Robbie Shakespeare, the bard of bass

Robbie Shakespeare, the bard of bass

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

Friday, July 31, 2020

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In terms of reggae bass, Robbie Shakespeare's patented lines are akin to the Holy Grail. The rugged musician, best known for his enduring partnership with drummer Sly Dunbar, was last week named in Rolling Stone Magazine's 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time.

Shakespeare clocks in at number 17, ahead of top-flight names like Bernard Edwards of Chic and his mentor, Aston “Family Man” Barrett of The Wailers.

James Jamerson of Motown fame is number one on the August list.

The 66-year-old Dunbar was typically reserved when he spoke to the Jamaica Observer's Splash last week about the acknowledgement.

“Mi jus' humble miself an' feel proud. Wi nuh do nuthin fi get pat pon di back, wi jus' cut an' guh through. When wi si something like dis wi feel good dat di work yuh do people respect it,” he said.

Shakespeare has crossed paths with several of the musicians on the Rolling Stone's list. He expressed admiration for Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T and The MGs, and said he was friends with Edwards and Jaco Pastorius, both of whom died.

Shakespeare also praised the work of Jackie Jackson and Boris Gardiner who along with Barrett are his earliest influences. He remembers Barrett coming to his home at Jacques Road in East Kingston “to buy herb”.

It was on one of those trips in the late 1960s that he reached out to Barrett who at the time was a member of The Upsetters, producer Lee “Scratch” Perry's house band.

“Mi sey to him, 'mi waan learn da ting dey' an' from dat day him live inna mi skin,” Shakespeare recalled.

Barrett became famous as bass player for The Wailers and Bob Marley's right-hand man in that band. He never forgot his protege, even giving him the Hofner bass Shakespeare played on Concrete Jungle, from The Wailers' Catch A Fire album.

He used that instrument to play countless sessions for producer Bunny Lee, which yielded hits for Johnny Clarke, as well as Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh.

It was while doing the club rounds along the Red Hills Road strip that he first met Dunbar. He remembers their first session together being with John Holt for Lee in the mid-1970s.

They later became the driving force for Tosh's Word, Sound and Power band. Then, after relaunching the Taxi label in the late 1970s, produced a flow of hits for Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, The Tamlins, Black Uhuru, Jimmy Riley, Junior Delgado, Sugar Minott, Beenie Man, and Grace Jones.

Their rhythm sound has been used by diverse artistes such as Bob Dylan, Gwen Guthrie, Manu Dibango, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, and No Doubt.

“Sly an' Robbie have a one-track mind —music,” Shakespeare joked. “Sly jus' guh 'pop, pop, pop' an a it dat. It jus' a guh come out wicked... different than di rest. Wi naah leave di studio till it come out right.”

Robbie Shakespeare was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaica Government for his contribution to the development of reggae. He and Dunbar are recipients of the Musgrave Gold Medal.


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