Few bassists played on as many hits as Babbitt did. Over a career spanning five decades, the 6-foot-2-inch tall Pennsylvanian with the offensive lineman’s frame earned 25 gold and platinum records and played on more than 200 top 40 hits—using a Fender Precision Bass® or Jazz Bass® guitar on almost all of them.
Just a short list of the hits Babbitt played on as a member of famed Motown Records house band the Funk Brothers and as a venerable studio professional includes enduring classics such as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Stevie Wonder), “The Tears of a Clown” (Smokey Robinson & the Miracles), “Mercy Mercy Me” (Marvin Gaye), “Ball of Confusion” (the Temptations), “I Got a Name” (Jim Croce) and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight & the Pips). There are many others.
Ironically, although Babbitt is often mainly considered one of the two infallible bass aces at Motown (the other being James Jamerson), none of his 25 gold and platinum records were awarded for his historic work on that label, because Motown didn’t give out gold records.
Born Robert Kreinar in 1937 to Hungarian parents in Pittsburgh, Babbitt was heavily influenced by the gypsy music he heard so much in his home, and early on he received classical training on upright bass. Inspired by R&B, he began performing in nightclubs at age 15. After first hearing an electric bass at a nightclub at age 17, Babbitt traded in his upright for a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass guitar. He turned down a music scholarship in 1961 and moved to Detroit, where he worked construction and played clubs. Within a year, he joined the Royaltones and was initiated into Detroit’s blossoming studio scene, charting several records with the group and catching the attention of singer/guitarist Del Shannon, who hired them as his touring and recording band through 1965.
Babbitt’s reputation grew along with his recording schedule, and he first met some of Motown’s “Funk Brothers” staff musicians, including Jamerson, while working at Golden World studio. By 1967, Babbitt was on a roll, incredibly busy at nearly every Detroit studio except Motown and playing on R&B classics such as “I Just Wanna Testify” (the Parliaments), “Love Makes the World Go Round” (Dion Jackson) and “Cool Jerk” (the Capitols). He used his 1960 Jazz Bass on all of the RoyaItones and Del Shannon material before switching to a ’63 or ’64 Precision Bass. When his Precision was stolen a few years later, Babbitt then bought one of the first CBS Precision basses.
Live dates with Stevie Wonder finally brought Babbitt into Motown’s Hitsville studio; his first session for the label was Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” He went on to cut “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Smiling Faces,” “War,” “Tears of a Clown” and many other Motown hits. Most notably, perhaps, Babbitt contributed the basslines for “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Goin’ On.
Babbitt moved to New York in 1973 and did dates and sessions with a diverse array of artists such as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Engelbert Humperdink, Frank Sinatra and Gladys Knight & the Pips (Babbitt improvised the bass line to mega-hit “Midnight Train to Georgia”). Further, he often commuted to Philadelphia during this period to play on Spinners classics such as “Then Came You,” “Games People Play,” and “Rubberband Man.” While in New York, Babbitt also absorbed the hard rock styles of groups such as Aerosmith, the Edgar Winter Group and the Who, and added a 1958 Precision Bass to his arsenal.
In the early 1980s, Babbitt eschewed album work in favor of commercial jingles and a foray into jazz, touring and recording with flautist Herbie Mann and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. As the “golden age” of the studio bassist wound down in the mid-1980s, Babbitt eventually moved to Nashville, where he once again absorbed and adapted to new styles and technology and continued to work as busily as ever.
Babbitt participated in the annual Rockin’ Christmas Fund charity fund-raiser, a holiday concert that benefits needy children, and he was featured prominently in filmmaker Paul Justman’s award-winning 2002 film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary about the largely uncredited studio musicians who played on Motown Records recordings from 1959 to 1972. He passed away at age 74 in Nashville on July 16, 2012.