Island Records’ Chris Blackwell Finally Tells His Story

Most music industry memories are littered with celebrity names. “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records – whose success with Bob Marley, U2, Steve Winwood and Grace Jones would offer much to brag about – starts with a parable.

In 1955, Blackwell was a wealthy 18-year-old Englishman whose family was part of Jamaica’s colonial elite. Lost and thirsty after his speedboat ran out of gas, Blackwell encountered a Rastafarian man – a member of what was still an outcast group feared by Anglo-Jamaicans as menacing “black-hearted men”. But this terrified Samaritan took Blackwell to his community, offering him food, water, and a place to rest; the young visitor awoke to find his hosts softly reading the Bible.

That encounter set Blackwell on a remarkable path through music, with Jamaica at the center. He is one of the people most responsible for popularizing reggae around the world, and as Island grew into a transatlantic mini-empire of rock, folk, reggae and pop, it became a model for nimble and eclectic indie labels across the board. the places.

However, it may now be impossible not to also see the Rastafari episode through the lens of race and colonialism, as the story of a privileged young man who gains access to the predominantly black culture that would make him rich and powerful. Blackwell, who turns 85 this month, acknowledged that debt in a recent interview.

“I was just someone who was a fan,” he said, with a soft upper-class accent shaped by his time in British public schools. “I grew up among black people. I spent more time with blacks than whites because I was an only child and sick. They were the servants, the gardeners, the grooms. But I started to care a lot about them and I could recognize very early on how different their lives were from mine.”

When asked why he started the label in 1959, he said: “I think I thought I’d give it a try. It wasn’t about Chris Blackwell making a hit record or anything. I was really trying to elevate artists.”

ALTHOUGH HE IS from the same generation of music entrepreneurs as Berry Gordy and Clive Davis who have cared for their reputations in public for decades, Blackwell is perhaps the most publicity-shy and least understood of the so-called “men of the record.” As a label boss or producer, he was behind era-defining songs like Cat Stevens, Traffic, Roxy Music, The B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Tom Tom Club, not to mention U2 and Marley.

However, in his prime, Blackwell went so far as to avoid the spotlight that few pictures exist of him with Marley – he didn’t want to be seen as the white Svengali to a black star. Meeting last month for coffee and eggs near the Upper West Side apartment where he spends a few weeks a year, Blackwell had a thin white beard and wore a faded sweatshirt and sneakers. Back in Jamaica, his favorite footwear is flip-flops, or nothing.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Chris offered a model for some of us on how to live,” wrote U2’s Bono in an email. “I remember him once telling me outside one of his properties, ‘Try not to throw your success in the face of people who aren’t so successful. Try to be discreet. His perfect manners and shaky voice never came as a right. He was himself at all times.”

Paul Morley, the music journalist who wrote “The Islander” with Blackwell, said it wasn’t until Blackwell sold Island to PolyGram in 1989 for nearly $300 million — now part of the giant Universal Music Group — that he started to show any interest in claiming their place in history.

“Chris always likes to be in the background,” said Jones, who released his debut album Island in 1977. “I’m kind of surprised he did the book.”

BORN IN 1937 for a family that made a fortune in Jamaica growing sugar cane and making rum, Blackwell grew up on the island around wealthy Brits and holidaying celebrities. Her mother Blanche was friends with Errol Flynn and Noël Coward. She’s also had a long-standing affair with Ian Fleming, who wrote his James Bond novels at the neighboring GoldenEye estate – although in the book and in person Blackwell doesn’t go beyond describing the two as “best friends”.

In the late 1950s, Blackwell was involved in the nascent Jamaican pop business. He supplied records for jukeboxes and “sound system” operators for outdoor parties; “I was pretty much the only one of my skin there,” he recalled.

Soon he started producing his own records. In 1962, Blackwell moved to London and began licensing singles from ska – the effervescent predecessor of reggae – which he sold to shops serving Jamaican immigrants from the back of his Mini Cooper.

In 1964, he scored his first hit with “My Boy Lollipop,” a two-minute slice of exquisite bubblegum sung by a Jamaican teenager, Millie Small. The song went to No. 2 in Britain and the United States, and sold over six million copies, although Blackwell was horrified at how instant stardom transformed Millie’s life. Back in Jamaica, her mother seemed to barely recognize Millie, curtsying before her daughter as if she were visiting royalty. “What did I do?” wrote Blackwell. He vowed to no longer pursue pop hits as a goal in itself.

“The Islander,” which arrived on Tuesday, defends the label’s boss not as a domineering captain but as an enabler of serendipity. Shortly after his success with Millie, Blackwell saw the Spencer Davis Group, whose singer, teenager Steve Winwood, “sounds like Ray Charles on helium.” In 1967, Blackwell rented a country house for Winwood’s next band Traffic to play, and he seemed content to see what they came up with there.

