Bob Babbitt: Motown 'Funk Brothers' bassist who played on more than 200 hit records


Until the 2002 award-winning documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, only industry insiders and soul aficionados appreciated the contribution the Funk Brothers session musicians made to Berry Gordy Jr's label. Like his fellow Brothers, the bassist Bob Babbitt was not credited on the myriad tracks he played on, which include the evergreens "Touch Me In The Morning" by Diana Ross, "Stoned Love" by The Supremes and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" by Stevie Wonder, with whom he also toured in the late 1960s.

A late addition to the Motown stable of regular sessioneers, Babbitt spent several years at Golden World, the smaller Detroit operation which Gordy acquired in 1967. His distinctive playing was a feature of Norman Whitfield's groundbreaking psychedelic soul productions for The Temptations – notably the ominous intro to "Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)"; The Undisputed Truth – "Smiling Faces Sometimes"; and Edwin Starr – the epochal "War". Most famously, Babbitt's trademark Fender Precision bass drove "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" on Marvin Gaye's landmark 1971 album What's Going On, the release whose credits broke with Motown tradition and identified all the musicians involved, among them his friend, the legendary bass player James Jamerson.

Following Gordy's decision to move Motown to Los Angeles in 1972, Babbitt continued freelancing in New York, Philadelphia and beyond. Stand-outs from his impressive post-1972 résumé include the hits "Midnight Train To Georgia" by Gladys Knight & the Pips, "The Rubberband Man" by the Detroit Spinners, "Are You Ready For Love" by Elton John and "Every Kinda People" by Robert Palmer, another outstanding track where his big, fat, round sound is particularly prominent. "The most important thing is the feel," he said. "I like to find little phrases I can develop throughout a part to give it substance. In the chorus, a song is usually at its high point vocally and compositionally, but the verse can often use the help of a busier bass part."

Born Robert Kreinar in 1937 to Hungarian parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he studied classical bass and won a music scholarship to the local university, but when his father died and he got a job to help support his mother. Rather than join one of the Pittsburgh steel mills, he moved to Detroit, where the pay was better. An impressively built 6ft 2in, he worked in construction by day and played jazz and rhythm and blues by night.

He soon switched from upright to electric bass and took up the name Bob Babbitt. "My influences were Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Monk Montgomery," he said. In the early 1960s, he and his friend, the guitarist Dennis Coffey, joined the popular instrumental group The Royaltones and made several recordings. They backed Del Shannon on tour and on half a dozen singles, including the Top 5 UK hits "Little Town Flirt" and "Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow The Sun)". In the mid-'60s, along with several Funk Brothers moonlighting at Golden World, he played on Starr's trio of Northern Soul favourites "Agent Double-O-Soul", "Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.)" and "Headline News", as well as the infectious "Cool Jerk" by The Capitols.

This brought him closer to the musicians creating the Sound Of Young America, including Jamerson. "He used to come over to Golden World and hang out," said Babbitt. "Sometimes we did sessions where we used two basses ... My early relationship with him had a lot to do with me joining Motown. He was a dominant force over there. After they renovated Golden World and opened it as Studio B, the workload was too heavy for just Jamerson. He was going through a lot because of his drinking problems." (Jamerson died in 1983.)

Babbitt's first Motown session was Wonder's cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" in 1970, and he also recorded with Rare Earth and Smokey Robinson. In between his Motown commitments, he played on Freda Payne's 1970 UK No 1 "Band Of Gold" and the much-sampled instrumental "Scorpio", a 1971 smash for Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band. "Everybody went crazy," recalled Coffey. "First, that wild percussion break with 'Bongo' Eddie [Brown], and then Bob just dropped that bass solo in. It was impromptu. That set the bar pretty high for bass players."

In the mid-to-late-'70s, he worked with Alice Cooper, Jim Croce, Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass, Bonnie Raitt, Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli, and overdubbed bass parts on the posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning as well as Talking Heads: 77.

Given the dominance of synth-bass in the mid-1980s, he returned to live work and toured with Joan Baez and Brenda Lee. After relocating to Nashville, he was amazed to encounter studio musicians who claimed to have been Motown sidemen, when he and guitarists Joe Messina, Ray Monette and Coffey had been the only white musicians during the label's heyday. The Standing In The Shadows Of Motown project rectified that and enabled Babbitt and his comrades to enjoy belated recognition and win two Grammies: Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For A Motion Picture and Best Traditional R&B Performance for "What's Going On" with Chaka Khan.

"I don't think anything has ever been as emotional and touching as these awards," he said. "I was proud to be a member of one of the most prolific, creative musical forces in the history of music. Now everybody knows who we are and what we did."

In 2004, the surviving Funk Brothers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. They also appeared at London's Royal Festival Hall with Billy Preston and Steve Winwood. The in-demand-again Babbitt played on Rod Stewart's 2009 Soulbook album and joined Phil Collins for the equally nostalgic covers set Going Back and a handful of dates the following year. He died of a brain tumour.

Pierre Perrone

Robert Kreinar (Bob Babbitt), bassist: born 26 November 1937 Pittsburgh; married (two daughters, one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 16 July 2012.

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