The Bass Man: A Tribute to Bob Babbitt


Think about "Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Think about "Cool Jerk" by The Capitols. Or "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder. Or "Rubberband Man" by The Spinners. All those mighty soul songs share a funky undercurrent, a four-string propulsion, an unstoppable groove supplied by one man -- bass player Bob Babbitt.

Babbitt died today in Nashville from brain cancer. He was 74.

Born Robert Kreiner in Pittsburgh, Babbitt studied classical music as a kid. In his twenties, he moved to Detroit to be closer to the Motown scene. In 1967, he became one of the very few white musicians to join the Funk Brothers, Motown's legendary house band. He was kind of a second-stringer to bassist James Jamerson. But Jamerson had a drinking problem, and as his behavior grew more erratic, Babbitt stepped up to play on many late period Motown classics, including records by Diana Ross ("Touch Me In The Morning") and Marvin Gaye ("Mercy Mercy Me").

In the '70s, Babbitt lent his inimitable groove to everyone from Jim Croce to Dionne Warwick to Elton John. In all, he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits.

Babbitt settled in Nashville in the mid-80s and, when session work slowed down, he hit the road with singers like Joan Baez, Brenda Lee, and Robert Palmer.

He was featured in the 2002 documentary about the Funk Brothers, Standing In The Shadows of Motown.

I met Bob a few times around Nashville, and he was a kind, gentle man, very modest about his achievements.

In tribute, here are three of Babbitt's finest grooves:

The Spinners – "Rubber Band Man"

Smokey Robinson – "Tears of a Clown"

Temptations – "Ball of Confusion"

And finally, here's an interview the man himself: