I was getting ready for slumber last night when I was checking the news before bed [a bad idea, I know] when I saw that we’d just lost bassist extraordinaire Robbie Shakespeare at a depressingly young 68 years of age. Diabetes had taken its toll on his health and he died following kidney surgery. Fortunately for us, he certainly put those 68 years to incredible usage. When I looked at his Discogs profile, it listed a mind boggling 1734 credits for “instruments and performance.” To put that into perspective, Barney Kessel of The Wrecking Crew only manged to have 1173 performance credits. And I thought that he was a busy player!
The interesting thing about Shakespeare was that 95% of his work was in the Reggae genre; hardly my normal listening. In 1975, the year he can be said to have gotten a leg up on his career, he had 19 credits. By 1977 there were 45 releases he played on! And it moves from there. Almost exponentially! His Reggae credits are mind staggering.
Like many white boys, I was very late to the game. Mr. Shakespeare first entered my consciousness in 1981 when he and his partner in music, Sly Dunbar, were the rhythm section on Grace Jones’ “Nightclubbing” album as part of the Compass Point All Stars band that Island owner Chris Blackwell had assembled for his famed studio of the same name. Concurrently, Sly + Robbie were famously name checked in Tom Tom Club’s megasmash “Genius of Love” which was recorded at the same studio as the Jones opus.
When events manifest like that, one pays attention. Particularly, when Robbie Shakespeare managed to lay down the most lubricious bass line imaginable for Grace Jones, “Pull Up To The Bumper!” Which only makes sense, because if one is recording a song like “Pull Up To The Bumper,” it demands such! But the interesting thing was that the song was already recorded before Ms. Jones made it her own.
Earlier in the year, Island Records UK released a single by Junior Tucker called “The Kick [Rock On]” and the B-side was credited to Compass Point All Stars with the song called “Peanut Butter” at that point. The basic groove was used as the basis of “Pull Up To The Bumper” layer that year as Ms. Jones added the incredible lyric and Shakespeare managed to make the track sound every bit as lascivious as its lyric.
After that watershed moment when he entered Rock culture, Shakespeare found himself moving all over the musical map as his bass chops were sought by players outside of the Reggae genre. Big players like Joan Armatrading, Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan paid handsomely, I’m sure, to get that bass magic on their albums. Enough so that even Rolling Stone Magazine cited Shakespeare as number 17 on their list of Best Bass Players. One can only imagine in what esteem that the Jamacian Reggae community held him.
When combined with his drumming partner Sly Dunbar, their collaboration was one of the all time great rhythm sections. Shakespeare has gone on to say that their rhythmic simpatico were like an unspoken language the two shared. Such was their musical chemistry. Crucial, for a genre like Reggae, but with beach heads all over many kinds of Pop music. Wisely, the duo also formed their own label/production company called Taxi Music, which has racked up over a thousand releases between 1980 and now. Many of their productions were licensed to other labels like Island UK.
When examining the contents of my Record Cell I was astounded to see that there were far fewer releases than I had imagined up front when hearing about his death. The shadow he cast over bass playing was such that I had assumed that I’d find a lot more than a dozen releases; most of them from the Grace Jones canon. Speaking of which, I dearly hope that the much mooted follow up to the magnificent “Hurricane” album already has Shakespeare’s contributions safely recorded so that if/when it reaches out ears, the almighty bass of Robbie Shakespeare will rightly be in its position in the rhythm. Until then his place in the pantheon of great bassists is assured, so go to your own Record Cells tonight and spin some of that magic with his partner and family in our thoughts.