The death Monday morning of bassist Bob Babbitt in Nashville deprives us of yet another link to a fiercely creative era in American music — a time when musicians were as responsible for the sound and feel of a hit record as were singers and songwriters. As bassist on many Motown productions, Babbitt brought style to such tracks as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" and The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion." But Babbitt's contributions go beyond these well-known recordings. Babbitt was as much a record-maker as were the producers and songwriters with whom he worked in the 1960s and '70s.
Born Robert Kreiner in Pittsburgh on Nov. 26, 1937, Babbitt turned down a music scholarship to The University of Pittsburgh to move to Detroit, where he had relatives. Babbitt flirted with professional wrestling, but quickly found his place in a city with a strong jazz tradition.
Playing in a Detroit band called The Royaltones, Babbitt caught the ear of rock 'n' roll star Del Shannon. Along with guitarist and fellow Royaltone Dennis Coffey, Babbitt played on Shannon's "Little Town Flirt" and on other Shannon recordings of the early '60s.
Still, it was Babbitt's contributions to the Detroit pop-R&B sound of the late '60s that first displayed his musical mastery. That's Babbitt playing on The Parliaments' 1967 "(I Wanna) Testify" and "All Your Goodies Are Gone" — two of Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton's earliest masterpieces.
A white session player enlisted in Berry Gordy's crusade to create American pop music that appealed to people of all complexions, Babbitt began working for Motown in 1967. Playing with a group of mostly jazz-trained Detroit musicians that included drummer Benny Benjamin, guitarist Robert White and bassist James Jamerson, Babbitt became an integral part of Motown's sound. Motown's move to Los Angeles in the early '70s affected the careers of Babbitt and the other musicians who composed the group of studio players now known as The Funk Brothers.
But Babbitt always worked to adapt to whatever change the music business threw his way. He moved to New York in 1973 and played on sessions for Philadelphia producer Thom Bell, including The Spinners' "Games People Play." No sooner had he adjusted, however, than the ascendancy of disco, hip-hop and Michael Jackson shifted the playing field once again for R&B session players. Nevertheless, Babbitt worked with jazz musician Herbie Mann and played jingles, and relocated to Nashville in 1986.
Others would follow, such as drummer Ed Greene, who played on Steely Dan's Aja and records by Barry White. Greene first appeared with Babbitt on Diana Ross' 1973 "Touch Me in the Morning" — but because they did their parts in separate studios, he recalls, they didn't meet in person until 1982. They became friends after Greene came to Nashville in 1996.
"He was like a teddy bear," Greene says. "When he knew that you were his friend, and he knew that he was your friend, a connection was made. And he knew how to set up a song and make a record out of it." Greene describes a big-hearted man who loved to go out and eat, and the two men would make a weekly jaunt to get Italian food and talk shop. Just last spring, he was seen on the front deck of Savarino's in Hillsboro Village, indulging a pair of star-struck fans with his eyewitness vantage on music history.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, Babbitt had played on some Nashville sessions, but Music Row didn't seem interested in hiring the great bassist — even after a popular 2002 documentary featuring The Funk Brothers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, raised Babbitt's profile. Babbitt did work with producer Ed Pettersen on Freedy Johnston's 2008 full-length, My Favorite Waste of Time.
Yet the man who had played on innumerable classics wasn't deemed suitable to play on big-time country sessions, although Babbitt toured with Brenda Lee for several years. As Pettersen says, "He would instantly figure out what made a song better, and he played the notes between the notes." Earlier this year, Babbitt received a star on Nashville's Music City Walk of Fame.
He deserved the recognition, and then some. You could always tell when Babbitt played on a session — imagine Coffey's "Scorpio" without Babbitt's precise, soulful bass line. These days, Nashville session musicians play perfectly, but the sense of human beings bringing their own experiences to the project is often lacking.
The technique and artistry — indeed, the soul — Bob Babbitt brought to his work ensured the records he played on will live forever. He died early Monday morning after struggling with cancer, and leaves behind his wife, Ann, and three children.