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.
There are also casual pearls of wisdom, like “In my experience, when people are described as difficult, it usually just means that they know what they want.” Or this observation about the Buggles’ hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”: “It was the first-ever music video played on MTV when it launched on August 1, 1981, perfectly setting up a new world by seeming sad about losing the old.” Or this one about the B-52s: “Some artists are musicians, and that’s what they do: play music. Then you have artists like the B-52’s, who have enough ideas to build their own reality, which they then inhabit.”
In this interview, rather than making him repeat what was in the book, we tried to get him to extrapolate on some of the topics and lessons in it.
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.
The stories in your book are remarkable, right from the beginning — with your close relationships with Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming and Miles Davis at a very young age. What in your background that gave you that kind of confidence?
That’s an interesting question! i think because I grew up in with wealth; my family was wealthy at that time, and the people I spent the time with were, for example, the groomers, because there were horses, and the gardeners — the Jamaican staff, because I didn’t see any other children. There were no birthday parties and things like that. I never felt lonely or anything, I was just kind of on my own. But I really cared for them, although I was very well aware of how my life was totally different from theirs. That was probably what got me into the music.
You say something in the book about not letting missed opportunities drag you down — you passed on “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” one of the most successful songs of all time.
Well, there was a lot going on at the time. The Spencer Davis Group were breaking up and Traffic were just starting, and they were gonna stay at Island Records. The first time I heard [“Whiter Shade”], I thought it was incredible, I really did. But it was very, very long, six minutes, and I remember saying, Hold on, is anybody going to be playing this on the radio?
But then I remember driving to my office in Oxford Street in London and hearing it on the radio for the first time — that was a killer, because it just sounded so incredible, so unique. I thought, oh my god, I can’t believe it. But I realized that I’d made the choice: I was really excited about Traffic, and if I’d gone with “Whiter Shade of Pale,” that might have cost Traffic. I kind of move on — I don’t suffer. And that was the right thing to do.
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.
Did you get a similar sense from U2 and Bono?
Well, most of my roots are in drums and heavy bass — Jamaican bass — and they were more high-frequency sounding. I didn’t feel that. But I definitely thought they were huge — I really did, because they were playing in a little club and with less than 20 people there, and you would think there were a thousand people from the way that Bono projected. That really impressed me. And the other thing that really impressed me was they had a manager who wore a suit and was serious. Often the manager is the friend who can’t play any of the instruments, but he was serious, and you could see their passion of what they were doing.
Do you regret selling Island when you did? Do you wish you’d waited longer?
Well, I screwed up on something. One evening, I came back to my apartment and I heard this incredible record on the radio, which was coming out of Washington D.C. I wish I could remember the record, because I’d never heard such an incredible drum pattern. And I immediately wanted to follow up on that music. I did, and then I thought, maybe the way to do this maybe is to sort of follow the line of what happened with “The Harder They Come” and do a film that captured the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, the person who was going to do the film with me, a very close friend of mine, had been for some time waiting to finish a major film, and so he couldn’t do it with me after all. And I didn’t have the skills to pick up what to do, and so that film just didn’t come off. But I’d spent more money than I should have spent, and I ended up in bad shape financially with Island Records, so it was time for me to just check out.
In the book, there are many examples of you seeming to find the opportunity in a situation. For example, the man named Lucky Gordon sort of tried to shake you down for some money (Blackwell laughs), and you ended up doing a deal with him and working with him for a long time. I think most people would have been offended and would have just shown him the door.
Well, I liked him. I knew he was he was a bit of a bad boy, but there was something about him that I just liked, and he stayed with me for a long time. He was a great cook and when I opened Basing Street Studios, I organized for him to do the cooking there, and that became a huge success — people wanted to come to the studio not just to record but also to get his cooking, so he ended up being quite an asset. I actually did take something from that — you can find good even in a bad situation.
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