Grammy-Winning Bassist Robbie Shakespeare, of Reggae Duo Sly & Robbie, Dead at 68

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Robbie Shakespeare
Robbie Shakespeare

Frans Schellekens/Redferns Robbie Shakespeare

Robbie Shakespeare, a Grammy-winning bassist and producer known for his work with the legendary Jamaican reggae duo Sly & Robbie, has died. He was 68.

The musician's death was announced by the Jamaican Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange, who called the East Kingston native one of the country's "greatest musicians," alongside his collaborator Sly Dunbar.

"I am in shock and sorrow after just receiving the news that my friend and brother, the legendary bassist Robbie Shakespeare has died," Grange said in a statement. "This fantastic team 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. Robbie's loss will be felt by the industry at home and abroad. He will be sorely missed."

Guillaume Bougard, Shakespeare's friend, manager and producer, told CNN that he died on Wednesday after receiving kidney and liver transplants one year ago.

"We kept praying for a miracle, but it was not enough," Bougard said. "This is very tough."

Shakespeare was a prolific bass player who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger to Grace Jones, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh and Jackson Browne, recording or producing some 30,000 tracks over the years, according to Bougard's estimates.

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He was ranked as the No. 17 greatest bass player of all time in a list compiled by Rolling Stone in 2020.

"[Robbie and Sly] excelled in the rubbery negative space of dub, found a unique way to create an organic feel in a digital context as dancehall emerged in the Eighties, and brightened the grooves on rock and pop albums by Grace Jones, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and others," the magazine wrote. "No other musical entity in the post-Marley era has been so omnipresent in shaping the sound of Jamaica and bringing it to the world."

Shakespeare began his music career as an early protégé of bass legend Aston "Family Man" Barrett, eventually taking his place in Hippy Boys when Barrett left to join the Wailers, according to Rolling Stone.

His highly influential partnership with Dunbar began after he heard the drummer play at a reggae club in 1973. They soon began playing, recording and producing together.

"It was the whole body of the bass, the sound and the way it flowed against the drummer," Dunbar told Rolling Stone last year of admiring Shakespeare's talents. "At a certain part of a tune he'd play like three different lines, change the line on the bridge and the verses after that, and get four different lines."

The pair were nominated for 13 Grammys, and won twice, for best reggae album in 1998 (Friends) and best reggae recording in 1984 ("Anthem").