Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bob Babbitt Passes

You may have heard of the passing of Bob Babbitt, the legendary bass guitar player who had the enormous task of filling James Jamerson's shoes at the Motown hit factory. From the NY Times:

James Jamerson was the label’s primary bassist in those years, but Mr. Babbitt provided the bass lines for numerous Motown hits, including Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Edwin Starr’s “War.” He later recorded with Barry Manilow, the Spinners, Alice Cooper and many others.

Neither Jamerson nor Babbitt were household names. That was the deal when you were a studio musician. Fortunately, Bob lived long enough to get the recognition he deserved. Sadly, Jamerson did not. From the Detroit Free Press:

Like many studio musicians of the era, Babbitt wasn’t always publicly acknowledged for his work. It wasn’t uncommon for Babbitt’s role to be omitted — or even actively hidden — on record credits.

He told the Free Press in 2003 that his Scorpion was “actually the rhythm section on the first Funkadelic album (in 1970) at Tera Shirma studios, but George (Clinton) gave credit to his band at that time.”

Like his fellow Funk Brothers, Babbitt at last got wider attention via the 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which chronicled the group’s work behind the scenes.
Bob played on more than 200 Top 40 hits. Roll up the Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson, and Bob Babbitt still played on more.

But I knew him as my cousin. His mother and my grandmother were sisters, making him my 1st cousin, once removed. When I was a kid, my mom would tell me about the great musician, our cousin Bob, who was on loads of gold records, and whose bands played the black clubs in the industrial Midwest- Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. It was positively otherworldly for my mom.

I recall talking bass with him once at a rare family reunion. I was 17 or 18, and playing punk rock bass. The nerve of me, right? He spoke about the gypsy music his mother loved. Bob's mom was "Aunt Margaret" to me, but Margaret Kreinar to a radio audience in Pittsburgh, who listened to her Hungarian language radio show that played plenty of gypsy music. He shared what a big influence it was to him in guiding him to what some referred to as 'black music'- jazz, blues, and early rock 'n' roll. He found that the rhythms and fluid grooves were similar. He fit in perfectly at Motown, despite being the white guy.

Once the film came out to give the Funk Brothers their due, gigs followed. Real showcase gigs, not some rib burnoff in Iowa, or the 250 capacity clubs I favor, but class venues. I loved that for Bob. I loved even more that my mom could see him play live with some regularity.

I am grateful to have known him. Wish I knew him better. So happy he got the recognition he and the Funk Brothers deserved, and that he got to enjoy his last days outside that obscurity.