Robbie Shakespeare — reggae artist extraordinaire, prolific bassist, and in-demand producer alongside his longtime collaborator Sly Dunbar — admits he was “humbled” upon learning he made Rolling Stone’s recent list of the 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time.
“Number 17, that’s good,” Shakespeare says of his ranking, “compared to all the bass players in the world.” When asked where he’d put himself on the list, the Sly and Robbie hitmaker jokes, “Number two.”
For Shakespeare, great bass playing is all about “the style.” “Most bass players, like drummers, have a style,” Shakespeare says, adding that if he hears impressive bass playing on the radio, “I’ll go and find out who played that bass, if I didn’t know.” Speaking to Rolling Stone from his home in Florida, Shakespeare broke down his own personal, unranked top 10 bassists, a list that includes jazz legends, rock stars, and fellow reggae pioneers.
It might seem strange that a reggae legend would put a prog-rock wizard on his list, but Shakespeare was floored watching Rush perform live while in Europe in the late 1970s. Lee placed at number 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Bassists of All Time.
We used to be in England a lot when touring with Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru, and we used to see Rush. They’d play a lot of festivals. This guy, he had a lot of style [to his bass-playing]. The singing and the style. Around that time, someone came in the studio and said, “Robbie, you are rated number three in the world, and then there is Rush’s Geddy Lee and Pino [Palladino].”
The Welsh session musician — number 38 on the Rolling Stone list — is a bassist’s bassist and one of rock’s most in-demand session musicians, playing alongside hundreds of artists ranging from the Who and Jeff Beck to John Mayer and D’Angelo.
He’s one of my favorite bass players. Pino played a different style; different style.
Aston “Family Man” Barrett
Shakespeare’s mentor, teacher and biggest influence, the longtime Wailers member and Bob Marley collaborator is considered the premier reggae bassist. Barrett placed number 28 on the Rolling Stone list.
He should be number one [on the list]. He’s the one who started it all. People think he played on [Bob Marley’s] “Concrete Jungle,” but I played “Concrete Jungle,” I was just playing a style that was similar [to Barrett, who with the Wailers performed on the rest of Catch a Fire]. But Family Man is the one who kicked my butt; he’s the one who told me to get up and do this.
If Barrett served as Shakespeare’s main influence, it was Toots and the Maytals’ Jackson who inspired Barrett, with Jackson’s bass helping to form the basis of the the ska sound in the Sixties.
When you were growing up in Jamaica, all the songs were played by Jackie Jackson.
The beloved, deceased jazz bassist, a veteran of Weather Report and Pat Metheny’s band, played alongside Jimmy Cliff on “Brown Eyes” from 1985’s Cliff Hanger, an album that also featured Sly and Robbie. Pastorius was number eight on the Rolling Stone list.
We did a tour together in Japan. His style was totally different; just raw. The song “Come On, Come Over,” that is totally Jaco.
The versatile, Grammy-winning bassist has collaborated with the likes of Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, and Wayne Shorter, and played on albums by Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and Aretha Franklin. In 1984, Miller and Shakespeare performed together on guitarist Kazumi Watanbe’s Mobo II.
We’re going right back to the style again. The way Marcus plays, you’ll hardly find anybody else play. Marcus style is Marcus style.
The jazz giant — number 10 on Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Bassists List — played with Miles Davis’ second great quintet on classic LPs like Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, E.S.P. and Sorcerer, and appeared on essential recordings by Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, and Alice Coltrane.
I met [Carter] once when I was on tour with Peter Tosh. He was cool. I wasn’t a fan of jazz music so much; I was more a fan of country & western and blues music, but his playing grabbed me. A couple weeks ago, someone told me that Ron Carter played bass on [the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”]. I said, “No, no.” [Note: Anthony Jackson played bass on “For the Love of Money.”]
A jazz-fusion pioneer, Return to Forever bassist Clarke (number 13) has been recruited to play alongside both jazz greats (Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Tony Williams, to name a few) and rock legends (Paul McCartney, Beck, and Keith Richards).
I also met Clarke when I was touring with Peter Tosh, and he was touring with Keith Richards. We were kidding one another: “You play too fast” and “You play too slow.” But I learned some things just by watching him and watching his live show. And he probably took something from [watching] me. We always take something from one another.
The master of Motown, Jamerson was number one on Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Bassists list.
Everybody grew up listening to James. If you don’t listen to James, you haven’t been born yet. I was sitting down, thinking, listening to some Jamerson things, and I said, “Robbie, you play a bit like Jamerson, because I try to play as less as possible, just enough to match the song.” Jamerson, that’s number one for true.
I’ve seen Bill play more than Paul, but I remember once I was on tour with the Rolling Stones and I said to Mick every night, “Where is Paul? I want to meet Paul.” I remember coming offstage, my [bass guitar] strap fell and this guy said, “You need a strap?” I said, “Yes, and one of these days hopefully I can afford one.” I went backstage and I saw Mick and said, “Where’s Paul?” Mick said, “You were just talking to him.” That was the closest I got to [McCartney]. But he sent songs to us (Sly and Robbie) to remix [2007’s “Nod Your Head“]. I never met him, but that was one of my favorites.
I used to a play Hofner bass just like him, and if you listen to the style he plays, it’s very, very unusual from other bass players. He’s totally different, and he deserves to be there [on the list]. And Bill was similar to my style: He always played just the right note; never too much. I loved him like that. Like James Jamerson, not too much.
Shakespeare also named a pair of Jamaican bassists that he lobbied for future Rolling Stone bassist lists: Val Douglas of the Skatalites and Lloyd Parks, a longtime reggae vet who played with Dennis Brown, Culture, the Gladiators, as well as Dadawah’s 1974 underground classic Peace and Love.