RIP Robbie Shakespeare (1953-2021)

10th December 2021 · 2020s, 2021, Music, Reggae

RIP Robbie Shakespeare, king of the bass guitar and one half of the peerless reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie.

The first time I ever heard Robbie Shakespeare, the brilliant bass guitarist on hundreds – maybe thousands – of reggae records, was when I was at school. One day early in 1971 a strange new sound burst out of the speaker of a tinny transistor radio as I listened to the weekly ritual of Pick of the Pops.

The song was called Double Barrel and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Built around an infectious combination of drums and bass, it was by a Jamaican duo called Dave and Ansell Collins, and it was the first time I ever heard reggae music. It would not be the last and I would hear more, much more, of that drummer and bass guitarist. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

Universally abbreviated to Sly & Robbie, the duo bestrode reggae like twin titans for more than half a century. So much so that it would literally be easier to list the reggae artists they didn’t play with than the ones they did, as well as the ones from other areas of music, from Bob Dylan to Ian Dury, Mick Jagger to Jackson Browne, Grace Jones to Joan Armatrading and Yoko Ono.I

was lucky enough to see Sly & Robbie perform several times with several different bands – the first time with Black Uhuru – and even luckier to see what must have been their last UK appearance in April 2019. In an inspired fusion of two genres, they provided the base – and Robbie the bass – for the Norwegian jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær at Ronnie Scott’s.

I was at a table right in front of the stage with my cousins Hughie and Tom, and their dad Julian, and while the reggae rhythm section were in their dotage – Sly walked with a stick and Robbie often played with only one hand on his bass – it was a special occasion.

Their symbiotic chemistry was still astounding to witness and perhaps, with hi dsight, there was the added frisson of knowing it might be the last chance to see them, at least together. Sadly it was.