By Howard Campbell, Observer Senior Writer
Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021
LEGENDARY Jamaican bass player Robbie Shakespeare was yesterday described as “one of a kind” by keyboardist Robbie Lyn, one of the many artistes and musicians who rode Sly and Robbie’s Taxi label and had a front-row seat to Shakespeare’s genius.
Shakespeare died at age 68 yesterday at his home in Florida, United States.
According to Lyn, Shakespeare’s story transcended music. “He came from a challenged background and made a name for himself. Robbie worked himself into a position as someone to respect,” Lyn told the Jamaica Observer.
No official cause of death was given at press time, but Shakespeare had been ill for an extended period.
He and Lyn had a musical connection that went back to the late 1970s when they were members of Peter Tosh’s Word, Sound and Power band. Along with drummer Sly Dunbar, they played on numerous hit songs, including Walk and Don’t Look Back by Tosh and Mick Jagger, Revolution (Dennis Brown), Love and Devotion (Jimmy Riley), and Baltimore (The Tamlins).
Saxophonist Dean Fraser is also a member of the Taxi Gang. He remembers first meeting “Rasta Robbie” in the late 1970s at Channel One studio in Kingston.
“Robbie jus’ had a different style, one of the steadiest bass in di world. Him did jus’ have a different sound…very creative,” said Fraser, who also played on Baltimore, as well as Anthem, the Sly and Robbie-produced album that won the first reggae Grammy in 1985.
One of Shakespeare’s biggest influences was Jackie Jackson, stalwart bassist at Treasure Isle studio in the 1960s, who was a member of Toots and The Maytals for over 50 years.
He told the Jamaica Observer that he had mutual respect for Shakespeare, who he called the “consummate bass player.”
Jackson believes the bass work on Baltimore hears him at the height of his powers.
“From that time, I have greater respect for Robbie. It lift di song. When yuh hear that song, yuh drawn to di bass,” he said.
Jackson, Boris Gardiner, and Aston “Family Man” Barrett of The Wailers were Shakespeare’s biggest influences. He was mentored by Barrett who, like him, is from east Kingston.
Prior to Sly and Robbie and Word, Sound and Power, Shakespeare was a member of The Hippy Boys, Youth Professionals, The Aggravators, and at times, The Revolutionaries, house band at Channel One.
Shakespeare played on some of roots-reggae’s finest moments, including Concrete Jungle by The Wailers, Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man album, and Burning Spear’s epic Marcus Garvey album.
He and Dunbar became world famous during the 1980s, working with Black Uhuru, as well as elite acts like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Manu Dibango, and Mick Hucknall of Simply Red.
They won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1999 for the aptly titled Friends.
Last year, after Shakespeare was named number 17 on Rolling Stones Magazine‘s 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time, he told the Observer that he and Dunbar had a similar approach to music.
“Sly an’ Robbie naah leave di studio until it [music] reach somewhere so people can enjoy it,” said Shakespeare.
For more Sly & Robbie history by Howard Campbell, click “Sly & Robbie: 20 Years Strong” from V13#01 1995
To read and hear a Sly & Robbie interview by M. Peggy Quattro, click here