Most music business memoirs are front-loaded with celeb name-dropping. “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” by Chris Blackwell, the founding father of Island Records — whose success with Bob Marley, U2, Steve Winwood and Grace Jones would supply loads to boast about — as a substitute opens with a parable.
In 1955, Blackwell was a rich, 18-year-old Englishman whose household was a part of Jamaica’s colonial elite. Lost and thirsty after his motorboat ran out of gasoline, Blackwell got here throughout a Rastafari man — a member of what was then nonetheless an outcast group feared by Anglo-Jamaicans as menacing “black heart men.” But this Samaritan in dreads took Blackwell into his neighborhood, providing him meals, water and a spot to relaxation; the younger customer awoke to seek out his hosts softly studying from the Bible.
That encounter set Blackwell on a exceptional path via music, with Jamaica at its heart. He is likely one of the individuals most chargeable for popularizing reggae all through the world, and as Island grew to a trans-Atlantic mini-empire of rock, people, reggae and pop, it grew to become a mannequin for nimble and eclectic indie labels in every single place.
Yet it could be not possible now to not additionally see the Rastafari episode via the lens of race and colonialism, because the story of a privileged younger man getting access to the primarily Black tradition that might make him wealthy and highly effective. Blackwell, who turns 85 this month, acknowledged that debt in a latest interview.
“I was just somebody who was a fan,” he stated, in a mellow upper-class accent formed by his time at British public colleges. “I grew up amongst Black people. I spent more time with Black people than white people because I was an only child and I was sick. They were the staff, the gardeners, the grooms. But I got to care a lot about them and got to recognize very early how different their life was from mine.”
When requested why he began the label, in 1959, he stated: “I guess I thought I’d just have a go. It wasn’t about Chris Blackwell making a hit record or something. It was really trying to uplift the artists.”
ALTHOUGH HE IS from the identical technology of music impresarios as Berry Gordy and Clive Davis, who’ve been tending their reputations in public for many years, Blackwell is maybe essentially the most publicity-shy and least understood of the so-called “record men.” As label boss or producer, he has been behind era-defining music by Cat Stevens, Traffic, Roxy Music, the B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Tom Tom Club, to not point out U2 and Marley.
Yet in his heyday Blackwell went thus far to keep away from the limelight that few pictures exist of him with Marley — he didn’t need to be seen because the white Svengali to a Black star. Meeting final month for espresso and eggs close to the Upper West Side condo the place he spends a couple of weeks a 12 months, Blackwell had a skinny white beard and was wearing pale sweats and sneakers. Back in Jamaica, his most popular footwear is flip-flops, or nothing in any respect.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say Chris offered a role model to some of us on how to live,” Bono of U2 wrote in an e mail. “I remember him saying to me once standing outside one of his properties: ‘Try not to shove your success in the face of people who don’t have as much success. Try to be discreet.’ His perfect manners and plummy tremolo of a voice never came across as entitlement. He was himself at all times.”
Paul Morley, the music journalist who wrote “The Islander” with Blackwell, stated it was solely after Blackwell bought Island to PolyGram in 1989, for practically $300 million — it’s now a part of the large Universal Music Group — that he started to point out any curiosity in claiming his place in historical past.
“Chris always likes to be in the background,” stated Jones, who launched her first Island file in 1977. “I’m even surprised that he’s done the book.”
BORN IN 1937 to a household that had made its fortune in Jamaica rising sugar cane and making rum, Blackwell grew up on the island round rich Brits and vacationing celebrities. His mom, Blanche, was pleasant with Errol Flynn and Noël Coward. She additionally had a longtime affair with Ian Fleming, who wrote his James Bond novels on the close by GoldenEye property — although within the e-book and in particular person Blackwell goes no additional than describing the 2 as “the very best of friends.”
By the late Nineteen Fifties, Blackwell was concerned within the nascent Jamaican pop enterprise. He provided information to jukeboxes and the operators of “soundsystems” for outside dance events; “I was pretty much the only one of my complexion there,” he recalled.
Soon he started producing information of his personal. In 1962, Blackwell moved to London and started licensing ska singles — the bubbly, upbeat predecessor of reggae — which he bought to retailers serving Jamaican immigrants out of the again of his Mini Cooper.
In 1964, he landed his first hit with “My Boy Lollipop,” a two-minute slice of beautiful skabblegum sung by a Jamaican teenager, Millie Small. The music went to No. 2 in Britain and within the United States, and bought greater than six million copies, although Blackwell was aghast at how prompt stardom had reworked Millie’s life. Back in Jamaica, her mom appeared to barely acknowledge Millie, curtsying earlier than her daughter as if she was visiting royalty. “What had I done?” Blackwell wrote. He swore to now not chase pop hits as a aim in itself.
