The Royaltones: “Tacos” (Goldisc 3011, 1960)

The great session bassist Bob Babbitt lost his battle with brain cancer yesterday at age 74. Best known for his stint as part of Motown’s Funk Brothers studio band in the late 60s and early 70s, Babbitt actually had a career that went well beyond his contributions to Berry Gordy’s hit machine. He died in Nashville, the last in a string of cities he moved to to play in the local studio scene, and the last true bastion of the session musician. 

Babbitt (born Robert Kreiner) didn’t begin his career in the studio. He began it in clubs, first in his hometown, Pittsburgh, PA, and then in Detroit, where he moved in the late 50s to play in a bigger scene. He joined a band called the Paragons, who soon changed their name to the Royaltones. It was with this band, whose ranks also included future Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey, that Babbitt first entered a studio. 

The band played instrumental rock ‘n’ roll led by the saxophone of George Katsakis, and they scored several minor hits, the most notable of which were 1958’s “Poor Boy” (which I think was done before Babbitt joined), and 1960’s “Flamingo Express (The Flip).” “Tacos” was the b-side to “Flamingo Express,” and it’s a fun piece of early good-time rock and roll, falling somewhere in the same league with “Tequila.”

Babbitt played with the Royaltones, often as the backing band for Del Shannon, through 1964, when he moved on to studio work, though not at Motown. He cut sides for Golden World and other Detroit labels, and got a call from Motown first in 1967, when the original Funk Brothers bassist, the great James Jamerson, was battling alcoholism and becoming less reliable if no less brilliant musically. 

Babbitt played on plenty of Motown hits, including the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” and you can tell his sound from Jamerson’s—Jamerson’s lines bounce through the chord progression, parrying with the melody, where Babbitt is usually more in the pocket, with a full-bodied low-end.

There’s some debate as to exactly which songs Babbitt may have played on versus Jamerson, and Babbitt has also disagreed with L.A. session whiz Carol Kaye over which one played on which Motown L.A. session, but regardless of the details, all three players were enormously influential and have their stamps all over popular music.

Babbitt moved to New York in the mid-70s, and can be heard on a lot of Philadelphia soul recordings as well—he also held down the bottom on albums by Alice Cooper, Gladys Knight & the Pips (before and after they left Motown), Freda Payne, Frank Sinatra, the Persuaders, the Spinners, and Robert Palmer. He was even in a short-lived rock band called Scorpion that released one album in 1969 before splitting up. 

Babbitt will probably never be a household name, but his bass will be heard all over the world for a long time to come. You’ve heard it yourself a thousand times and maybe never even knew. That’s the life of a session musician. Babbitt lived a good one.