Robbie Shakespeare: The man and his music
The duo Sly and Robbie featured Sly Dunbar (left) and Robbie Shakespeare.

This is the second of a two-part series by cultural historian and director of the Jamaica Music Museum Herbie Miller on the life and work of master bass player Robert “Robbie” Shakespeare, who died on December 8, 2021. Part one of this article was published on Sunday, January 16, 2022.

Like its two individual members, the duo of sly and Robbie is exceptional and proficient in the studio, representing something unique. However, in addition to Sly's singular percussive style, that individuality must also be attributed to Shakespeare's extraordinary imagination and perceptiveness. Less animated than when on stage, Shakespeare represented a study of concentration in the studio. With his tweed Andy Capp cap tilted upwards and pushed back; a cigarette hanging between his lips, its ash desperately clinging to its base oozing smoke rings into the air before falling to the floor; eyes closed as if visualising and distilling images and colours from the song to shape his notes, the bassist coaxing sounds consisting of such individual feel that saturate our collective consciousness, making each listener experience the unity music is capable of conveying.

During the mid-1980s, Sly and Robbie became the house band at Chris Blackwell's Compas Point Studio in Nassau, Bahamas. While recording Grace Jones' Private Life she was not in the studio, recalled Dunbar. However, the duo decided to make the music based on Jones' looks. Represented by a large photograph of the singer, it resulted in a tight organic performance with a bassline that, as Dunbar puts it, “had the hallmark of a hit song from the very beginning of its introduction”. According to Dunbar, converting hard-edged reggae bass to artistes like Jones resulted in some excellent playing from Shakespeare. On Pull up to the Bumper, he said: “Robbie's awesome lines are a departure from the basic reggae style; it tails off with sustained unusual beauty and groves like a smooth moving machine”.

Dunbar further stated that he was delighted by some of Shakespeare's riffs and his melodicism, a sample of which lives on in Gwen Guthrie's version of I'm Gonna Love You. These sessions, he said, were not pre-planned but were organic responses to fooling around with different sounds and tones where Shakespeare would hear things, a movement, or a conversation, and turn them into basslines.

Shakespeare sometimes relied on the standard resounding throbbing reggae basslines, and other times he seamlessly integrates opposing tones into a compositional form. For example, in Black Uhuru's Whole World is Africa, rather than thumping, typical bass-heavy notes, Shakespeare duplicated Dunbar's patterns on the hi-hat (cymbals), consequently creating a stream of consistency and originality. Furthermore, to his credit, Shakespeare demonstrated that bassists do not always have to be anchors, predictable and one dimensional. For example, one of his favourite lines which he played on the Viceroy's Heart Made of Stone, a minimalist recording consisting of just Ansil Collins' keyboard along with bass and drum. Dunbar maintained time and pulse, and Shakespeare had to fill the space by unfailingly sustaining and lyrically reinforcing and directing the course. With splayed tones to cover the gap over the three minutes that the bass played the lead, it demanded deep concentration while accompanied by a simple drum pattern to hold it together and not make it chaotic.

Generosity

Many participants in the music industry have benefited from Shakespeare's generosity. With Dunbar, his mentees include, among others, engineers Collin “Bulby” York, Lynford “Fatta” Marshall, Albert “Burru” Blackwood, and Rory Baker.

Just as Aston “Family Man” Barrett did for him, among those Shakespeare mentored and assisted is his worthy constituent Earl “Flabba” Holt, a roots bassist of tremendous authority, and producer George Phang. They are perhaps his two best publicly known music practitioners. But it's not only for his musical achievements that I pay tribute to the brethren.

Never forgetting his early years experiencing the unselfishness of others and the beneficiary of their deeds enshrined a consciousness in Shakespeare that demonstrated itself in his generosity to others and an indebtedness to humility as his own success grew. I recall contacting him in Paris, France, requesting financial assistance to clear musical instruments intended for distribution among disadvantaged youth, and receiving a reply beyond the request demonstrated his genuine concern for human issues. However, respecting his wishes that such gestures go without publicity or notice, many similar acts were performed by him that shall remain confidential. Nevertheless, they are commendable if one considers his care for and assistance to colleagues and friends, his visits and funding for their doctors and general health care, his selfless relationship with and help to fledgling musicians, and his contribution to small entrepreneurs.

