Bob Babbitt is dead. The name will mean nothing to most people, but you’ve almost certainly heard him. Babbitt was a bass guitarist – one of two – in the Motown studio band during the Detroit record label’s glory days. He died in Nashville on Monday, aged 74, from brain cancer.The Funk Brothers, as the Motown band came to be known, laid down the backing tracks for the extraordinary string of hits that emanated from the Motown studios at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard (now known as Berry Gordy Jr Blvd, in honour of the label’s founder) during the 1960s and early 70s. The musicians were mostly black but included several whites, Babbitt being one.
He played second string, to coin a phrase, to James Jamerson, still considered by many to have been the greatest bass player in pop history. Listen to any Motown track and you can usually tell which bassist was used on the session. Jamerson’s playing is dazzlingly fast, fluid and slippery, joyously and effortlessly bouncing all over the place (listen to Stevie Wonder’s For Once in My Life for a classic demo of the Jamerson technique).Babbitt’s style was more conventional, but he could still cook. That’s Babbitt playing on Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Tears of a Clown. Some of his best playing was on non-Motown tracks: check out Gladys Knight and Pips’ Midnight Train to Georgia and the deliciously funky bass line on Band of Gold by Freda Payne.
Jamerson failed to adapt when Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972. Long troubled by alcoholism, he parted company with the label in 1973 and died 10 years later, almost a forgotten man. He eventually got the recognition he deserved with the release of the excellent 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.Babbitt fared better post-Motown, scoring work with artistes as diverse as Jim Croce, Frank Sinatra and Alice Cooper. But he struggled to find work in Nashville after moving there in the 1980s. According to an obituary in the Washington Post, Babbitt told the Nashville Tennessean his “groovy rhythm and blues” (I wonder, was that really the phrase Babbit used?) wasn’t suited to country music.
“If I had it to do all over again, I would have moved to Nashville and used Kreinar [his birth name] as my name and not tell anybody anything about Motown,” he told the Tennessean. “I’d just be a bass player in town.”