Much like Madonna and Prince, no last names are needed when referring to the legendary Jamaican production duo and rhythm section of Sly & Robbie, aka drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. The pair’s CV is eye-popping, and spans genres and eras. A few big names with whom they’ve worked: Mick Jagger, Joan Armatrading, No Doubt, Jimmy Cliff, Gilberto Gil, Joe Cocker, Sinéad O’Connor, Sting, Serge Gainsbourg and Michael Franti.
Sly & Robbie also notably worked with Grace Jones on a trio of groundbreaking LPs: 1980’s Warm Leatherette (which featured a cover of the Normal song as the title track), 1981’s Nightclubbing and 1982’s Living My Life. “The Grace Jones stuff I think was the stuff that broke me and Robbie to the world,” Dunbar tells Las Vegas Weekly. “I mean, to where we are today—Grace Jones was definitely responsible for doing that. In England, when she did that song with us, she kind of put us into higher ground, because a lot of people were noticing us [playing on] all three albums. And right after that we did the Bob Dylan album [1983’s Infidels], and that was a great album also, and we did some tracks for The Rolling Stones.”
As of late, Sly & Robbie are also in the orbit of another classic rocker, Zak Starkey (aka Ringo Starr’s son) who is launching a reggae label, Trojan Jamaica. (That name is an homage to the legendary reggae label of the same name, Starkey told Rolling Stone: “Turned out nobody owned the rights to Trojan Records in the West Indies, so we got it and took it home.”) Dunbar—who, like Shakespeare, is a session musician on the label’s first compilation, Red, Gold, Green & Blue, which includes a stellar cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”—is impressed by Starkey’s “energy” and “drive,” among other things. “He has this vision, you know?”
Of course, Dunbar’s main collaborator remains Shakespeare, with whom he has worked since the 1970s. Decades later, the drummer is still impressed by his longtime foil’s ambition and equanimity. “We take chances and go for it, and we’re always trying,” Dunbar says. “We never say who’s right or who’s wrong. With new songs, we’re invested. … He never gets angry. He’s always trying to find that sweet spot, so we can anchor the song that we’re working on.”
Sly & Robbie have been touring frequently with Black Uhuru vocalist Mykal Rose in recent years, performing a set Dunbar says pretty much speaks for itself. “We’re just going to do what we do—play some music together for the people to enjoy themselves,” he says. When the group headlines Reggae in the Desert on June 8 at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater, expect much of the same, Dunbar assures.
“We’re going to play what [people] want to hear—just like Motown,” he says. “When you come see a Motown revue, you come to hear the Motown sound of the show. We’re going to come out [and] play an hour of Sly & Robbie. That’s what people are going to see when they come to see [us].”
SLY & ROBBIE At Reggae in the Desert with Mykal Rose, Don Carlos, Yellowman, Alborosie, Jesse Royal, K' Remma, ST1. June 8, doors at noon, $30. Clark County Government Center Amphitheater, reggaeinthedesert.com.