Robbie Shakespeare, the influential Jamaican bassist and producer best known as half of the duo Sly & Robbie, has died. The Gleaner reports that Shakespeare died in a Florida hospital after undergoing kidney surgery. He was 68 years old.
Born in 1953, Shakespeare was raised in East Kingston, Jamaica, surrounded by a musical family. After learning to play acoustic guitar as a child, he switched to bass when the legendary reggae bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett agreed to teach him. He later got an opportunity to play in the Revolutionaries, the house band at Channel One Studio, which is where he met drummer and longtime musical partner Sly Dunbar. In the mid-1970s, they split off from Channel One and started Taxi Records, their own production company. They formed their own band, Sly & Robbie, and continued playing as studio musicians on records like Culture’s 1977 LP Two Sevens Clash and Gregory Isaacs’ 1978 album Cool Ruler.
Sly & Robbie were also the focus of the Compass Point All-Stars, the group of studio musicians who worked at Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau. There, they contributed to records by Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, and Robert Palmer. As they become more well-known, the pair played on albums such as Bob Dylan’s Infidels and Empire Burlesque and the Rolling Stones’ Undercover. As lead artists, Sly & Robbie released a number of albums between 1981 and 2014, most famously 1987’s Rhythm Killers, which featured an ensemble of musicians including Bill Laswell, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell. In 2020, Rolling Stone named Shakespeare the 17th best bassist of all time.
“When it comes to reggae bass playing, no one comes close to having the influence of Robbie Shakespeare,” Jamaican prime minister Robert Holness wrote on Twitter. “He will be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music industry and Jamaica’s culture.”
“I am in shock and sorrow after just receiving the news that my friend and brother, the legendary bassist Robbie Shakespeare has died,” Jamaica’s Minister of Entertainment and Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange said in a statement. “[Sly & Robbie] took bass playing and drumming to the highest level as they made music for themselves as a group, and for many other artists locally and internationally,” Grange continued. Robbie’s loss will be felt by the industry at home and abroad. He will be sorely missed.”