While the first bassist featured in our Bass Players You Should Know series was Southern soul master Duck Dunn, this one takes us above the Mason Dixon line to the industrial city of Detroit. Commonly recognized for his work at Motown’s Hitsville Studio A, Bob Babbitt’s career as a session player took him to a wide range of places, including the music hubs of New York, Philadelphia and Nashville.
So who is Bob Babbitt?
Although the “Motown Sound” is greatly associated with James Jamerson, Babbitt was another a staple bass player on the Detroit R&B scene. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Babbitt frequently recorded at Golden World Studios – a competitor of Motown at the time – with artists such as Edwin Starr and the Capitols. This led to touring with Stevie Wonder, who he then joined at Motown studios to record “We Can Work It Out” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
Babbitt was quickly able to establish himself as an in-demand session player at Motown and contributed to hits by The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, and many others.
After making his mark on the Detroit session scene, Babbitt relocated to New York and frequently commuted to the “City of Brotherly Love.” Working with producers Gamble and Huff at Philadelphia International, he laid down the bass on a number of Philly Soul hits.
Babbitt eventually made his way to Nashville, a city that continued to have a thriving session scene, and in the 2000s, began touring with the remaining Funk Brothers following the release of Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Unfortunately, the music world lost Bob Babbitt on July 16th, 2012 at the age of 74.
Let’s talk style
As a pocket player, you’d be hard pressed to find an example greater than Babbitt. He had the uncanny ability to create bass “hooks” or concise and funky lines that act as the pulse of the song. On tunes such as “Cool Jerk,” Babbitt settled into an iconic line that locks in with the drums and percussion to create an irresistibly danceable groove. He masterfully integrated rhythmic variation while maintaining the integrity and feel of the song. Babbitt didn’t always play by the traditional “rules” of bass playing (aka, hitting on the downbeats), but instead added to the rhythmic complexity of the song by anticipating, pushing, or playing a dead note on beat one. Many of his Motown and soul recordings (think “Mercy Mercy Me”) featured bass lines that rely on a specific and syncopated rhythmic pattern.
Harmonically, Babbitt understood how and when to implement variation. When it was time to pedal the root, he pedaled the root. When the bass groove stays in one place while other instruments change parts, his handle on the hook was unyielding. If he had an opportunity to stretch out, he demonstrated a keen knowledge of voice leading and melody.
Where can I hear his playing?
Gladys Knight and the Pips: “Midnight Train to Georgia”
Babbitt takes a very active approach to the bass line by playing heavily syncopated lines and weaving between registers. While many players pick a specific range to define a part, Babbitt jumps back and forth from the higher and lower octaves relating to the chords. He adds a counter-intuitive pulse on the up-beats throughout the song and perfectly executes diatonic voice leading as he transitions to the top of the verses.
The Spinners: “Rubberband Man”
The quintessential test for any great bass player: playing eighth notes that are straight up funky! This soul classic is the perfect example of pocket; throughout most of the record, Babbitt pulses eighth notes and discretely adds funky octave hiccups during the choruses to intensify the groove. I dare you not to dance.
Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band: “Scorpio”
Every now and then, an artist or producer decides it’s a good idea to feature a bass solo on the record. Babbitt’s approach to the bass break in “Scorpio” is a great example of development, space, and phrasing in a groove-based solo. He often rests between restating the initial groove of the song and adding funky embellishments, allowing the listener to hang on between the phrases with great expectations of what is to come. Over the course of the solo, he builds momentum with busier rhythmic lines and finally ushers in the rest of the ensemble to return to the head of the tune.
How about you? What are your favorite recordings with by Bob Babbitt? Please share in the comments.