Here are excerpts from “Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell Talks Bob Marley, U2, and His Fascinating Memoir, ‘The Islander,’” by Jem Aswad (Variety).
While he hasn’t been active in the music world for a couple of decades, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, is indisputably one of the greatest record executives in history. The list of artists that the company spawned under his watch is astonishing and arguably without peer for a company of its size: U2, Bob Marley, Nick Drake, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Traffic, Free, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Brian Eno, Steve Winwood, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Toots & the Maytalls, the Cranberries, Marianne Faithfull, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, King Sunny Ade, Eric B. & Rakim, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and so many others. He co-founded the company in his native Jamaica in 1959, relocated to London and within five years had launched the first global reggae hit, Millie Smalls’ “My Boy Lollipop.” A couple of years later he pivoted into rock, and, well, you can see above how that went.
If you’re even a minor fan of music books, stop reading this article and buy his autobiography, “The Islander,” released this week, which was written (beautifully) with Paul Morley — seriously, it’s on the level of Elton John’s “Me” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” for all-time great music memoirs.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Blackwell sold Island in 1989 and moved on to other endeavors: hotels, real estate, resorts (he transformed Ian Fleming’s Jamaican estate Goldeneye into a world-class resort), another record company (Palm Pictures in the early ‘00s), rum, and his Island Films released “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Stop Making Sense,” among others.
Born into a wealthy family and raised in Jamaica, Blackwell was educated in England and there attained an upper-class accent that has served him well. He returned to Jamaica, became obsessed with music and began working as a “selecter” (D.J.) programming jukeboxes across the island. He started producing and releasing records — among the first by Jamaican artists — and soon launched Island. Through his family, he developed close friendships as a young man with legendary actor Errol Flynn and “James Bond” author Ian Fleming, and even became close with Miles Davis during trips to New York. This confidence and early experience with high-flyers no doubt played a large role in the career and life that followed.
Blackwell’s book is so well-written (for which he credits Morley — “I didn’t write a paragraph”) and filled with superstar cameos that the glamour could overshadow the keen musical insight he displays almost casually throughout — he speaks of the influence of Fats Domino on reggae, the importance of the swinging jazz drums in Procol Harum’s 1967 smash “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the fact that bass is effectively the lead instrument in reggae music, and countless other insights that will impress even deepest of music geeks. He also pays tribute to many of music’s lesser-sung heroes, such as the late Guy Stevens — a wild A&R man who coined the phrase “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and produced Mott the Hoople and the Clash but never really got his due — Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, and many others. [. . .]
It seems so unlikely that you would launch your career in the 1950s with Jamaican music. How did it happen?
Well, before 1950 Jamaican music was pretty much calypso, but within a few years the sound systems started — these huge, massive amplifiers, the volume was unbelievable, you could hear them from a mile away. Three or four different people, Coxsone Dodd, King Edward and others, started putting on shows in these sort of outdoor compounds, people would buy a ticket, there were drinks, etc. What they were playing at that time was not Jamaican music — they were playing American R&B, initially coming out of New Orleans, and then moving up and throughout America. So that kind of took off and it was really exciting. That’s when I first started to get into it, and one day there was a guy who was singing, and he was really good. I went to him said, I’d love to love to record you, he said yeah. There was a guy next to him who also sang really well, “Yeah, I’d love to record too,” and then another guy. So that’s how it started with me — literally three, one after the other over the course of 35 minutes or something like that. I made a record with the first guy called “Little Sugar,” and then it went to number one. Then I released the other guy’s record, and it went to number one, and then so did the third guy’s. And I even had more than three hit songs because the B-sides also were in the top 10.
It wasn’t that my records were fantastic or anything. It was just that it was something fresh — instead of hearing American music, they were now hearing Jamaican music. And that’s really how I started.
Was it hard being taken seriously as a white man working in those genres of music, or was Jamaica was already so multiracial that it wasn’t a big deal?
Firstly, probably everybody might have thought it was a bit odd me being in that [scene] at that time. But very soon after that, in a matter of weeks, the Chinese community became very important in Jamaican music. In fact, Lesley Kong, who had a sort of a cafe in Jamaica with two brothers, loved the music and he is actually the person who recorded the first Bob Marley record. He recorded a lot of different people, and another couple of Chinese families that also did the same. [. . .]
When you first met Bob Marley, did you see the magnetism in him, the potential to become what he became?
When [the Wailers] all came in, they were stranded in London and came in to see if we could put together some kind of deal which could get them air fare back to Jamaica. They walked in like kings, which was a good start — they weren’t looking stranded and desperate. I thought, Well, gosh, this guy’s strong. When I was talking with them, I asked them what they were aiming at, and they said they were trying to get on Black radio. I said, “You have no hope.” Which I shouldn’t have said — it was just too heavy a thing to say, even though at that time Black radio wasn’t interested in music from Jamaica or music from Africa, especially as they looked different. They looked like Rastafari.
Bob said, “Well, what do you think we should do?” And I said, “You should be like a Black rock act, because I think the lyrics of your songs could reach a college audience, and that’s where I think you could build a base.” The other two didn’t react positively to that at all, and so, you know, I’m blamed for breaking up the group. I didn’t deliberately break them up, I just didn’t see it like that. [. . .]
For full interview, see https://variety.com/2022/music/news/island-records-chris-blackwell-bob-marley-u2-1235288450/