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The Bass Man: A Tribute to Bob Babbitt

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Think about "Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Think about "Cool Jerk" by The Capitols. Or "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder. Or "Rubberband Man" by The Spinners. All those mighty soul songs share a funky undercurrent, a four-string propulsion, an unstoppable groove supplied by one man -- bass player Bob Babbitt.

Babbitt died today in Nashville from brain cancer. He was 74.

Born Robert Kreiner in Pittsburgh, Babbitt studied classical music as a kid. In his twenties, he moved to Detroit to be closer to the Motown scene. In 1967, he became one of the very few white musicians to join the Funk Brothers, Motown's legendary house band. He was kind of a second-stringer to bassist James Jamerson. But Jamerson had a drinking problem, and as his behavior grew more erratic, Babbitt stepped up to play on many late period Motown classics, including records by Diana Ross ("Touch Me In The Morning") and Marvin Gaye ("Mercy Mercy Me").

In the '70s, Babbitt lent his inimitable groove to everyone from Jim Croce to Dionne Warwick to Elton John. In all, he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits.

Babbitt settled in Nashville in the mid-80s and, when session work slowed down, he hit the road with singers like Joan Baez, Brenda Lee, and Robert Palmer.

He was featured in the 2002 documentary about the Funk Brothers, Standing In The Shadows of Motown.

I met Bob a few times around Nashville, and he was a kind, gentle man, very modest about his achievements.

In tribute, here are three of Babbitt's finest grooves:

The Spinners – "Rubber Band Man"

Smokey Robinson – "Tears of a Clown"

Temptations – "Ball of Confusion"

And finally, here's an interview the man himself:

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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