Just over a decade later, Blackwell reunited Jones with the house band at Compass Point, the studio he built in the Bahamas. Jones said the results made her a better artist.

“I found my voice working with Chris,” she said in an interview. “It allowed me to be myself and to extend myself, in a way, putting myself together with musicians. It was an experiment, but it really worked.”

When U2 began work on their fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire”, the band wanted to hire Brian Eno as a producer. Blackwell, thinking of Eno as an avant-garde, was opposed to the idea. But after talking to Bono and The Edge about it, Blackwell accepted his decision. Eno and Daniel Lanois produced “The Unforgettable Fire” and its successor, “The Joshua Tree,” which established U2 as global superstars.

“Once he understood the band’s desire to develop and grow, to access other colors and moods,” Bono added, “he got out of the way of a relationship that turned out to be crucial for us. The story reveals more about the depth of Chris’ commitment to serving us rather than the other way around. There was never any bullying.”

BLACKWELL’S MOST FASCINATING The artist’s relationship was with Marley, where he used a heavier hand and had an even greater impact.

Although Island distributed 1960s singles from the Wailers, Marley’s band with Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, Blackwell didn’t meet them until 1972, after the group finished a British tour, but needed money to return to Jamaica. He was immediately trapped by their presence. “When they came in, they didn’t look broken,” he said. “They looked like kings.”

However, Blackwell advised them that in order to be played on the radio, they needed to present themselves not as a simple reggae band, but as a “black rock act” and go after “college boys” (code for a white audience). middle class). Blackwell recalls that Livingston and Tosh were skeptical, but Marley was intrigued. The three recorded the core tracks for their next album in Jamaica, but Blackwell and Marley then reworked the tapes in London – bringing in white musicians like guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboardist John Bundrick.

The resulting album, “Catch a Fire,” was the most sophisticated-sounding reggae release of its time, though it also started a debate that continues to this day: how much Marley’s sound and image were shaped by Blackwell and Island because of of a white cross? This question gains more traction when Blackwell recounts the origins of “Legend,” the greatest hits compilation Island released in 1984, three years after Marley’s death.

In the book, Blackwell writes that he gave the job to Dave Robinson of Stiff Records, who came to work at Island after Blackwell made a deal with Stiff. Robinson, surprised by the low sales of Marley’s catalogue, addressed the general white audience. That meant refining the track list to favor uplifting music and limiting its more confrontational political music. The album’s marketing, which included a video featuring Paul McCartney, played down the word “reggae”.

It worked: “Legend” became one of the most successful albums of all time, selling 27 million copies worldwide, according to Blackwell. And it didn’t erase Marley’s legacy as a revolutionary.

Marley’s daughter, Cedella, who runs the family business as chief executive of the Bob Marley Group of Companies, had no complaints. “You can’t regret ‘Legend,'” she said in an interview. “And if you want to hear loving Bob, revolutionary Bob, playful Bob – it’s all there.”

Throughout “The Islander,” Blackwell makes startling comments. He left Pink Floyd, he writes, “because they seemed too boring,” and Madonna “because I couldn’t figure out what the hell I could do for her.”

Still, it is sometimes puzzling what Blackwell omits or downplays. Despite reggae’s centrality to Island’s history, reggae giants such as Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse are mentioned only briefly. Blackwell writes about ex-wives and girlfriends, but not about his two children.

Even those who might be offended still look in awe. Dickie Jobson, a friend and associate who directed the 1982 film “Countryman,” about a man who embraced Rastafarianism, gets little ink. “Chris’s best friend in life was my cousin Dickie Jobson, so I was a little disappointed in the book where Dickie is mentioned only three times,” said Wayne Jobson, producer aka Native Wayne. “But Chris has a lot of friends,” he said, adding that Blackwell is “a national treasure of Jamaica.”

The last few chapters of the book are the most dramatic, where Blackwell recounts how cash flow shortages – Island couldn’t pay U2’s royalty bill at one point, so Blackwell gave the band 10% of the company – and bad business decisions. took him to sell Ilha. “I don’t regret it, because I put myself there,” Blackwell said. “I made my own mistakes.”

In recent years, having sold off most of his musical interests, Blackwell has devoted himself to his resort properties in Jamaica, seeing it as his ultimate legacy to promote the country as if he were an artist. Every improvement or tweak to GoldenEye, for example, he sees as a “remix”.

“If you say it yourself, it sounds sentimental,” Blackwell said. “But I love Jamaica. I love the Jamaican people. The Jamaican people took care of me. And I always felt that anything I could do to help, I would.”

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