Robbie Shakespeare, Influential Jamaican Bass Player, Dies at Age 68

Robbie Shakespeare

Jamaican Robbie Shakespeare, who with his counterpart Sly Dunbar formed the Jamaican rhythm duo “Riddim Twins,” died at the age of 68 on December 8, 2021. Shakespeare, one of the most Jamaican musicians in history, was described as the “17th-greatest bassist” of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. His death was announced on Twitter by Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport. While the cause of his death has not been confirmed, the musician was living overseas following kidney surgery at a hospital in Florida. Commenting on his passing, Grange noted that his loss will be mourned by the music industry in Jamaica and around the world.

Shakespeare’s work as a reggae bassist helped to bring the musical genre to new territories, playing on classic recordings with Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh, as well as playing on rock albums with the likes of Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. He was probably best known as one-half of the long-time and very prolific rhythm sections known as “Sly and Robbie” with drummer Sly Dunbar, his friend, and collaborator. Their music stemmed from the reggae beats of Jamaica, but the duo also experimented with sound and moved into electronic-fueled regions on classics like “Pull Up to the Bumper” with Grace Jones.

Robbie Shakespeare was born in 1953 and raised in Kingston. He learned to play the guitar and was a protégé of Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the legendary bassist. When Barrett joined The Wailers, Shakespeare took his place in the group “Hippy Boys.” He also played with the local band “The Aggravators.” His life changed dramatically in 1973 when he went to hear Dunbar play at a reggae club. The two started playing together in mutual admiration, and the rest is history.

Shakespeare and Dunbar became well known in the late 1970s when they joined Black Uhuru, a famous reggae band. This led the pair to the head of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, who recruited them for the smash hit Grace Jones LP “Nightclubbing” in 1981. They began using computer-generated rhythms and sounds in their recordings at this time, and in 1985, the first time there was a category for Best Reggae Album at the Grammy Awards, the winner was Black Uhuru’s “Anthem,” which was produced by Sly and Robbie.

Demand for the two musicians continued to increase, and they appeared on albums by a wide variety of recording artists. In addition to Dylan and Jagger, Sly and Robbie played with Yoko Ono, Jackson Brown, and Carly Simon. In 2012, Shakespeare called Bob Dylan one of his all-time favorite writers and singers. The pair worked on three of Dylan’s albums, beginning in 1981 with “infidels.” Sly and Robbie collaborated with singer Sinead O’Connor in the 2000s and remixed Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me” as well.

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