The death of the venerated Jamaican bassist Robbie Shakespeare at the age of 68 finally ends the incomparable partnership he forged with the drummer Sly Dunbar in the dingy nightclubs and hothouse recording studios of 1970s Kingston. Having backed virtually every reggae star and collaborated with an array of international A-listers that includes Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Joan Armatrading and Sinead O’Connor, as well as co-producing the career-defining hits of Grace Jones, Shakespeare was the belligerent yang to Dunbar’s yin, a brawny, chain-smoking musician whose consistently meaty bass lines belied a mercurial temperament. With his style defined by a melodiousness that referenced a love of jazz, soul, and rock’n’roll, Shakespeare leaves a vast catalogue, peppered with stone-cold classics.
“At school, what I really liked was the drums,” he told me, when we met in Kingston in 1998. “I used to have drumsticks and play on a bench, and then guitar got my attention – rock’n’roll lead guitar – but when I heard the bass, the bass sound powerful and it make a difference. On one track alone, you can play a million different bass lines and that will give you a million different songs.”
The son of a domestic worker, Shakespeare was raised in Vineyard Town, east Kingston, where music was a prominent feature of everyday life. During the late 60s, his older brother Lloyd was in harmony group the Emotions with Max Romeo, who often rehearsed at the family home. Robbie began playing his brother’s acoustic guitar, until he was introduced to the bass by Aston “Family Man” Barrett, whose band the Hippy Boys backed the Emotions.
“Family Man started showing me the songs, so when Family Man left Hippy Boys I was the lad to come in,” said Shakespeare. “My first bass guitar was given to me by Family Man, which was a Hofner, Beatles style.”
The first song Shakespeare played bass on was Errol Dunkley’s languorous cover of the Beatles’ I’ll Be Back, recorded in 1972 for producer Sonia Pottinger, when Shakespeare was still in his teens. He was soon an uncredited guest on the Wailers’ Catch a Fire, playing bass on Concrete Jungle and Stir It Up, and his propulsive presence helped Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey to become a breakthrough sensation, just as his Fender Jazz helped create hits for Johnny Clarke and Slim Smith in the Aggrovators band.
He first met Sly Dunbar at the popular nightclub strip on Red Hills Road, where Shakespeare was playing in Big Relation at a club called Evil People, and Dunbar was fronting Skin Flesh and Bones a few doors down at Tit for Tat. Their paths began crossing with greater frequency at recording studios such as Channel One, where Shakespeare played piano on the instrumental smash MPLA, and when Shakespeare was asked to assemble a band for Peter Tosh’s forthcoming tour, he drew for Dunbar. Their months on the road stimulated the uncommon approach they took for their own joint productions, with funk and soul shaping the output of their Taxi label from 1977, beginning with Gregory Isaacs’ celebratory Oh What a Feeling.
Sly and Robbie then began a strong working relationship with Black Uhuru, cutting an impressive series of albums that culminated in Anthem, the first reggae album to win a Grammy. As the rhythmic anchor of the Compass Point All Stars, resident at Chris Blackwell’s new studio in the Bahamas, they helped Grace Jones to achieve international stardom, Shakespeare’s bass emphasising the sensuality of songs such as Pull Up to the Bumper and My Jamaican Guy.
“Compass Point was the sweetest environment for a musician because the place is so fucking boring that you have nothing else to do but work,” Shakespeare chuckled, when we met in London in 2005. “You don’t know anyone there and you only know the studio, so you get the work done.”
Sly and Robbie’s backing on Bob Dylan’s Infidels reminded that their oeuvre need not be constrained by the reggae idiom; according to Shakespeare, the sessions unfolded organically and were punctuated by a joking camaraderie.
“Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler put out the sheets with the chord changes, and we just deal with it,” Shakespeare emphasised. “When we met, Bob said, ‘I heard that you guys love to work, so I’m gonna blow you out of the ground,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, Bob, it should be the other way round!’ But Bob Dylan is the greatest writer in the universe in our time. I used to love all the Dylan songs I hear, like Seven Days and Lay Lady Lay. Bob Dylan is the man who make me start checking song lyrics.”
A move to Florida and frequent touring did not help Shakespeare’s health: overweight and hooked on cigarettes, he endured a longstanding battle with diabetes, to which he has finally succumbed.
At the end of our 2005 interview, Shakespeare suggested that the work he and Dunbar made together had widespread appeal because of their musical openness.
“Growing up in Jamaica, we were listening to a variety of music,” he said. “At the clubs, you have to be able to play calypso, soul and funk to keep them on the dance floor, too. James Brown, country and western, rock’n’roll, Diana Ross, it was just a mixture of everything.”
In channelling this range of influences, Robbie Shakespeare crafted some of reggae’s immortal bass lines – and his uncommon proficiency on his instrument allowed him to transcend the genre, too. It is that blend that puts him in the pantheon of greats.