Remembering Robbie Shakespeare, a legend and a pillar of reggae music
The reggae community is once again in mourning as another legend has fallen asleep. World-renowned bassist and record producer Robbie Shakespeare passed away yesterday, December 8, at the age of 68. He was reportedly in Florida, where he had recently been hospitalized for kidney surgery.
Robbie Shakespeare spent his youth in East Kingston, Jamaica. He was part of what many consider to be the legendary duo known as Sly and Robbie with Sly Dunbar. The group formed in the mid-1970s, at a time when black civil rights were a growing cause, and more blacks were turning to black musicians for inspiration.
His path seemed all mapped out, especially since he came from a family of musicians. In fact, according to him, his family home was a rehearsal and meeting place for a variety of up-and-coming musicians and singers. He was indeed surrounded by music as even his brother Lloyd had his own band called Emotions. They rehearsed often in the house.
The presence of music all around him will soon prompt him to choose his first instrument, which would be an acoustic guitar, a familiar instrument in the family home. His appeal to bass would come sometime after his meeting with Aston “Family Man” bassist Barrett, who came to his backyard.
Shakespeare was stunned when he heard the bassist play and quickly began to focus on the instrument after telling Barett he wanted to “learn to play this thing.” [bass]. You teach me.
Barrett agreed to give Shakespeare bass lessons, which became literal history. Barett became his mentor, and Robbie Shakespeare began to sneak into the studio and wait outside while the bands recorded. Whenever his mentor recorded, Robbie would try to listen to the session and watch the bassist’s hands.
Years later, he first collaborated with drummer Sly Dunbar when they performed in house band Channel One Studio. Barrett eventually joined the Wailers, and Robbie took over the bass role in Barrett’s former band, Hippy Boys. He would persist in his passion for music, and in 1974 he and Dunbar founded an independent music production company and label called Taxi Records.
The combination proved successful and they achieved their first major commercial success in 1976 with their work on the Mighty Diamonds album Right Time. Over the next ten years, their attentive ear would help them collaborate with successful international artists such as Madonna, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones, Sting and Britney Spears. They would also create soundtracks for films, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Poetic Justice.
Reggae has remained their passion, and they are credited with helping pave the way for reggae to go digital. This legacy would be etched in reggae history when the pair introduced the rhythm of the Rockers. The hugely popular duo Chaka Demus & Pliers also benefited from the group’s unique vision by creating a new sound for them which led to hit hits like “Murder She Wrote”.
Their remarkable contribution was also recognized around the world, as Shakespeare was nominated for 13 Grammys during his career and won twice. The first came in 1984 for Best Reggae Recording for Anthem and the next 14 years in 1998 for Best Reggae Album for Friends.
Robbie Shakespeare’s work has already been immortalized and tributes have poured in from all walks of life. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness probably summed it up best in his tweet, which read: “When it comes to playing reggae bass, no one comes close to having the influence of Robbie Shakespeare. He will be remembered for his remarkable contribution to the music industry and Jamaican culture.
(3/3) When it comes to playing Reggae bass, no one comes close to having the influence of Robbie Shakespeare. He will be remembered for his remarkable contribution to the music industry and Jamaican culture. That his soul rests in peace.
– Andrew Holness (@AndrewHolnessJM) December 8, 2021
BBC Radio 1Xtra reggae music presenter David Rodigan also paid a fitting tribute to the legend via Twitter: “Bass is everything in reggae music and Robbie Shakespeare played his bass guitar like no one else; he dropped the beat, the speakers shook and we swayed. His passing is a tragic loss; its contribution to the genre is immeasurable. RIP Robbie Shakespeare.
Bass is everything in Reggae music and Robbie Shakespeare played his bass guitar like no one else; he dropped the beat, the speakers shook, and we rocked. His passing is a tragic loss; its contribution to the genre is immeasurable. RIP Robbie Shakespeare. pic.twitter.com/3JMMtbUrm1
– David Rodigan (@DavidRodigan) December 8, 2021
Rest in peace, another legend of Jamaican musical culture is gone but will never be forgotten.