With bass and production work for Grace Jones, Bob Dylan and a host of Jamaican stars, the brawny half of Sly and Robbie used his catholic tastes to stunning ends
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.”