Dennis Coffey provides clue to Motown amp on ‘History Detectives’

by Shaun Manning on August 23, 2012

A recent episode of PBS’ History Detectives found host Eduardo Pagán investigating the provenance of an amplifier that may have belonged to legendary Motown bass player James Jamerson. Jamerson was a member of the in-house studio band Funk Brothers, who played with Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye on more than 100 singles. Steve Fishman, the amp’s current owner, said that “James Jamerson was to bass what Jimi Hendrix was to guitar,” but the only evidence he has that this amp is a piece of Motown history is Jamerson’s name stenciled on the side. No photographs of Jamerson exist that would clearly establish whether he ever owned this amp, and the bassist died in 1983.

“I got it from a gentleman who was an amp specialist. He said it had been neglected for many, many years,” Fishman said. Nevertheless, it not only still works but “sounds great.”

Jamerson’s son said one of his father’s amps was stolen in the 1990s, but not this one. “Too many knobs,” he said.

Further investigation showed that, while the tell-tale serial number plate is missing, a look inside the amp reveals parts date-stamped in early 1962, which Pagán confirms means it is “authentic to the right era.” The host also noted that, because Jamerson did not even achieve modest recognition until long after his death, it might not have been worth faking the stencil in the first place.

Toward the end of the program, though, Pagán meets with Jamerson’s Funk Brothers bandmate Dennis Coffey, who plays him a recording of a Detroit gig from the ’60s. Coffey is also the author of Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars, published by University of Michigan Press in 2004. Coffey did not recognize the amp itself, but was able to provide some context that may in fact prove to authenticate the equipment as Jamerson’s.

Was it enough? View the entire segment at PBS.

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