Bob Babbitt, 74, Motown ‘Funk Brothers’ bassist heard on ‘Midnight Train To Georgia,’ ‘Mercy, Mercy Me,’ ‘Tears Of A Clown’
By PETER COOPER Gannett News Service July 16, 2012 6:02PM
In this April 16, 2003 photo, Bob Babbitt, of the Funk Brothers, plays bass during the Funk Brothers performance at Ohio Theatre in Cleveland's Playhouse Square district. Motown Museum chief curator Lina Stephens says Babbitt died Monday, July 16, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. He was 74. (AP Photo/Luke Palmisano)
Updated: August 18, 2012 6:25AM
Bob Babbitt, one of the greatest and most versatile bass players in popular music history, died Monday in Nashville at age of 74.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Babbitt had been diagnosed in early 2011 with an inoperable brain tumor. He was recently readmitted to the hospital after a year of home hospice care.
Babbitt’s gymnastic, groove-rooted bass work bolsters classic recordings including Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” The Temptation’s “Ball of Confusion,” Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Edwin Starr’s “War,” Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Midnight Train To Georgia” and The Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.”
He was known to thousands of fans as a bass player in the Motown session crew called “The Funk Brothers.” The Brothers were the subject of Grammy-winning film “Standing In The Shadows of Motown,” and Babbitt toured in the new century with surviving members of the group.
“Bob was a teddy bear of a guy,” said former Motown engineer Ed Wolfrum. “And he was an extraordinary musician -- a player’s player.”
But the scope of his contributions went beyond Motown, as evidenced by the more than 25 gold records (none from Motown, which did not offer gold records to its musician employees) he kept in his home and by a discography that notes his work with remarkable array of artists. Elton John, George Clinton, Carlene Carter, Phil Collins, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Jim Croce, Frank Sinatra, Robert Palmer and hundreds of others hired Babbitt, whose playing was as versatile as it was recognizable.
Born Robert Kreinar in Pittsburgh, he took classical bass lessons as a child but was far more intrigued by the R&B music he heard on records and on the radio. He began playing in area clubs at age 15, and he declined a college scholarship in favor of moving to Detroit to begin his professional music career in earnest.
He got his start on the Motor City music scene with the popular local band the Royaltones.
“I was taking a walk and happened to pass a place where I heard some guys rehearsing,” he recounted to the Free Press in 2003. “I went down and introduced myself, got my upright bass, and started working with them. The scene in Detroit then was heavy on the teenage clubs. They were all over the city -- all kinds of different groups. That’s where we started to meet the other musicians.”
He soon found work in the studio and on the road with Del Shannon, and Detroit producers took notice of his ability to deliver quickly, correctly and soulfully in the studio.
He provided the signature rumble for “Cool Jerk,” and numerous other notable parts. But he did not work at the city’s leading studio, Motown, for a time, because of the presence of combustible bass legend James Jamerson. But when Motown chief Berry Gordy purchased Golden World, the studio where Babbit had been working, he had an entry into the world of the Funk Brothers. His first Motown session was with Stevie Wonder, for whom he’d worked on the road.
As Jamerson’s drinking increased, Babbitt got called for more and more sessions, establishing himself not as a replacement for Jamerson but as a viable alternative. His playing on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 “What’s Going On?” album is much-studied today, as is his solo on Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio.” (On that one, Babbitt played what is likely the lengthiest bass solo in Top 40 music history.)
“Bob had that big, fat sound,” Coffey told the Detroit Free Press on Monday. “The highlight of his career, in my mind, was that solo. It set a bass standard. You didn’t hear bass solos on records, let alone a hit record. Guys were freaking out trying to duplicate it. That was the benchmark for a bass player: You had to be able to play that ‘Scorpio’ solo.’”
Work at Motown slowed in the early 1970s, and Babbitt’s exclusive contract with Motown did not allow him to pursue touring opportunities offered by Jeff Beck and others. The contract covered only music, though, so Babbitt was able to earn extra dollars moonlighting as a professional wrestler. Indeed, he was a big man, though too jovial to strike much in the way of fear. Gordy moved Motown’s offices from Detroit to Los Angeles, halting any and all momentum, and Babbitt decided to head to New York in 1973 and work for producers including Arif Mardin.
Babbitt and former Motown drummer Andrew Smith worked as a rhythm section, and that duo tracked hits together including the Spinners’ “Then Came You” and “Rubber Band Man,” each recorded in Philadelphia.
Babbitt told interviewer Allan Slutsky (prodcuer of the “Standing In The Shadows of Motown” documentary) that he was most comfortable when producers offered enough leeway for him to create parts rather than merely replicate what was on a page.
“Looking back, I think the tracks where the real me came out were “Touch Me In The Morning” (Diana Ross), “Then Came You,” (Dione Warwick), “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” (Elton John), “Midnight Train To Georgia” and Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio,” which had a 90-second bass solo that’s all me,” he said.
In the late 1970s, Babbitt jetted all over North America, playing a rock session one day (Alice Cooper, for instance) and a crooner gig (Sinatra) the next. Work slowed again in the early ‘80s, though, and in June of 1986 he moved to Nashville. He found session work hard to come by in Music City, and his decisions to tour with Brenda Lee, Robert Palmer, Joan Baez and others meant he was often absent from a town where session players must be present to win.
“I couldn’t get producers on the phone,” he told The Tennessean in 2003. “My friend Larrie London said, ‘You’ve got to start eating lunch at the San Antonio taco house, because that’s where all the writers and producers hang out.’ I said, ‘What do I do, strap my bass on, get some business cards and sit there at a little table?’ The fact is, down here it doesn’t count that you played on ‘Ball of Confusion.’”
Released in 2002, the “Standing In The Shadows” film ignited interest in Babbitt and in The Funk Brothers, as the architects of the Motown sound were revealed to the public. Grammy Awards and some major headlining tours (often with Joan Osborne singing lead vocals) followed, and though Babbitt did not see a major uptick in Nashville session work, he began taking calls (and gigs) from notables outside of town. Phil Collins, for instance, flew him to London for the recording of his “Going Back” album in 2010.
“To me, all this attention and everything that’s happening to the Funk Brothers now is surreal,” he told The Tennessean. “What happened at Motown was that a family was formed. The longer the Funk Brothers went on, our connection became a spiritual connection.”
In 2007, he and the Funk Brothers were inducted into the Nashville-based Musicians Hall of Fame. And in June of 2012, Babbitt received a place on the Music City Walk of Fame.
“Bob Babbitt changed the world with four strings and a groove,” said bass player Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville Musicians Association, inducting Babbitt into the Walk of Fame.
Memorial details are incomplete at this time.
Gannett News Service