The Eternal Bloodlight of Robbie Shakespeare
Legendary Bass Player, Songwriter and Record Producer has died
Robbie Shakespeare, one half of the ground-breaking dub/reggae duo Sly And Robbie, passed away on Wednesday, December 8, in a Florida hospital.
A proper appreciation of his career would fill an encyclopedia, so we’ll just touch on some of the highlights of his impressive resume.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in a home full of amateur and professional musicians. His brother Lloyd was in a vocal trio called The Emotions with Max Romeo. According to legend, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who would go on to play bass in Bob Marley’s band, stopped by the Shakespeare home on the way to score some weed. Robbie asked him for bass lessons and Barrett obliged. In a few years, Shakespeare was good enough to join The Revolutionaries, The Channel One Studio band.
He continued playing in many other bands and met his soon to be musical partner, drummer Sly Dunbar, in 1974. Between gigs at rival clubs, they began talking and clicked. Within a year, they were playing with the greats. They were the rhythm section on Jimmy Cliff’s Follow My Mind (1975) and ex-Wailer Peter Tosh’s solo debut Legalize It (1976). Sly and Robbie became the main producers for the Taxi label, a company started a few years before by Dunbar. They had hits with the Gregory Isaacs single “Soon Forward” and Ini Kamoze’s “Trouble You a Trouble Me.” They also contributed tracks to Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, a roots rock masterpiece.
As their reputation grew, mainstream artists who wanted to add a touch of reggae to their music tapped them to produce. Their first international hits were tracks on the Grace Jones albums Warm Leatherette (1980) and Nightclubbing (1981). The duo co-wrote Nightclubbing’s biggest hit “Pull Up to the Bumper.” I interviewed Shakespeare as “Bumper” was climbing the charts. He was modest and straightforward. He told me music was his life. He said he never thought about getting a hit, nor did Sly. They only wanted to lay down the most compelling rhythm tracks possible.
VIDEO: Grace Jones “Pull Up To The Bumper”
Back in Jamaica, they hooked up with Black Uhuru, a vocal group that was going though many personnel changes, trying to find an identity. They came on board for a number of singles featuring a new singer, Puma Jones, an African American woman whose chilling harmonies became one of the group’s trademarks. The first album Sly and Robbie produced for them, Showcase, won the newly inaugurated Best Reggae Album Grammy in 1985. They also helmed the group’s next three releases Sinsemilla, Red and Tear It Up.
Soon other artists were enlisting their services, including Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Joan Armatrading, Joe Cocker, Serge Gainsbourg, Yoko Ono, Sting, Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell, who joined them for the experimental dub explorations, Language Barrier (1985) and Rhythm Killers (1987).
As the musical landscape shifted into the digital realm, the duo accommodated to the changes. A good example of their ability to shift with the times can be found on the 1999 release Dancehall Killers. It includes collaborations with Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Capleton and many others.
In the new century, they kicked things off with their album, Dub Fire (2000), the soundtrack music for the Jamaican film Third World Cop and backing for “Underneath It All,” a track on No Doubt’s Rock Steady album of 2001. They continued working with, and producing, a variety of artists, including the Japanese band Spicy Chocolate and Brinsley Forde, founder of Aswad and a successful solo artist. They also made dub albums, including Blackwood Dub (2012) and Underwater Dub (2014), as well as the instrumental album, Red Hills Road (2020), a blend of dancehall, with their own unique musical approach.
One of the final albums to feature Shakespeare and Dunbar on rhythms is a fantastic collaboration with Finnish glitch-house producer Vladislav Delay, 500-Push-Up, which was also released in 2020 on the Sub Rosa imprint.
Shakespeare was 68 when he passed.
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