STUDIO LEGEND BOB BABBITT SUCCUMBED TO COMPLICATIONS FROM HIS LONG BATTLE with brain cancer on July 17, in a Nashville hospital; he was 74.
Babbitt may have started out in the shadows of James Jamerson at Motown, but he went on to have one of the most distinctive and durable careers among the first-generation session bass icons, with indelible hit-making contributions in three major recording markets—including appearances on more than 200 hit singles and over 25 Gold Records. Born on November 26, 1937, in Pittsburgh, Babbitt studied classical upright bass as a child and was soon captivated by R&B. After playing local joints, he switched to electric bass and moved to Detroit in 1961, finding club, road, and eventually studio work. He cut the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” and when Motown’s Berry Gordy bought Golden World Records, Babbitt began a role with the Motown “Funk Brothers” that gradually increased as Jamerson battled his demons. Bob’s Motown highlights included Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues” (Bass Player, February ’08), and Dennis Coffey’s instrumental hit “Scorpio” (BP, September ’10), which featured a landmark, lengthy Babbitt solo.
When Motown moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, the big-toned, big-boned bassist headed to New York, working with Arif Mardin and other top producers for such artists as Bette Midler, Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, Jim Croce, Gloria Gaynor, Frankie Valli, Alice Cooper, and Robert Palmer. He also made a regular trek down to Philadelphia International Records, where he recorded with Elton John and played on “Then Came You,” “The Rubberband Man,” and other hits by the Spinners, for producer Thom Bell. Teamed most often in that period with another Motown refugee, drummer Andrew Smith, Babbitt cut what many feel is his finest track, Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” (BP, November ’98). In 1986, with work slowing, Bob moved to Nashville, but he could never quite crack the country-dominated session scene. Instead, he toured with Palmer, Brenda Lee, and Joan Baez. Allan Slutsky’s 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and especially the 2002 film documentary of the same name, brought Babbitt long-overdue notoriety, leading to several Grammys and numerous tours with the Funk Brothers—most recently their participation in Phil Collins’ 2010 CD/DVD project, Going Back. Just this past June, Bob received a star on Nashville’s Music City Walk of Fame. He is survived by his wife and their three children.