Most music industry memoirs are filled with celebrity names. “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records – whose success with Bob Marley, U2, Steve Winwood and Grace Jones would offer something to brag about – opens with a parable instead.
In 1955, Blackwell was a wealthy 18-year-old Englishman whose family was part of Jamaica’s colonial elite. Lost and thirsty after his motorboat ran out of gas, Blackwell came across a Rastafarian man – a member of what was then still a group of outcasts feared by Anglo-Jamaicans as “black-hearted men “threatening. But this Samaritan in dreads took Blackwell to his community, offering him food, water, and a place to rest; the young visitor awoke to find his hosts quietly reading the Bible.
This encounter set Blackwell on a remarkable path through music, with Jamaica at its center. He is one of the people most responsible for popularizing reggae around the world, and as Island became a transatlantic mini-empire of rock, folk, reggae and pop, he became a role model for nimble and eclectic independent labels everywhere.
Yet it is perhaps impossible now not to also see the Rastafarian episode through the prism of race and colonialism, as the story of a privileged young man gaining access to the predominantly black culture that would make him wealthy 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 state schools. “I grew up among black people. I spent more time with black people than with white people because I was an only child and I was sick. They were the staff, the gardeners, the grooms. But I cared a lot about them and realized early on how different their lives were from mine.
When asked why he started the label, in 1959 he replied, “I guess I thought I was just going to give it a try. It wasn’t about Chris Blackwell making a hit record or anything like that. He was really trying to elevate the artists.
ALTHOUGH of the same generation of musical impresarios as Berry Gordy and Clive Davis, who have nurtured their public reputations for decades, Blackwell is perhaps the most publicity-shy and least understood of the so-called “record men.” As a label manager or producer, he was responsible for the landmark music of Cat Stevens, Traffic, Roxy Music, the B-52s, Robert Palmer and Tom Tom Club, not to mention U2 and Marley.
Yet in his heyday Blackwell went so far to avoid the limelight that few pictures exist of him with Marley – he didn’t want to be seen as the white Svengali of a black star. Gathered 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 was dressed in faded sweatshirts and sneakers. Back in Jamaica, her favorite shoes are flip flops, or nothing at all.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that Chris has provided a model for some of us on how to live,” U2’s Bono wrote in an email. “I remember he once said to me outside one of his properties, ‘Try not to push your success in front of people who aren’t as successful. Try to be low key. His manners perfect and his voice tremolo were never taken for granted.He was himself at all times.
Paul Morley, the music journalist who wrote “The Islander” with Blackwell, said it was only after Blackwell sold Island to PolyGram in 1989, for nearly $300 million – it’s now part of the giant Universal Music Group – that it has begun to show interest in claiming its place in history.
“Chris always loves being in the background,” said Jones, who released his first Island record in 1977. “I’m surprised he even made the book.”
BORN IN 1937 In a family that had made a fortune in Jamaica farming sugar cane and making rum, Blackwell grew up on the island around wealthy Brits and vacationing celebrities. His mother, Blanche, was friends with Errol Flynn and Noël Coward. She also had a long time affair with Ian Fleming, who wrote his James Bond novels at the neighboring GoldenEye estate – although in the book and in person, Blackwell goes no further than to describe the two as “best friends”.
During the late 1950s, Blackwell was involved in the nascent Jamaican pop industry. He supplied records to jukeboxes and operators of “sound systems» for outdoor dance parties; “I was pretty much the only one of my complexion there,” he recalled.
Soon he started producing his own records. In 1962 Blackwell moved to London and began licensing ska singles – the bubbly, upbeat predecessor to reggae – which he sold to shops serving Jamaican immigrants from the back of his Mini Cooper.
In 1964, he landed his first hit with “My pacifier boya two-minute slice of exquisite skabblegum sung by 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 appalled at how much instant stardom had transformed the life of Millie. Back in Jamaica, her mother seemed to barely recognize Millie, curtsying to her daughter as if visiting royalty. ” What did I do ? Blackwell wrote. He swore to himself that he would no longer pursue pop hits as a goal in itself.
