The demise of the commemorated 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. Getting backed almost each and every reggae star and collaborated with an array of intercontinental A-listers that consists of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Joan Armatrading and Sinead O’Connor, as properly as co-generating the profession-defining hits of Grace Jones, Shakespeare was the belligerent yang to Dunbar’s yin, a brawny, chain-smoking musician whose persistently meaty bass traces belied a mercurial temperament. With his model described by a melodiousness that referenced a really like of jazz, soul, and rock’n’roll, Shakespeare leaves a broad catalogue, peppered with stone-cold classics.
“At faculty, what I seriously favored was the drums,” he instructed me, when we achieved in Kingston in 1998. “I used to have drumsticks and play on a bench, and then guitar bought my focus – rock’n’roll lead guitar – but when I heard the bass, the bass seem strong and it make a variation. On a single track by itself, you can enjoy a million distinctive bass lines and that will give you a million different songs.”
The son of a domestic worker, Shakespeare was lifted in Vineyard Town, east Kingston, exactly where tunes was a well known characteristic of day to day everyday living. Throughout the late 60s, his older brother Lloyd was in harmony group the Feelings with Max Romeo, who frequently rehearsed at the relatives home. Robbie commenced actively playing his brother’s acoustic guitar, until he was launched to the bass by Aston “Family Man” Barrett, whose band the Hippy Boys backed the Thoughts.
“Family Guy begun demonstrating me the tunes, so when Family Male remaining Hippy Boys I was the lad to come in,” stated Shakespeare. “My 1st bass guitar was given to me by Spouse and children Man, which was a Hofner, Beatles type.”
The first tune Shakespeare played bass on was Errol Dunkley’s languorous deal with of the Beatles’ I’ll Be Back, recorded in 1972 for producer Sonia Pottinger, when Shakespeare was nevertheless in his teenagers. He was soon an uncredited guest on the Wailers’ Catch a Fireplace, playing bass on Concrete Jungle and Stir It Up, and his propulsive existence helped Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey to become a breakthrough sensation, just as his Fender Jazz served produce hits for Johnny Clarke and Slim Smith in the Aggrovators band.
He very first achieved Sly Dunbar at the common nightclub strip on Pink Hills Road, where Shakespeare was enjoying in Big Relation at a club referred to as Evil People today, and Dunbar was fronting Skin Flesh and Bones a number of doors down at Tit for Tat. Their paths began crossing with higher frequency at recording studios these as Channel A person, the place Shakespeare performed piano on the instrumental smash MPLA, and when Shakespeare was questioned to assemble a band for Peter Tosh’s forthcoming tour, he drew for Dunbar. Their months on the street stimulated the unheard of method they took for their personal joint productions, with funk and soul shaping the output of their Taxi label from 1977, commencing with Gregory Isaacs’ celebratory Oh What a Feeling.
Sly and Robbie then commenced a strong working marriage with Black Uhuru, cutting an outstanding sequence of albums that culminated in Anthem, the initial reggae album to earn a Grammy. As the rhythmic anchor of the Compass Position All Stars, resident at Chris Blackwell’s new studio in the Bahamas, they served Grace Jones to attain intercontinental stardom, Shakespeare’s bass emphasising the sensuality of tracks these types of as Pull Up to the Bumper and My Jamaican Dude.
“Compass Position was the sweetest setting for a musician simply because the location is so fucking tedious that you have practically nothing else to do but operate,” Shakespeare chuckled, when we achieved in London in 2005. “You never know any person there and you only know the studio, so you get the perform carried out.”
Sly and Robbie’s backing on Bob Dylan’s Infidels reminded that their oeuvre need not be constrained by the reggae idiom in accordance to Shakespeare, the classes unfolded organically and had been punctuated by a joking camaraderie.
“Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler put out the sheets with the chord alterations, and we just deal with it,” Shakespeare emphasised. “When we fulfilled, Bob reported, ‘I heard that you fellas like to function, so I’m gonna blow you out of the floor,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, Bob, it ought to be the other way round!’ But Bob Dylan is the finest author in the universe in our time. I applied to adore all the Dylan music I listen to, like Seven Times and Lay Lady Lay. Bob Dylan is the man who make me start examining song lyrics.”
A move to Florida and repeated touring did not aid Shakespeare’s well being: chubby and hooked on cigarettes, he endured a longstanding battle with diabetic issues, to which he has at last succumbed.
At the conclude of our 2005 interview, Shakespeare suggested that the operate he and Dunbar built alongside one another had prevalent charm simply because of their musical openness.
“Growing up in Jamaica, we were being listening to a range of music,” he claimed. “At the clubs, you have to be able to enjoy calypso, soul and funk to retain them on the dance flooring, far too. James Brown, country and western, rock’n’roll, Diana Ross, it was just a combination of anything.”
In channelling this assortment of influences, Robbie Shakespeare crafted some of reggae’s immortal bass traces – and his uncommon proficiency on his instrument authorized him to transcend the genre, far too. It is that mix that places him in the pantheon of greats.