Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, February 06, 2004


I confess it. I’m not immune to hype. I saw “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” a couple months ago, the terrific documentary about the Motown session musicians, and it re-piqued my interest in the “sound of young America” circa 1962 - 1970. Engaging, charming people and great musicians, most of the session players came from the jazz world. The movie doesn’t explicitly say this, but points in the direction that James Jamerson, Motown’s great bassist, was probably the most influential instrumentalist in pop music in the last 40 years. He died before the movie was made. He came to Motown from jazz.

Jamerson pretty much invented funky electric bass playing, influencing not only whole genres like soul and funk and disco and hip hop and techno, but also white rock and Miles Davis’s fusion and Ornette Coleman’s different fusion. People with rock-centric ears think of the electric guitar as the key instrument, which it is -- in rock; but electric bass is central to pop music all around the world now, including rock, and if not electric bass, then synthesized bass playing a similar sonic/musical role. Jamerson’s role in that is huge.

I heard Stevie Wonder’s song “For Once In My Life” while coming home from work one night last week, a late ‘60s Motown hit co-written by Stevie but played and produced in the Motown way. (Stevie produced and played most of the instruments on his ‘70s hits.) The beauty of a song I had heard many many times before rolled over me again.

The liltingly funky guitar licks that open it; the joyous vocal; the lyrics that open themselves up to the pain, sorrow, and loneliness that preceded this time of joy; the joy precipitated by having “for once in my life . . . someone who needs me”; and then Stevie’s distinctive, joyous, melodic harmonica solo. The brilliance of the arrangement, from a few instruments to a seeming cast of dozens pounding away, with nothing out of place.

The lilting lightness of the guitar licks and the chromatic harmonica solo, catching the euphoria and elation; the heaviness of the orchestra and chorus catching the depth of passion. An overwhelming emotion, overwhelming and elating, heavy heavy heavy and oh-so-light.

The complexity of human emotion -- music can capture it spectacularly.

I was driving home today from a friend's house and heard "For once in my life",and immediately got on the computer to find about the great session players and there was your site.Thank You.
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