“The Islander,” which arrived on Tuesday, makes the case for the record label boss not as an overbearing captain but as an enabler of serendipity. Shortly after his success with Millie, Blackwell saw the band Spencer Davis, whose lead singer, teenaged Steve Winwood, “looked like helium Ray Charles”. In 1967, Blackwell rented a cottage for Winwood’s next band, Traffic, to jam, and seemed pleased to see what they had found there.
A little 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 performer.
“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, by putting me in contact with musicians. It was an experiment, but it really worked. »
When U2 began working on their fourth album, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, the band wanted to hire Brian Eno as producer. Blackwell, thinking Eno a trendsetter, opposes the idea. But after talking to Bono and Edge about it, Blackwell accepted their decision. Eno and Daniel Lanois produced ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and its sequel, ‘The Joshua Tree’, which made U2 world superstars.
“When he understood the band’s desire to expand and grow, to access other colors and moods,” Bono added, “he walked away from a relationship that turned out to be crucial for us. The story reveals more about the depth of Chris’s commitment to serving us and not the other way around There was never any bullying.
BLACKWELL’S MOST FASCINATING The artist relationship was with Marley, where he used a heavier hand and had an even bigger impact.
Although Island distributed 1960s singles by the Wailers, Marley’s band with Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, Blackwell did not encounter them until 1972, after the band had completed a UK tour but needed money to return to Jamaica. He was immediately stunned by their presence. “When they came in, they didn’t look down,” he said. “They looked like kings.”
Yet Blackwell advised them that to get on the radio they had to present themselves not as just a reggae band but as a “Black rock act”, and go after “college kids” (code for an audience middle-class white). Blackwell recalls Livingston and Tosh being skeptical but Marley intrigued. The three recorded the basic tracks for their next album in Jamaica, but Blackwell and Marley then reworked the tapes in London – bringing in white session musicians like guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboardist John Bundrick.
The resulting album, “Catch a Fire”, was the most sophisticated reggae release of its time, although it also started a debate that continue today: To what extent was Marley’s sound and image shaped by Blackwell and Island for a white crossover? This question takes on bolder relief when Blackwell recounts the origins of “Legend,” the compilation of hits 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 struck a deal with Stiff. Robinson, surprised by the poor sales of Marley’s catalog, targeted the general white public. That meant refining the track listing to favor uplifting songs and limiting his more confrontational political music. Marketing for the album, which included a video featuring Paul McCartney, downplayed 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 that 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, has no complaints. “You can’t regret ‘Legend’,” she said in an interview. “And if you want to listen to the loving Bob, the revolutionary Bob, the mischievous Bob, it’s all there.”
Throughout “The Islander”, Blackwell drops amazing asides. He quit signing Pink Floyd, he wrote, “because they seemed too boring”, and Madonna “because I couldn’t figure out what I could do for her”.
Still, it’s sometimes confusing what Blackwell omits or downplays. Despite the centrality of reggae to Island history, genre giants like Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse are only briefly mentioned. Blackwell writes about his former wives and girlfriends, but not his two sons.
Even those who might take offense to it still seem impressed. Dickie Jobson, a friend and business associate who made the 1982 film “Countryman,” about a man embodying Rastafarianism, makes little ink. “Chris’s best friend in life was my cousin Dickie Jobson, so I was a bit disappointed with the book where Dickie is only mentioned three times,” said Wayne Jobson, a producer also known as Native Wayne. “But Chris has a lot of friends,” he said, adding that Blackwell was “Jamaica’s national treasure.”
The last chapters of the book are the most dramatic, where Blackwell recounts how cash shortages – Island could not pay U2’s royalty bill at one point, so Blackwell gave the band 10% of the company at the place – and bad business decisions led him to sell the island. “I don’t regret it, because I got into it,” Blackwell said. “I made my own mistakes.”
In recent years, having sold most of his musical interests, Blackwell has devoted himself to his resort properties in Jamaica, seeing that he has his last legacy to promote the country as he would an artist. Each improvement or modification of GoldenEye, for example, is considered a “remix”.
“If you say it yourself, it sounds cutesy,” Blackwell said. “But I love Jamaica. I love Jamaicans. Jamaicans have taken care of me. And I always thought that whatever I could do to help, I would do it.