Robbie Shakespeare, Prolific Reggae Bassist, Is Dead at 68

As half of the duo Sly and Robbie, he performed or recorded with everyone from Peter Tosh and Grace Jones to Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg.

A report by Clay Risen for The New York Times.

Robbie Shakespeare, a Jamaican bassist who, as half of the rhythm duo Sly and Robbie, played with and produced some of the biggest names in music while transforming reggae with bold infusions of rock, blues and jazz, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Miami. He was 68.

Guillaume Bougard, a close friend and frequent collaborator, said the cause was complications of kidney and liver transplants.

Starting in the mid-1970s, Mr. Shakespeare and the drummer Sly Dunbar were among the most prolific musicians in the business, reggae or otherwise. Mr. Shakespeare once estimated that they had taken part in 200,000 recordings, either their own or as backup musicians or producers for other artists.

Both men came up from the creative cauldron of 1970s Kingston, working as session musicians at the famed Channel One recording studio and playing with reggae superstars like Peter Tosh, including on his 1978 tour as an opening act for the Rolling Stones. That tour gave the duo their first international exposure.

Their sound differed from the melody-rich music of Bob Marley, Jamaica’s biggest star, with a heavier emphasis on the beat and overt influences from rock and blues, qualities that prefigured new reggae styles, like dancehall, that emerged in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Their willingness to push reggae’s boundaries soon caught the attention of Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island Records, who saw the possibility of marrying their sound with North American and European pop acts.

They provided the driving beats on Grace Jones’s hit 1981 album “Nightclubbing.” They were soon working with acts far from the Kingston sound of their youth, like Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker, and producing singers like Marianne Faithfull, Madonna and Sinead O’Connor.

The duo were both hard-core reggae aesthetes and radical innovators, never afraid to break with tradition. Their work with rock musicians led them to fuse rock’s syncopation with reggae’s one-drop beat. And they were among the first musicians to make regular use of electronic drum machines.

From left, Mr. Dunbar, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Mr. Shakespeare. Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Dunbar got their first international exposure with Peter Tosh when he was as an opening act for the Stones in 1978.
From left, Mr. Dunbar, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Mr. Shakespeare. Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Dunbar got their first international exposure with Peter Tosh when he was as an opening act for the Stones in 1978.

“Their whole career has been geared toward creating new stuff, what no one else had done before,” said Mr. Bougard, who also licensed some of their work for release in Europe through his label, Tabou1.

They were nominated for 13 Grammy Awards and won two: in 1985 for their production of the Black Uhuru album “Anthem,” and in 1999 for their own album “Friends.”

That was an apt title, because beyond their musical talents, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Shakespeare were known for their close personal bond. They were very different people — Mr. Dunbar relaxed and outgoing, Mr. Shakespeare quiet and cerebral — but their talents complemented each other’s, and they could often seem like two halves of a single person.

“The longest we’ve been apart in the last 25 years is about three weeks,” Mr. Shakespeare told the British newspaper The Independent in 1997. “It’s very difficult to be apart for that amount of time. I’ll go on holiday with my family, and as soon as I reach the place I’m going to, I want to be back with Sly, playing music.”

Robert Warren Dale Shakespeare was born on Sept. 27, 1953, in East Kingston, Jamaica. He grew up in a musical family, but his parents were strict and he left home at 13. He drifted at first, getting into trouble but also spending time around his older brother, Lloyd, who sang in a local band.

It was during Lloyd’s practice sessions that Robbie began to learn the guitar — a homemade acoustic one at first. But a chance encounter with the bassist Aston Barrett, known as Family Man, led him to switch instruments.

He begged Mr. Barrett to teach him to play bass. Mr. Barrett, who would later join Marley’s band, the Wailers, said yes, but only if he stayed out of trouble.

Robbie did more than that; he went home and practiced all night, and the days and nights after, until his fingers bled. Decades later, he showed Mr. Bougard how the strings had worn down his fingerprints until they were practically illegible.

Soon he was playing in a series of Kingston bands, often several at once. He would play as a session musician in studios during the day, then perform in clubs along Red Hills Road at night. It was while working in the clubs that he met Lowell Dunbar, known as Sly, already regarded as one of the best drummers in the city.

“He was playing the drums just like how I would always tell the drummers I would play with to play,” Mr. Shakespeare told the website United Reggae in 2012. “He was just doing it and doing it easy and good.”

After working for several years at Channel One, Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Dunbar went off on their own, working for Mr. Dunbar’s Taxi label. They had immediate success producing “Showcase,” a 1979 album by the singer Gregory Isaacs, who at the time was one of the best-selling artists in Jamaica.

That same year they played with the French singer Serge Gainsbourg on “Aux Armes et Cætera,” a reggae version of the French national anthem, which became one of Mr. Gainsbourg’s biggest hits. They released their first album, “Sly and Robbie Present Taxi,” in 1981.

Mr. Shakespeare is survived by his wife, Marian, and a son, Mikiel. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 2020 Rolling Stone ranked Mr. Shakespeare 17th on its list of the greatest bassists of all time.

The pair continued to make music into the 21st century, even as complications of diabetes left Mr. Shakespeare less able to get around. Their last album, “Red Hills Road,” was released early this year.

“If you’re chosen by music, I don’t think you get to say it’s time to retire,” Mr. Shakespeare told The Scotsman newspaper in 2009. “It’s a very gentle gift, and we’ve been trusted with it.”

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