Exclusive Interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
December 20, 2010
Bob Babbitt is a bass-playing legend. As one of Motown’s original “Funk Brothers” (recently enshrined on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), Bob has laid down bass tracks for Gladys Knight & the Pips, Edwin Starr, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and the Spinners. He also worked extensively in the New York, Philly and Nashville studio scenes, having recorded with pop icons Stephanie Mills, Jim Croce, Bonnie Raitt, Bobby Rydell and Engelbert Humperdinck, jazz artists Herbie Mann and Stanley Turrentine, country music stars Louise Mandrell and Carlene Carter and the legendary Frank Sinatra. He has also toured with Joan Baez and Brenda Lee. To date, Bob has played bass on some twenty-five gold records.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. Didn't you start out studying classical bass on the upright?
BB: I did start taking lessons for classical bass after playing in the elementary school orchestra for a couple of years. I studied with a female bass player who was the main bass player at the Pennsylvania College for Woman for two years. After she had graduated, the principle bass player for the Pittsburgh Symphony, Anthony Bianco, became the bass teacher and I studied with him for three years. During that time, I had passed an audition every year. He ultimately awarded me a bass position in the Pittsburgh Symphony Jr., which consisted of the top musicians from all the high schools. Once a year we would do a joint concert with the Symphony. We also did other events throughout the year.
My parents both sang in gypsy bands. The radio and record player at home constantly played the gypsy music. In fact, the first gig I did where I got paid was with a gypsy band. Along with the gypsy and classical music, I also became exposed to black music, which, in those days, was called “Race Music.” I would spend a lot of time listening to this music on the radio and playing along with it. I sat in with a group led by a black sax player in a club when I was 15 or 16 years old and worked a couple of weekends with him.
FBPO: What took you from Pittsburgh to Detroit?
BB: I had been offered a full musical scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh before I graduated from high school, but during my senior year, my father had passed away. I decided not to go to college and instead took a day job to help my Mom at home. In those days, if you did not have some kind of skill, it was hard to find a good paying job unless you worked in a steel mill, which I did not want to do. I had relatives in Detroit and my uncle told me to come to Detroit to check out the job situation. He said I could make three to four times as much money! Greyhound bus to Detroit … my uncle was right!
FBPO: What was it like trying to make it as a bass player in Detroit during the heyday of Motown?
BB: Like most of the bass players I knew, I was playing in nightclubs, bars, dance halls, road bands, some live shows with Motown artists and doing some recording. Like most areas where there is a lot of recording going on, the musicians who play on hit records are the ones the producers and artists want to use on their records. At that time, James Jamerson was Motown’s bass player and his playing was so great that the Motown artists and producers would not use any other bass player.
Along with Motown, there were other Detroit record companies, artists and producers coming from other parts in the country in order to get the Motown sound and the Motown players on their recordings. There were a lot of rock and pop artists and a few jingle companies. I was fortunate to play on some pop hits with Del Shannon and a self-contained group called the Royaltones that led to playing on sessions, not only with other rock/pop artists, but also with the R&B artists. After playing on a couple Top 10 R&B records, I started doing more sessions.
FBPO: What kind of relationship did you have with James Jamerson?
BB: I met him at Golden World studio, which, like Motown, was a black-owned studio with its own artists. They also rented the studio out to independent artists. The first time I met James was on a two-bass session. He used to hang out at that studio and we became friends. At times, if I was doing a session, he would wait until after the session was over and we would go across the street to a bar, have a drink and engage in some “bass talk.” When Motown bought Golden World, it became Studio B. The amount of recording increased, creating the need for another bass player to help Jamerson. That’s when I started getting calls to record at Motown. I always felt that if Jamerson didn’t think I could do the job, I would have never worked there.
FBPO: I had the privilege of studying with Motown arranger Dave Van De Pitte while I was in college. He’s responsible for so much of the Motown sound, yet not a lot of people know who he was. What was it like to work with Dave?
BB: Dave’s arrangements were among the best in the world! He was a pleasure to work with. Motown people, myself included, thought he should have won the Grammy for his arrangements on the Marvin Gaye album, What's Going On, but he got beat out by Paul McCartney. I think Paul’s first solo album.
After I moved to the East Coast, I worked with Dave in New York several times. I also did some stuff with him in Toronto, as well as back in Detroit again. In Toronto, he arranged an album for a group called the Rays. Dave’s arrangements led to five Top 10 Canadian hits! One of them also was big in the states. About a year ago, before Dave passed away, I did one of his last sessions in Detroit. He still displayed an enormous arranging ability! He will be missed.
