Robbie Shakespeare – bass guitarist, record producer
Born September 27, 1953; died December 8, 2021
Robbie Shakespeare, who has died aged 68, was one of the greatest bass guitarists of the last half-century. His muscular but laidback style saw him form a long-term creative partnership with drummer Sly Dunbar that led to them becoming one of the most in-demand rhythm sections in the world.
The duo released six albums under their own name, and played crucial roles as the rhythmic spine of records by numerous other artists. These ranged from key reggae classics by the likes of Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Black Uhuru and Burning Spear, to playing with Grace Jones during her early 1980s peak.
As part of Island Records’ Nassau based studio band, the Compass Point All Stars, Sly and Robbie worked on a trilogy of albums by Jones. Led by the vocalist’s ice-cool delivery, Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982) fused reggae, funk and electronics, Shakespeare’s bass burbled away in a manner that helped create a sound that was both groovy and hypnotically hip.
The association with Jones saw Shakespeare and Dunbar’s drum and bass innovations transcend their roots for them to become the go-to rhythm section of assorted musical luminaries who wanted to inject a little of their pulse into their own work. The duo played on four tracks on Mick Jagger’s album, She’s the Boss (1985), and on Yoko Ono’s Bill Laswell produced concept album, Starpeace (1985). They also appeared on a trio of 1980s Bob Dylan albums; Infidels (1983); Empire Burlesque (1985); and Down in the Groove (1988).
In the midst of this, they also managed to put out their first Sly and Robbie albums. Language Barrier (1985) featured a guest list that included Dylan, Afrika Bambaataa and Manu Dibango. Its follow up, Rhythm Killers (1987), produced by Laswell, saw the pair collaborate with the likes of guitarist Bootsy Collins and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, both from the Parliament-Funkadelic axis. Such line-ups put Shakespeare and Dunbar at the heart of a loose-knit global collective of musicians, with bass heavy rhythms anchoring an increasingly expansive sound range.
Shakespeare’s approach to music was always exploratory, and moved technologically with the times. From its analogue studio roots to later digital based work, his bass sound was a slow burning rhythmic rumble that drove what is estimated to be several thousand records that he and Dunbar played on.
Robert Warren Dale Shakespeare was born in Kingston, Jamaica, part of a musical family, whose home became a hub for visiting musicians and singers. His brother Lloyd’s band The Emotions, which also featured future reggae star Max Romeo, rehearsed in the house.
With music all around him, Shakespeare initially played the acoustic guitar and drums, before a visit from Aston ‘Family’ Man Barrett, bass player with The Hippy Boys, opened up the teenage Shakespeare’s ears to a much deeper sound. With Barrett giving his younger protégé bass lessons, Shakespeare became a kind of apprentice, helping Barrett’s brother Carlton set up his drums and observing his new mentor’s bass playing in the studio before sitting down with him to learn the bass lines himself. After Barrett joined The Wailers, Shakespeare took over his role in The Hippy Boys.
Shakespeare first met Dunbar in the early 1970s at a club in Kingston. The pair clicked instantly, with their mutual love of Motown, Stax and Philly Soul influencing their own music beyond pure reggae, and being a portent of things to come. Shakespeare and Dunbar played in various house bands, including The Aggrovators, led by producer Bunny Lee, and The Revolutionaries, put together at Channel One Studios’, with numerous crossovers inbetween.
The Revolutionaries became instrumental in developing reggae into the new ‘rockers’ style. The group’s 1976 track, Kunta Kinte Dub, named after the African slave hero of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, became a sound system classic. It later appeared on the soundtrack of Steve McQueen’s 2020 television film, Lovers Rock, part of McQueen’s Small Axe series.
Sly and Robbie appeared on other key reggae records, including Culture’s 1977 album, Two Sevens Clash, with Shakespeare playing guitar. Shakespeare and Dunbar became key to the sound of Black Uhuru over several records, including Sinsemilla (1980), and Anthem (1983). The latter was co-produced by the pair, and became the first reggae album to win a Grammy. The duo went on to found their own Taxi Records label and production house, releasing records by Dennis Brown, Chaka Demus & Pliers and many more.
Later there was work with Simply Red and Sinead O’Connor, and remixes for Madonna. In 2003, Shakespeare and Dunbar reunited with Jones for a Glasgow show as part of the Triptych festival. In 2009, Sly and Robbie joined an all-star Celtic Connections bill at the Old Fruitmarket for a Jamaican Burns Night that climaxed with a reggae version of The Slave’s Lament, with lead vocals by Karine Polwart.
The sixth Sly and Robbie album, Dubrising (2014), saw the pair join forces with a cross-generational array of players drawing from reggae styles across the decades to make something totally contemporary.
As Sly and Robbie became lionised as The Riddim Twins, Shakespeare was sometimes lauded as Basspeare, and cut a more mercurial figure than Dunbar’s chilled out approach. With their creative chemistry fired by such differences, Shakespeare never attempted to analyse the alchemy between them, preferring to let the instinctive force that came from his overriding love of the bass speak for itself.
“I don’t like talking about myself,” Shakespeare said once during a TV interview in Norway. “I don’t like talking about music either. I just like playing music.”
He is survived by his wife, Marian.
The Herald, December 28th 2021