Beyond his musical and creative legacy to Jamaica, Shakespeare surmised that the material estate he possessed would also benefit the expansion and identity of Jamaican culture. So when he proudly arrived at the Institute of Jamaica to join Dunbar as recipients of the Musgrave gold medal, he graciously informed me that he had a contribution to make to the national collection. When that day came, Shakespeare invited me to meet him outside the Institute, opened his car trunk, and announced, “This is for the music museum,” but the compartment was empty. He called out to his driver to ask about the whereabouts of the gift and was told it was not placed in the vehicle, upon which I was asked to stop by his home and collect it later. To my surprise, when I arrived, Shakespeare handed me the Paul McCarthy model Hoffner hollow-bodied electric bass he inherited from Family Man, who received it from the producer Bunny “Striker” Lee. I could not ask for a more valuable donation, given the pedigree and provenance of that bass. Those among many similar deeds of appreciation, love, caring, and belief in the possibility to transform what seems impossible to possible are some of the pleasures of knowing Robbie Shakespeare.

The celebrated musician is hailed locally and globally as a bassist extraordinaire. In addition to Rolling Stone placing him at number 17 among international bassists, the industry periodical Bass Player rated him among the top fifty bassists of all time. When I congratulated him on the accomplishment, he said, “Bwoy, that is quite an achievement because I can name 50 more who I know influenced me and who should be there.” However, he accepted being renowned with grace and humility, which was a testimony to his character. He never rated himself above others, except to say, “It's just my time now.” He was generous with bestowing accolades on those who came before him and offering support to others who came after.

Further thoughts

Robbie was never political, not in the narrow local partisan sense nor the broader international sociopolitical arena, despite playing with some of the world's most politically aware artistes like Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan. Yet there was empathy for those who continually suffer the disruptions caused by the inequity of global and domestic political greed. He was supportive of the plight of humanity without a doubt. This concern led him to perform at numerous concerts for human justice, armament reduction, as at the No Nukes concert, and attracted funding for global disasters. Neither was he Rastafari, his full head of locks notwithstanding, though fully supportive of its significance. For him, without being militant or even vocal about it, he was identifying with Africa. For example, I once engaged him on a recording session with Toots [Hibbert] in Memphis, Tennessee, and Shakespeare, who had arrived from Nigeria only a few days prior, had a clean, shaved head. When I enquired what was going on, he explained it was disappointing because he did not see any locks in Africa, so what's the use of wearing locks therefore, he shaved.

I have contracted Sly and Robbie on many sessions, both live and in the studio. Some were big-budget productions others were not. But, even when I requested a contribution for gratis to a particular project like an anti-apartheid rally in Washington, DC, for example, Shakespeare laughed and said, “Herbie you bring your friend Stokley Carmichael (Kwamme Toure) to come and work mi fi free again? But its OK, it's for the cause.” Another time I was producing a low-budget recording, Aluta Continua, with an anti-apartheid and black freedom struggle theme. At the end of the session Shakespeare informed me that was his contribution to the cause. At that moment, he sounded like Stokley, only as a musician supporting the struggle.

Coda

Shakespeare has contributed (along with his rhythm partner Sly Dunbar) to countless recordings and performances of international artistes than any Jamaican musician. The list would exhaust my time and the space for this tribute. To name a few, it includes Bob Dylan, Simply Red, Serge Gainsberg, Manu Dubango, Mick Jager, and Sinead O'Connor. Bob Marley's confidant, Alan Cole, recalled that, through the influence of Family Man, Shakespeare has the distinction of recording two songs, Concrete Jungle and Stir it Up, on The Wailers' Catch A Fire album though uncredited. Both musicians, ailing but lucid, kept in touch during recent years. Occasionally, they would reunite at Aston Junior's studio in Florida, enjoy a bass jam, and reminisce.

The bassist is the recipient of 12 certified gold records, each for over 500,000 units sold; nationally recognised with the Order of Distinction; a gold Musgrave medal awardee; a two-time Grammy winner (including reggae's first); and a 14-time Grammy nominee, including the R&B category.

Robbie Shakespeare was an extraordinary bassist, and that's an understatement.

But, as I stated before, he remained humble, a regular guy, an ordinary man, and that's rare for someone of his importance. To know Shakespeare was to be exposed to an individual who was complex but lighthearted; loved cowboy shows, comics, and country and western music; hid behind a tough persona but was soft and compassionate. He was a singular individual, a man of his own making; he was no follower. Not at all.

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