James Jamerson, the man widely and repeatedly cited as the greatest bass player in the history of popular music (or at least the greatest bass guitarist), was a genius, peerless.
But unfortunately, Jamerson had a weakness for alcohol, a weakness that would eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and his death. Motown found that they needed a reserve in Detroit who could be relied on to turn up on time and deliver the goods when Jamerson couldn’t.
Babbitt was that man. He had come into contact with some moonlighting Funk Brothers, including Jamerson himself, while playing sessions at a studio called Golden World, owned by R&B producer Ed Wingate. Through this association, Babbitt found himself playing in Stevie Wonder’s live band, and then Berry Gordy acquired Golden World for Motown. Guys like Uriel Jones and Benny Benjamin who had played with Babbitt at Golden World for Wingate’s sessions knew Babbitt could play – and read written charts – to a high standard, so when the decision was made to try to find a bassist who could bring something of Jamerson’s style to the sessions Jamerson couldn’t make, Babbitt got the call. His first session was Wonder’s version of We Can Work It Out.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On brought out the best in every musician involved in cutting it, and Babbitt was no different. Jamerson plays on the lion’s share of the cuts, but Babbitt got the sessions for Inner City Blues, Wholly Holy and Mercy Mercy Me.
Mercy Mercy Me has always been my favourite of them. Babbitt’s bass is a big, but not destablising, presence in the mix, and the pattern he plays is glorious. He locks in with the dominant kick-drum strokes at the front of each bar on the root note, before playing a funky melodic pattern with the octave note and fifth, stressing the downbeat by playing the first of those prominent octave notes in time with the snare. I love grooves that work like this, that add high-register melodic elements to a great low-end pocket. John Klinberg’s bass line on Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic is another favourite of mine for exactly the same reason.
He plays that pattern on the E, C# minor and F# minor chords, but changes things up on the B by playing a funky vamp mainly on the root, but incorporating a little chromatic run back up to the E.
It’s details like that run, so like what we think of when we think of James Jamerson’s playing, that have led many to assume he was the player on Mercy Mercy Me. Nowhere but Motown would Babbitt be in anyone’s shadow. He may have gotten his start at Motown because he could reproduce the Jamerson style when called upon, but the man was his own player, and is one of the finest there has ever been.
Inner City Blues; Mercy Mercy Me; Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours; Midnight Train to Georgia; Ball of Confusion; Agent Double-O-Soul; Band of Gold. All Babbitt, all classics.