Phil Chen (left) and Bob GlaubTHE BASS WORLD LOST MANY CONsequential players in 2012, including Elton John bassist Bob Birch, Iron Butterfly’s Lee Dorman, MC5’s Michael Davis, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, and jazz doubler Charles Flores. Looming largest, though, was the passing of session giants Duck Dunn and Bob Babbitt. With that in mind—and in the spirit of Bass Player LIVE! 2011’s tribute clinic to James Jamerson (with James Jamerson Jr., Pino Palladino, Phil Chen, and Allan Slutsky)— BP was fortunate to get two bassists who were close to Dunn and Babbitt to present a tribute clinic at Bass Player LIVE! 2012. L.A. session mainstay Bob Glaub was a good friend of Duck Dunn, and rock vet Phil Chen was super tight with Bob Babbitt. (Nate Watts, who had also planned to be on the panel, was called to New York City by Stevie Wonder the night before.)
After introductions, Glaub began with an overview of Dunn and his credits, and a listen to some of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” Said Glaub, “Duck was self-taught; he learned by playing along with records. If you knew him you loved him; he was one of the funniest, hippest, sweetest cats, with a charming Southern hospitality.” Collectively, Booker T. & the M.G.’s (Dunn, Booker T. Jones on keys, drummer Al Jackson Jr., and guitarist Steve Cropper) revolutionized soul music—a form made up of blues, country, and gospel—to create their own “Southern soul.” It was grittier and less sophisticated than what was being made by their friendly rivals at Motown. The other key was they were an integrated band at a time of racial tension in the South, so they were trailblazers in that aspect, as well. Glaub then spun Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” pointing out that his bass lines were typically simple, repetitive, and riff -based, but also the harmonic focal point of the songs.
Chen recalled living in London in the late ’60s and seeing Redding backed by the M.G.’s for the first time. “I saw two white guys, and I thought, Oh, I guess the guys on the record couldn’t make it. Then they started to play, and I was blown away. That’s when I realized soul music has no color.” Phil remembered Babbitt as a close friend and confidant, who started on upright but found his way to bass guitar just before moving from his native Pittsburgh to Detroit. When they were on the set of the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Chen—who served as Bob’s bass tech—noticed that Babbitt was using light-gauge “cheesecutter” strings and gave him heavy-gauge flatwounds. “But it really didn’t matter what strings he had,” Phil conceeded, “because he had the feel.” Babbitt’s lighter touch was also discussed, along with the revelation that when he moved on from Motown to the New York and Philly session scenes, engineers would ask him to dig in more. Chen explained how the Motown bass style founded by Jamerson (and adapted so well by Babbitt) was busier, more linear, and more swinging— with jazz and bebop influences—than Stax and Muscle Shoals bass. He then spun some of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology).” Chen acknowledged it was a challenge for Babbitt to have to follow Jamerson’s genius, but noted that his work on a half-dozen seminal tracks left his own mark at Motown. Babbitt later also made an imprint on New York and Philadelphia, with tracks like Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which Phil spun.
As the discussion turned to how both gentlemen played for the song and the singer, Glaub recalled how Dunn—who got his nickname from his dad while watching Donald Duck cartoons as a child—told him one of his tricks was to go in and listen to the first playback, and then he’d go back and play half of what he played. “He’d pare it way back,” says Bob. Dunn also shared with Glaub how Al Jackson would warn him, “Don’t ever play in front of me,” meaning don’t rush. “Al would say, ‘Wait on two’, which meant don’t play the backbeat before his snare hit it.” Glaub shared another anecdote in which Dunn told him to turn the tone knob on his P-Bass all the way up when playing live, otherwise “you get a room full of boom.” As the clinic wrapped up, Grammy and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards for both greats were cited. As Chen put it, both men were geniuses who left us with indelible bass on timeless music.