoken to Kenny. At the time he didn’t really know James’ reputation. He lived around the corner from James and he loved him as a friend.
If you do locate the bass, do you think the owner will be aware of its provenance? How do you think they will react when you contact them?
I’ve been thinking about that, because of course that’s the ultimate goal of the documentary, and it throws up a whole set of problems. I believe that the owner knows what they have, and that its provenance has been passed along as the bass has changed hands. As for their reaction, who can say? The bass deserves to be back with the family. If it ends up in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame that’s great, but the family are really the rightful owners so it should go back to them initially.
Why have you chosen the Kickstarter route?
We have potential investors, but we know there are a lot of James Jamerson fans around the world and we think offering partial ownership is a powerful thing. A lot of people have contacted me and told me how important Motown and James are to them, and they want to be involved and also have some investment in the project.
Why do you think such a myth has sprung up around the bass?
Well, the Precision bass changed the game as far as basses were concerned, even though when James first played a Precision he said, ‘What does the P stand for? Pussy, that’s what!’ because he came from that upright bass background which is more physically demanding. Dan Garrett said to me, ‘James could have played a mop handle with a piece of twine on it and made it sound good’. James had other basses and he used his upright bass too, but we think that the Funk Machine features on records that sold 200 million copies. The sound of that bass was so important because it was part of the soundtrack of a generation.
Why do you believe James Jamerson was so important?
I remember watching the film Amadeus and seeing that relationship between Salieri and Mozart, and how the character of Salieri hates Mozart’s gift but realises later in life that it was almost like the Creator speaking through a person. I believe James had that gift.
His music speaks to me, it moves me, and I just find it amazing how he plays so much yet never treads on a vocal line or other instrument. To my mind he was the perfect bass player. I hate the way his life ended, how he went to LA but was so hurt by being turned down for sessions and his career and life ended so sadly. I almost feel like he’s watching over the project – and that’s why I want to do justice to him.
Only time will tell if Paul and his team can find the Funk Machine and remove the shadow of its theft from James Jamerson’s legacy, but one thing is for sure, he’ll be giving James and his enormous contribution to music and bass playing the justice it deserves.
Originally published in BGM 112.