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We lost a Funk Brother this week. Bob Babbitt died of cancer at age 74. Although Babbitt was certainly best known as a member of the Motown house band, he was playing on hit records long before he went to work for Mr. Gordy.
Babbitt was born in Pittsburgh, but he had family living in Michigan, and his wife was from Dearborn. So it was natural for him to gravitate to the Detroit music scene when he was a young musician. That’s Babbit playing on Del Shannon hits like “Little Town Flirt,” “I Go To Pieces,” and “Handyman.” You can also hear his brilliant bass playing shining through on hits like “Cool Jerk” by the Capitols, and “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” by Deon Jackson.
Popular opinion holds that James Jamerson was the greatest bass player who ever lived. But by the time the late ’60s rolled around, there was more work at Motown than Jamerson could handle, a situation exacerbated by his drinking problem. Babbitt started spending more time at Motown, picking up the slack. The slack included classic performances on songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” and “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations.
Everyone knows the story of how Berry Gordy gathered up his company and moved it to LA in 1972, leaving behind the Funk Brothers, the musicians who had played on all of the Motown hits. Some of them followed him west. Babbit continued to work in Detroit, with stops in New York and Philadelphia. It was while he was working with producer Thom Bell in Philadelphia that he cut “Rubberband Man” and “Then Came You,” both giant hits for the Spinners.
Later Babbitt moved to Nashville, but work wasn’t easy to find there. Apparently a number of the city’s established sidemen had been claiming to be Motown sidemen, and no one believed Babbitt when he staked his claim, which of course was legitimate. The 2002 film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary about the Funk Brothers, finally vindicated him, as it did all of those great musicians who played without credit on so many hit records.
Bob Babbit was already an established bass player when he stepped into the legendary shoes of James Jamerson. To say that Jamerson was a hard act to follow is a massive understatement. But Babbitt was up to the task, and he proved it over and over on some of your favorite records and mine. Rest in peace Funk Brother.
One of my favorite Babbitt performances is on a record that he made with fellow Funk Brother Dennis Coffey. “Scorpio” features an amazing bass solo by Babbitt. “His bass solo on “Scorpio” has not been equaled, when you get right down to it,” Coffey said. “That set the bar pretty high for bass players.”
Here’s a Spotify playlist that I put together with just a few of Babbitt’s great performances: