You know those familiar bass lines from hits like "Dancing in the Streets" (Martha and the Vandellas), "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (Diana Ross), "My Girl" (The Temptations), and "What's Going On" (Marvin Gaye)? Those are the handiwork of legendary Motown session player and Charleston native James Jamerson, and those notes were plucked out using his trusty 1962 Fender bass he so famously called The FUNK Machine. The instrument was stolen after a break-in to Jamerson's L.A. home just before he died in 1983, and it hasn't been seen since. Now, over 30 years after the musician's death, Wild Mercury Productions, a group of Greenwood, S.C. filmmakers, are on an ambitious mission to recover The FUNK Machine and tell the important story of Jamerson with a documentary featuring some of the world's most prominent musicians. Producers Tom Neal and Paul Crutcher are heading up the project.
"It's almost like a treasure hunt," Crutcher says of the film entitled James Jamerson and the Legend of the FUNK Machine. "We're trying to find the facts, who has seen it, when they've seen it. So we've compiled a list of 25 of the greatest musicians in the world who are going to help us tell the story. And as we started the process, it just snowballed into this huge thing. It was going to be a smaller project, but now we're going all over the world and have talked to everyone from Paul McCartney's folks and his handlers to a lot of the greatest bass players. So that's kind of how we've gotten here."
Part of the intrigue for producers Crutcher and Neal is knowing Edisto Island-born Jamerson had South Carolina roots. At the age of 17, Jamerson and his family left Charleston and headed to Detroit in what would become a life-changing move for the teenager, who somehow crossed paths there with Hitsville U.S.A.'s Berry Gordy. Jamerson would eventually play, mostly uncredited, on more No. 1 hits than The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys combined.
Famous for his one-finger plucking style called the Hook, Jamerson's life was compelling, but the mysterious whereabouts of the FUNK Machine is the complex story Crutcher became so fixated on. Rumor had it that the FUNK Machine was somewhere in Detroit, but that theory was squashed last spring. A long-time fan of Jamerson, Crutcher sent a Facebook message during the early stages of the search to Jamerson's old friend Phil Chen, former bassist for Rod Stewart. It was during their two-and-a-half hour phone call that Crutcher discovered Chen had seen the FUNK himself in L.A. around the time of the theft. The eyewitness accounts of Chen and others who've personally handled the FUNK have helped in identifying its physical features (like weight, texture, and carvings) in detail.
Wild Mercury Productions is now busy combing through ancient police records, internet chat rooms, and old discussion boards in its hunt for more clues. The California Pawn Brokers Association is working with researchers, too, and Fender is assisting with finding possible serial numbers for the famous bass.
"The more people you talk to, the more interesting tidbits come out, so for us and our team it's jut putting together facts. It's an investigation. I mean, we don't know if we will ever find it, but we might. It could be anywhere. It could be in a pawn shop; it could be in an attic; it could be repainted with stickers all over it."
Crutcher contends though that the focus is really on the musician. "He was such a gifted player," he says. "The instrument itself didn't matter that much. It was the guy who was playing it. The guy who was playing it was fantastic."
The story gets super colorful with the addition of personal stories from people who never even knew Jamerson. The producers' initial goal was to create a documentary divided in equal parts between interviews and details pertaining to the bass search. But the growing list of artists willing to contribute could see those numbers move to creating a film consisting of 75 percent interviews. Musicians like Gene Simmons from Kiss, the Staple Singers' David Hood, Stax session bassist Steve Cropper (of "Soul Man" fame) are all too happy to help tell the story, adding to it by emphasizing Jamerson's impact on their own careers.
"We won't know who has the most to contribute until we sit down with everyone," Crutcher says, "and that's why we're doing a Kickstarter fund to raise money to help us do that."
The filmmakers recently launched a Kickstarter campagin to help fund the travels required to complete the film. Footage will be shot in the Hitsville U.S.A.'s headquarters, and Crutcher is excited to meet Jamerson's widow, as well as James Jamerson Jr. in Detroit. The ultimate goal would be to turn the FUNK Machine over to Jamerson's son, who is also a bass player. The producers also hope the bass would eventually wind up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the meantime, the dig is on, and the narrative continues to unfold.
"We'll keep talking to as many people as possible and keep getting more and more of the story, assuming we get the funding we need," Crutcher says. "We're going to do this just as thoroughly as possible, taking our time to get it right. We've got magnificent storytellers, and I think it's a really nice story to tell."
You can donate to James Jamerson and the Legend of the FUNK Machine by visiting wildmercuryproductions.com. The Kickstarter deadline is July 10. You can also join a movement to get Jamerson inducted into the S.C. Hall of Fame at moveon.org.