FBPO: Can you share a little about your experience with the other Funk Brothers? Being part of that legacy must be very meaningful to you.
BB: Before I started doing sessions at Motown, I was working in other Detroit studios and I would always run in to some of Funk Brothers on those sessions. Eventually, I worked with all of them. When I got called for my first session at Motown, I was really nervous, but when I walked into the studio, I saw the same musicians I had worked with at the other studios. At that second, I felt so relaxed. The Funk Brothers were laid back, humble, gracious and so down-to-earth, they made you feel like you were home. When they started to play, from the first downbeat, you could feel the “spiritual connection” they had. As a group at Motown and playing on records for other labels and artists throughout their careers, I feel extremely proud to be part of their legacy.
FBPO: While you were such an integral part of the Motown sound, people don't seem to talk as much about your formidable contributions in New York, Philly and Nashville. In what ways were your experiences in those cities different from your time as a Funk Brother in Detroit?
BB: In Detroit, there was the spiritual connection along with the magic, resulting in a bunch of hit records. For me, New York was so business-like, it was often hard to find that magic. Musicians were coming to the sessions at the last moment, then wanting to leave early to get to their next session. If you were not one of the regulars who played for the producers and you got the call as a sub, there were times when the regular guys would look at you and say “Am I in the right studio?” or “Where is one of the regular players?” It would make you feel as if you were not welcomed there. As a result it could affect your playing, as well as theirs. The times you played with musicians that you felt comfortable with is when you found the magic, increasing the chances for making a hit record.
My experience in Philadelphia was similar to Detroit. You could feel the magic and the spiritual connection and you understood why there were so many hit records coming out of their studios. We never received any gold or platinum records for playing on hit records in Detroit. In New York and Philadelphia, though, I received twenty-five of them. You are correct in saying that talk about the New York and Philly sessions seems almost non-existent compared to the Motown/Detroit records.
In Nashville, the biggest percentage of mainstream country and Gospel/Christian music producers I talked with when I moved there welcomed me and told me they had projects for me. To my surprise, though, none of them hired me! False hope and security can be so hard when you think you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Many first-class musicians with long track records from L.A. and New York moved to Nashville and had similar experiences. It didn’t make a difference what records you had played on. It seemed like the country musicians were not only playing the country sessions, but they also played the R&B, rock, pop and other sessions. So not only did I not get to play the country sessions, I didn’t even get to play the kind of music I had played hits on! I was also told that you cannot play on the Gospel/Christian records unless you became a “Born Again.” I admit it is a great feeling to play for producers who are loyal to their musicians. Still, most of these players, including me, eventually took road gigs. The good thing about Nashville is the constant influx of great musicians and music people from all over the world that come here to live and to record!
FBPO: I bet most people don't know you spent time as a professional wrestler! What can you tell me about that part of your life?
BB: From my high school days in Pittsburgh, people had been asking me to wrestle and when I moved to Detroit and started working in bars again I was approached by the wrestling people. At some point, I checked it out and started to learn about it. I then decided to try it, just on a minor league level. I did it part-time until one day I heard about a wrestler getting his ear bitten off and said, “No way am I going to wrestle anymore!”
FBPO: What's keeping you busiest these days?
BB: Some recording and producing, along with Funk Brother live shows. I also did a Phil Collins CD and a mini tour. The Phil Collins project required a lot of time. He recorded about twenty-five Motown songs and wanted to get the sound as close to the originals as possible. A lot of time was spent transcribing, transposing and rehearsing for the live show.
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? Do you plan to make Nashville your permanent home?
BB: I feel blessed that I can still satisfy the people who call me to play, either in the studio or live. I’m also doing more producing now. I love the challenge of putting the pieces together and the reward of sitting back and listening to the three or four minutes that seemed like forever to get just right.
I have a book out now titled Bob Babbitt Awareness Guide and hours of tape I hope to make into a book of stories about my musical journey. When I am home, I write in my studio and am in the process of learning ProLogic. After living in the New Jersey area and working many times in New York, Philadelphia and L.A. with all the traffic and the hassle, Nashville is my permanent home. I really do miss being close to the ocean, though.
FBPO: What do you like to do when you're not immersed in music?
BB: I’m into a lot of sports. My number-one priority is the Pittsburgh Steelers! I watch all of their games, as well as some favorite TV shows and movies. I like to spend time on the computer, sometimes just playing cards or trying to learn more about chess. I work out at the YMCA, walk and hang out with my music friends for lunch. I love sushi!
Bob Babbitt has endorsed Jon Liebman's Bass Grooves:
The Ultimate Collection, available in the FBPO store.
The Ultimate Collection
by Jon Liebman
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