In Memoriam: Jess Oliver

Jess OliverBass amp innovator and former Ampeg Vice President Jess Oliver has passed away at the age of 85. Among his many contributions to the bass world was the Ampeg B-15, a portable flip-top design that revolutionized bass amplification.

Born Oliver Jespersen in 1926, Oliver was drafted into World War II in 1944 and played bass in the Army band after pneumonia left him unfit for combat. Upon returning to the U.S., he became an electrician but continued to gig in New York City.

Oliver met Ampeg founder Everett Hull while purchasing an Ampeg bass pickup and impressed Hull by deftly installing the pickup himself. He was offered a job which he accepted in 1956 after six months of keeping his day gig.

With Hull footing the bill, Oliver studied amp design at the RCA Institute and in 1960 he came up with the B-15: a bass combo with features including a double-baffle porting system, closed-back reflex cabinet, and flip top function that proved handy for storage while also protecting the tubes. The combo became a huge success with players from James Jamerson to Chuck Rainey.

Oliver also created the Ampeg Baby Bass, based on the design purchased from Zorko. He left the company in 1965 after disagreements about the design of the solid-state BT-15, and went on to form his own company, Oliver Amps. He continued to service B-15’s from his personal workshop for the rest of his life.

Ampeg celebrated Oliver’s groundbreaking work this year with the release of the Heritage B-15 model and the introduction of the Portaflex series. They also honored him with the “Godfather of Bass Amplification Award” at Winter NAMM 2011.

Our thoughts are with the friends and family of Jess Oliver.

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  1. dave anderson

    Jess was a great friend, inventor and man. He helped so many, beyond bass amplification. I will miss you my friend.

  2. Dan V

    Another giant passes…I bought a fully restored early 60s B15N from Jess some years ago and he was a delight to deal with. It came with a new Eminence 15″ spkr, NOS tubes, for $675 shipped!
    A Fender Precision into a B15N is THE sound and I put Jess right up there with Leo and Les as American innovators.
    So long, Jess. Thanks for everything.

    Dan V

  3. Romain DECORET

    Jess Oliver was truly a great man dedicated to bass amplification. It says a lot about him that he kept repairing amps in his shop instead of searching for other commercial opportunities. Jess reminds me of Doc Kauffman – Leo Fender’s first partner- who prefered to continue servicing musician’s instruments rather than discarding repairs and becoming corporative…. Excelsior!

  4. I own a 502 pwerflex guitar amp and its the best sounding clean amp there is.

  5. I went to Jess Oliver’s house 20 years ago and found him to be a very knowledgeable person on everything. Jess fixed my B-15 and told me all about the history of Ampeg. Went a couple of other times as well so he could fix a guitar amp of mine. And on another occasion Jess fixed my friends amp. Jess was a whiz. I was thinking of him recently because my B-15 is on the fritz.

  6. Ross W. Lovell

    The Oliver B120 was one of the first amplifiers I played through, bought used. The amp didn’t mind I was a guitarist not a bassist. Remember the amp being a good sounding amp, though the friend I bought it from in the late 70’s, thought it sounded better with the back off. Great tube sounding amp, reminded me of a Marshall that worked or a HiWatt. Did miss having a reverb, but it was a bass amp. Being under 20 with not a lot of money meant the amp was with me for a couple of years. Knew what that amp and my guitar could do mainly because I didn’t yet own a ton of equipment and I learned the nuances of the Oliver with my Strat. Still have both of them. The Oliver still has the 20′ vacuum cleaner cord that was swapped out after the original was damaged. The 20′ came in handy at some places we played.

    • Jim demilio

      I have an oliver B120 I bought back in 74 from a friend and still works and sounds great, later on in 75 I bought the Oliver B200 bass amp with 2 15s and still use both today in my studio. Like you I used my 120 for a guitar amp. I just finished replacing tubes and power cords for both recently also .