On July 17 the world lost one of the greatest bass players of all time in the person of Bob Babbitt who died from brain cancer.
Born Robert Kreiner in Pittsburgh, Babbitt studied classical music as a teen but soon gravitated to rhythm & blues, and by age 15 he was playing upright bass in a number of local bar bands. Upon first encountering an electric bass during a club date, the 17-year-old Babbitt traded in his upright for a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass guitar. From there he turned down a music scholarship and in 1961 relocated to Detroit, working construction jobs by day while moonlighting in area nightclubs. Within a year Babbitt signed on with the Detroit rock & roll band the Royaltones, scoring a series of regional hits including “Flamingo Express.”
Upon leaving the group, Babbitt emerged as an in-demand Detroit session player, becoming a fixture at Motown rival Golden World Studios, where he played on hits like Edwin Starr’s “Agent Double-O-Soul” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk”. When Motown chief Berry Gordy purchased Golden World in 1968, Babbitt 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. With Wonder they did a cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”
The players who featured in the Funk Brothers were drawn from the local Detroit jazz and blues clubs. They worked in the world famous Studio A, known as the “Snakepit”. They spent endless days recording the instrumental backing for releases by numerous Motown artists. The personnel included: guitarists Robert White, Joe Messina, and Eddie Willis, bass players James Jamerson, and Bob Babbitt, drummers Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen, and Uriel Jones, percussionists Jack Ashford, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown, and keyboard players Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke, and Johnny Griffith. Joe Hunter was the original band leader, a position he gave up in 1964 to Van Dyke. They were paid only $10 a song and no credit on the album covers.
The memorable element of the famed Motown sound was the bass guitar of Bob Babbitt. His Jazz inspired grooves propelled some of the most memorable hits from soul’s golden era, including Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown,” Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me,” and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” He remained with the label through 1972, during that time playing on an extraordinary roll call of psychedelic soul hits including Starr’s “War,” the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” and the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” Babbitt also continued freelancing outside the Motown sphere, adding to his résumé blockbusters like Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,” the Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” and Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio.” In all, he played on more than 200 Billboard Top 40 hits, a list of chart smashes that continued to grow when he left Detroit in 1973. Babbitt did gigs in support of singers as diverse as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, and Engelbert Humperdinck, Babbitt also commuted to Philadelphia, working with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International label on hits like the Spinners’ “Rubber Band Man” and the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
During the early ’80s Babbitt began limiting his album sessions. He did advertising jingles, and he also turned to jazz, collaborating with flutist Herbie Mann and fellow Pittsburgher saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. By the middle of the decade he relocated to Nashville, reinventing himself as a country and gospel session player. Babbitt also toured in support of Joan Baez and Brenda Lee, and began playing in a local R&B band dubbed Lost in Detroit.
Despite his dozens of gold and platinum records, Babbitt remained little known to the public at large until 2002, when he was one of several Funk Brothers alums prominently featured in the acclaimed feature documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”. Many of the surviving Funk Brothers (including Babbitt) recorded new renditions of their classic Motown performances for the film, even earning a Grammy Award for their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” featuring vocalist Chaka Khan. In 2004, the studio veterans also won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. That same year, Babbitt released his first-ever solo LP, titled Gypsy from Jupiter
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. He is survived by his wife and son.