This month i’ll retread the “great Moments” format as a brief break from exploring the vaults of Motown. When searching for R&B Gold nuggets, I’m often surprised by what the sediment of music history holds—unusual facts, or strange connections that remind us that this music was created in a much smaller world than the one we live in now. The music business back then was indeed the “cruel and shallow money trench” Hunter S. Thompson once referred to—but it was relatively young and still willing to experiment, resulting in some great music that would never be released in today’s perfection-obsessed, mega-hit-driven music industry.
One of the great R&B bass breaks of all time is the intro to the King Curtis hit “Memphis Soul Stew.” The original version was on Curtis’ 1967 album King Size Soul and featured Tommy Cogbill on bass. During the 1960s and ’70s, Cogbill was in a group of select session players who became casually known as “the Memphis Boys.” His active style owed a debt to James Jamerson for sure, but his laid-back feel put an indelible Southern stamp on it. In 1966, Cogbill went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record with Wilson Pickett; he played guitar on some tracks, but switched over to the bass for “Mustang Sally.” While burnt-out bar bands may scoff at the mention of this staple, the original Wilson Pickett version is an indisputable masterpiece. Cogbill anchored several other monster hits such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” to name a choice few, but his intro on “Memphis Soul Stew” is a classic riff all bassists should know. Example 1 is the basic idea, followed by something resembling the main riff (Ex. 2). Now, jump to 1971 and check out Jerry Jemmott playing the same tune on King Curtis’ Live at the Fillmore West. While the essential part is the same, it’s an amazing study in contrast. Where Cogbill is loose, chill, and in the pocket, Jemmott is tight and bubbly, crackling with electricity. (I discuss both Cogbill and Jemmott in my book The R&B Masters: They Way They Played, from Backbeat Books.)
Another great moment in R&B bass is the intro to the Temptations’ version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” In my search to identify the player, several interesting things came to light. While it might seem natural to assume it was James Jamerson on bass, there were other players tracking bass at Hitsville USA, and the tone and performance made me consider the possibility of Bob Babbitt being the man behind the groove. But there was also a pre-Temptations version of the song, which I was not aware of, that Babbitt did play on, by the Motown recording act the Undisputed Truth. I found a post from Babbitt’s own forum, dated 2008, that said: “Hey guys, the Undisputed Truth version was yours truly. I had first been told that the Temptations version was Leroy Taylor, but then Eddie Watkins’ name was also mentioned to me. Recently, Wah Wah Watson and I had a discussion about the session, and he told me that Jamerson and myself were both on the session, but when producer Norman Whitfield asked Jamerson to just keep repeating the bass line, Jamerson got up and walked out. Wah Wah said that Norman had me play the line. I told Wah Wah that I did not remember this, but he insisted that is what happened. As a result, if several versions were recorded and the credits had three or four bass players on the album but did not list who is playing on each cut, then there would be confusion as to who played on what.” We may never know for sure who played bass on the Temptations version, though my money is on Babbitt.
The Undisputed Truth was assembled by Norman Whitfield to develop his psychedelic soul sound, and their biggest hit was “Smiling Faces,” which rose to #3 on the U.S. pop charts in 1971. But their prototype version of “Papa” contains a few surprises. First, like the better-known version, there is indeed a bass solo for the introduction that leads into the main groove. However, unlike the Temptations take, the intro riff is completely different from the song’s main groove—and the main groove is completely different from the more famous version. Example 3 is a close approximation of the idea behind the Temptations intro; it’s a simple, spacious riff that repeats as the main motif for the entire track. Example 4 illustrates the intro figure played by Babbitt on the 1971 Undisputed Truth recording. While he plays it with the groovy assurance he is known for, the line is a dead ringer for the main riff of Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto,” recorded a year earlier, shown in Ex. 5. The only difference is that Babbitt plays 1–5–b7–8–5–4 for the riff’s first half, while Hathaway’s song makes the slightly awkward jump from the b7 to the root for a melodic profile of 1–5–b7–1–5–4. While bassist Marshall Hawkins is credited as playing on “The Ghetto,” he was a jazz upright player, and he can be clearly heard playing a melodic solo that doubles a vocal breakdown at 3:28 in the track, leading me to assume someone else played the electric bass part. Also listed on the album personnel is Phil Upchurch, better known as a rhythm guitarist, but he is definitively listed on bass for four tracks on the record. (Another bassist on the Hathaway disc is Louis Satterfield, who recorded with B.B. King and Muddy Waters, and notably played the bass line on Fontella Bass’ classic recording “Rescue Me.” If his name seems familiar, it may be because Satterfield also played trombone, and he wound up joining his college buddy Maurice White’s new band Earth, Wind & Fire, featuring one of his more famous bass students, Verdine White.)
Once the Undisputed Truth version of “Papa” gets underway, Babbitt switches to a sparse eight-bar pattern with a cool fill that ventures into the upper register (Ex. 6). Unfortunately, I am unable to make a conclusive determination of who played the groove on the original “The Ghetto,” but Willie Weeks played the hell out of it on the famous Donny Hathaway Live recording (which also features Phil Upchurch on guitar). Did Babbitt rip this riff? It’s hard to say for sure, but the similarities are too great to assume he had not heard the Hathaway track.
These internal connections fascinate the researcher in me, as does the possibility that one man (Babbitt) could have recorded so many hit records that he would have a hard time remembering which ones he played on. Regardless, the riffs are legendary in their own right, and the mysteries encountered are par for the course when digging for R&B Gold.
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.edfriedland.com