Few bassists have played on as many hits as Funk Brother Bob Babbitt. Over a career spanning five decades, the 6'2" Mt. Washington native with the offensive lineman’s build has earned 25 gold and platinum records and has played on more than 200 top Forty hits.
Oddly, none of his 25 gold and platinum records were from his Motown body of work, because the label didn’t give out gold records. Berry Gordy, Jr. believed his corporate structure, not the artists, created the hits. Who knows what his count would be with those tunes to his credit?
Born Robert Kreiner to Hungarian parents in Pittsburgh, Babbitt was heavily influenced by the gypsy music he heard in his home.
He started his career when he received classical training on upright bass. His seventh grade choir teacher got him started on the instrument, and Babbitt played for three years in the Pittsburgh Symphony's Junior Orchestra.
Babbitt began performing at age 15, and after hearing an electric bass live at a nightclub for the first time two years later, he saw the light and traded in his upright for a Fender.
Like most local players, he was inspired by the R&B sounds throbbing from Pittsburgh jocks like Porky with music like Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" and Red Prysock's "Hand Clappin'."
His father died during his senior year in high school, and the family moved to the Glen Hazel projects. Babbitt passed up a music scholarship to Pitt to look for a job. But his 9-5 gigs didn't pay much, and he didn't want to end up in the steel mills.
An uncle in Detroit offered to help him find work. Babbitt moved there in the mid-1950s, and worked for an aluminum plant and a construction outfit.
A year or so after arriving, he hooked up with the Royaltones, a gritty instrumental combo that made waves in the Motor City club scene, charting a handful of records including a Top Ten hit, "Flamingo Express."
They caught the attention of Del Shannon, who hired the Royaltones as his touring and recording band through 1965. They backed Shannon's smash "Little Town Flirt."
Babbitt began to make a name for himself. He first met some of Motown’s Funk Brothers, including bass legend James Jamerson, who he would later replace, while working at Golden World studio.
He sat in at nearly every Detroit studio except Motown's Hitsville, backing songs like “I Just Wanna Testify” (Parliaments), “Love Makes the World Go Round” (Dion Jackson), "Agent Double 0 Soul" (Edwin Starr), "With This Ring" (Platters); and “Cool Jerk” (Capitols).
Live dates with Stevie Wonder finally brought Babbitt into Motown’s Hitsville studio in 1967 (it helped that Motown bought Golden World studios); his first session for the label was Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”
He went on to back “Touch Me in the Morning,” (Diana Ross) “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Stevie Wonder); “Smiling Faces” & "Ball of Confusion" (Temptations); “War” (Edwin Starr); “Tears of a Clown” (Smokey Robinson); Gladys Knight & The Pips' “Midnight Train To Georgia” and many other Motown hits. Most famously, Babbitt laid the bass lines for “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece "What’s Goin’ On."
His stay with the Funk Brothers was sometimes rocky. Babbitt often replaced James Jamerson, the band's troubled but brilliant bassist. Occasionally, Jamerson would stop by the studio to watch Babbitt play in his spot; once with a gun stuck in his waistband.
But they ended up getting along just fine, and the Funk Brother's came to accept him as, well, a brother. But the band and Motown always had a contentious relationship, and when the label decided to do most of its studio work in LA, the Funk Brothers gave it up and scattered with the wind.
Babbitt moved to New York in 1973 and did dates and sessions with artists such as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Engelbert Humperdink, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Songs he backed were “I Got a Name” (Jim Croce); "Indiana Wants Me" (R. Dean Taylor); and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight & the Pips).
It expanded his music world. He said "Playing in New York forced me to learn a lot of different styles, because there was so much going on there. I started checking out rock bands like Aerosmith, Edgar Winter, and The Who, particularly what John Entwistle did on 'My Generation' and 'Magic Bus,' which knocked me out."
The variety of acts he supported didn't just widen his repertoire; it made him slightly nuts. "I was recording with so many different artists in so many different styles, I didn't know which end was up. I remember cutting three complete albums in three weeks at one point. The first was with the Spinners out in L.A.; then came an Alice Cooper record in Toronto; then I did Sinatra in New York."
He also worked in Philadelphia during this period, playing on Spinners classics such as “Then Came You,” “Games People Play,” and “Rubberband Man" at the City of Brotherly Love's famous Sigma Sound Studio. Babbitt also backed Deniece Williams on her hit "It's Gonna Take A Miracle," produced by Thom Bell.
But the heyday of the star session man had peaked. In the early 1980s, Babbitt gave up album work in favor of commercial jingles and a jaunt into jazz, touring and recording with Herbie Mann and the Hill District's Stanley Turrentine.
He moved on to Nashville, with its R&B, country, and gospel markets. He did a few sessions with Louise Mandrell, Carlene Carter, and other country artists, plus some demo jobs.
Babbitt toured with Joan Baez and Brenda Lee. When he's not on the road, he plays with a local R&B band called Lost In Detroit, featuring Dennis Locorriere, who was the lead singer for Dr. Hook. He was in Philly, doing a Bobby Rydell compilation. Babbitt backed Elton John's 2009 album, "Are You Ready For Love?"
He also appears with the Funk Brothers when they gig, including during their 2007 North American tour. The musicians got a huge boost in 2002 from producer Paul Justman's documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," based on Allan Slutsky's book.
Supported by a dynamite two-CD soundtrack and DVD version, it took off, along with the cred of the Funk Brothers. Babbitt was interviewed and featured prominently in the film. In 2004, the FBs were awarded a Life Time Achievement Grammy.
And as an acknowledged master of his instrument, Babbitt is in constant demand in the industry for his technical skills; he's maybe the top teacher in the bass biz.
The seventy-something Babbitt's last visit to his hometown was on October 31st, for "A Pittsburgh Tribute to Motown Records' 50th Anniversary," at the August Wilson Center. Before that, Babbitt visited on July 23, 2008, at Duquesne University's "Summertime Jazz With Soul" where he played and spoke at a seminar.
He also participated in the annual Rockin’ Christmas Fund charity fund-raiser, a holiday concert that benefited needy children.
Babbitt was diagnosed in early 2011 with an inoperable brain tumor, on on February 4th, 2013, he passed away in Nashville at the age of 74.
But his music lives on. Every time you hear the classic bass lines of later Motown that a guy from Mt. Washington was probably laying them down.
"Ball of Confusion" - Temptations (1970)