“The Islander,” which arrived on Tuesday, makes a case for the file label boss not as a domineering captain however as an enabler of serendipity. Shortly after his success with Millie, Blackwell noticed the Spencer Davis Group, whose singer, the teenage Steve Winwood, “sounded like Ray Charles on helium.” In 1967, Blackwell rented a cottage for Winwood’s subsequent band, Traffic, to jam, and appeared content material to simply see what they got here up with there.
Just a little over a decade later, Blackwell put Jones along with the home band at Compass Point, the studio he constructed within the Bahamas. Jones stated the outcomes made her a greater artist.
“I found my voice working with Chris,” she stated in an interview. “He allowed me to be myself, and extend myself, in a way, by putting me together with musicians. It was an experiment, but it really worked.”
When U2 started engaged on its fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire,” the band wished to rent Brian Eno as a producer. Blackwell, considering of Eno an avant-gardist, opposed the thought. But after speaking to Bono and the Edge about it, Blackwell accepted their choice. Eno and Daniel Lanois produced “The Unforgettable Fire” and its follow-up, “The Joshua Tree,” which established U2 as world superstars.
“When 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 on the depth of Chris’s commitment to serve us and not the other way around. There was no bullying ever.”
BLACKWELL’S MOST FASCINATING artist relationship was with Marley, the place he used a heavier hand and had a fair larger influence.
Although Island had distributed Nineteen Sixties singles by the Wailers, Marley’s band with Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, Blackwell didn’t meet them till 1972, after the group completed a British tour however wanted cash to return to Jamaica. He was instantly caught by their presence. “When they entered they didn’t look broken down,” he stated. “They looked like kings.”
Yet Blackwell suggested them that to get performed on the radio, they wanted to current themselves not as a easy reggae band however as a “Black rock act,” and go after “college kids” (code for a middle-class white viewers). Blackwell remembers that Livingston and Tosh had been skeptical however Marley was intrigued. The three recorded the fundamental tracks for his or her subsequent album in Jamaica, however Blackwell and Marley then reworked the tapes in London — bringing in white session gamers just like the guitarist Wayne Perkins and the keyboardist John Bundrick.
The ensuing album, “Catch a Fire,” was essentially the most sophisticated-sounding reggae launch of its time, although it additionally kicked off a debate that continues today: How a lot was Marley’s sound and picture formed by Blackwell and Island for the sake of a white crossover? That query comes into bolder reduction when Blackwell recounts the origins of “Legend,” the hits compilation that Island launched in 1984, three years after Marley died.
In the e-book, Blackwell writes that he gave the job to Dave Robinson of Stiff Records, who got here to work at Island after Blackwell made a take care of Stiff. Robinson, stunned by the low gross sales of Marley’s catalog, focused the mainstream white viewers. That meant refining the monitor record to favor uplifting songs and restrict his extra confrontational political music. Marketing for the album, which included a video that includes Paul McCartney, downplayed the phrase “reggae.”
It labored: “Legend” grew to become considered one of most profitable albums of all time, promoting 27 million copies all over the world, in accordance with Blackwell. And it didn’t erase Marley’s legacy as a revolutionary.
Marley’s daughter Cedella, who runs the household enterprise because the chief govt of the Bob Marley Group of Companies, had no complaints. “You can’t regret ‘Legend,’” she stated in an interview. “And if you want to listen to the loving Bob, the revolutionary Bob, the playful Bob — it’s all there.”
Throughout “The Islander,” Blackwell drops astonishing asides. He handed on signing Pink Floyd, he writes, “because they seemed too boring,” and Madonna “because I couldn’t work out what on earth I could do for her.”
Still, it’s generally puzzling what Blackwell omits or performs down. Despite the centrality of reggae to Island’s story, giants of the style like Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse are talked about solely briefly. Blackwell writes about former wives and girlfriends however not his two sons.
Even those that would possibly take offense nonetheless appear in awe. Dickie Jobson, a pal and affiliate who directed the 1982 movie “Countryman,” a few man who embodied Rastafarianism, will get 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 only mentioned three times,” stated Wayne Jobson, a producer also called Native Wayne. “But Chris has a lot of friends,” he stated, including that Blackwell as “a national treasure of Jamaica.”
The latter chapters of the e-book are essentially the most dramatic, the place Blackwell recounts how cash-flow shortages — Island couldn’t pay U2’s royalty invoice at one level, so Blackwell gave the band 10 % of the corporate as a substitute — and dangerous enterprise choices led him to promote Island. “I don’t regret it, because I put myself there,” Blackwell stated. “I made my own mistakes.”
In latest years, having bought most of his music pursuits, Blackwell has devoted himself to his resort properties in Jamaica, seeing it has his closing legacy to advertise the nation as he would an artist. Each enchancment or tweak to GoldenEye, for instance, he sees as “remixing.”
“If you say it yourself it sounds soppy,” Blackwell stated. “But I love Jamaica. I love Jamaican people. Jamaican people looked after me. And I’ve always felt that whatever I can do to help, I would do so.”