Bass Players To Know: Bob Babbitt

Bob Babbitt

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”

Gladys Knight and the Pips: Midnight Train to GeorgiaBabbitt 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.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

The Spinners: “Rubberband Man”

The Spinners: The Rubberband ManThe 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.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band: “Scorpio”

Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band: ScorpioEvery 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.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What are your favorite recordings with by Bob Babbitt? Please share in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. My band opened for The Spinners early 70’s Charlotte,N.C. That’s where I met Bob. Truly an inspiring bass player!

  2. Didn’t know he played on “Rubberband man.” Great song! Digging these series of articles.

  3. Great article on a great player. His solo on “Scorpio” is killer.

  4. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, off Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album.

  5. Every kind of People by Robert Palmer

  6. Great man. Got to talk to him during the premier of the movie in Phila. Discussed recording techniques about the bass & his life and times…

  7. Gone, but continues to inspire.

  8. We cant forget he also recorded “Cold Fact” with Rodriguez!!

  9. I’ve been a drummer all my life, but when I first tried to play bass, it was a Bob Babbit groove that inspired me. I told myself that when I could mimic his work on Robert Palmer’s “Every Kind of People,” I’d earn the right to tell people “I’m a bass player.” Even after all these years, I still just call myself a bass “owner.”

  10. Eric Kreinar

    Great commentary on Babbitt’s musicality, Ryan. It’s always great to see him appreciated by part of a new generation of prominent bassists. As my dad (Bob’s brother) would attest, Bob was a prodigy and interested in classical music, until he found jazz and R&B and sojourned to Detroit from Pittsburgh to “work”. Thanks also for reminding me that it’s been over 3 years since he passed, (reading this very late!). I got to spend some time with him during the summer before his passing – he was a genuine, warm, and deeply dedicated musician at 74, though he knew his days were numbered.

  11. Nyles

    my favorite Bob Bobbit Basslines are:
    1. we can work it out
    2.Sign Sealed Delivered
    3. Scorpio

  12. Tim

    No doubt one of the best pocket players who ever picked up a bass guitar. He was also a super nice person. Saw him with live with Funk Brothers. He will be missed.
    A drummer

  13. Luc Grillet

    I agree with Michael about Bob’s contribution to the Robert Palmer’s “Every Kinda People”. The frequent use of the none in the bass line gives it a very melancholic and romantic character. A masterpiece in my honest opinion.
    I also noticed his name mentioned on the album “Crash Landing” of Jimi Hendrix; an album which was released after his death, completing unfinished studio recordings with a compelling groove.