Chris Blackwell, who built Island Records into one of the most delicious, artist-friendly and successful labels in music history, would quickly admit that along the way, he made some serious mistakes.
After watching a creative performance by Pink Floyd, he commented to a colleague “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Upon meeting a young Elton John (then going by his birth name Reg Dwight), he couldn’t imagine how such a shy and self-conscious kid could possibly become a viable live performer. And when Prokol Harum tried to get his attention with his unreleased song Whiter Shade of Pale, he thought its 5-minute length made it unplayable. In addition, he hated the use of the word “Fandango” in the song.
“I definitely blew him away,” Blackwell told the Guardian, laughing warmly. “But I have no regrets.”
And why should he? Blackwell’s record of discovering and nurturing groundbreaking talent far outweighs any obstacle that comes your way. He vividly details both his hits and misses in a highly readable new memoir, The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond. The dizzying list of stars covers oceans, genres and eras, including Bob Marley, U2, Cat Stevens, Robert Palmer and Steve Winwood, who was the label’s MVP for years. An in-depth look at their catalog reveals that while promoting some of Britain’s boldest acts such as King Crimson, Free, Mott the Hoople, Fairport Convention and Roxy Music, as well as some of its most sensitive, such as Sandy Denny, Nick Drake and John Martin. Then there are island artists who cannot be classified in any way, such as Grace Jones, John Kale, Marianne Faithfull and Eno. Beyond his work with great artists from London and Jamaica, Blackwell supported lucrative composers in New York (from Eric B and Rakim to Tom Tom Club) and Africa (such as King Sunny Ade and Baba Mal). In the process, Island’s commitment to creativity often dampened his enthusiasm for commercial success. “I’ve always been eager to work with people who are doing something new,” Blackwell said in the explanation. “I’m interested in what’s different.”
The roots of that interest can be traced to the island of Jamaica, where he moved with his parents from London when he was a child. For our interview, Blackwell, now 84, spoke on the phone from a place he bought long ago – the GoldenEye – storied, Ocho Rios Ideal once owned by Ian Fleming that now serves as a high-end hotel. Is. A child of remarkable privilege, Blackwell grew up in an environment both upscale and isolated. Since he was frequently ill with asthma as a child, he had little contact with other children. “I spent most of my time around nurses, gardeners or house workers,” he said.
At the same time, his parents threw packed amazing parties with friends of their stars like Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Errol Flynn. Blackwell’s mother was Fleming’s inspiration for the original Bond girl, Pussy Galore, a fact that makes the writer roar with laughter. Flynn’s alcohol-laden excesses became Blackwell’s first exposure to rock star-like indulgence, as well as an object lesson in how No to behave. He said this helps account for his ability to remain relatively calm amidst the mind-changing world of musicians. “Since I was very sick as a child, I was always health conscious,” he said. “Plus, when I was 11, my father went to the bar and said, ‘You’re all grown up now, so you can have whatever you want to drink.’ The only thing I knew was whiskey. I took a sip and thought it was downright cheesy. I wasn’t interested in alcohol until after.” (Ironically, he now markets his own brand of rum) .
Blackwell’s first experience in Jamaica came from a near-death experience at the age of 21. She and some friends traveled on a small boat that ran out of fuel to a dangerously remote part of the island. In dire need of hydration, he eventually sets out on foot to meet a Rastafarian. “I’ve never come across one before,” he said. “At the time the Rastafarians were considered a very dangerous group of people. I was scared. But he brought me water. And I thought ‘Here’s this guy who represents what everyone says, terrible people’ And he is saving me.’ It changed my life.”
Soon after, he also opened a new kind of music. Blackwell’s father helped him develop a deep love for classical music by blasting Wagner and Puccini in ear-piercing amounts. Now, they found themselves drawn to a very different style, deriving from the rapidly expanding sound systems that engulfed the ska records that were produced by pioneers of the genre such as Coxson Dodd. At local live performances, Blackwell began choosing singers of his choice, offering them to record with money funded by his family. Aided by his innate promotional skills, his first three singles reached No. 1 on the island. “It’s not because I’m a great record producer,” he said. “That’s because Jamaicans were eventually listening to the music of their own people on the radio, rather than music coming from England or America.”
Having succeeded on the island, he left for London after Jamaica’s independence in 1962, believing that, as an Englishman, he was on the “wrong side of history”. He arrived at the right time. The British blues boom was just getting started. But her first big hit was a ska recording she made for 16-year-old Jamaican Millie Smalls. His distinctive, loud voice drew him to a song he had heard on the island and, while he knew that his unusual voice could serve as a calming hook, he also understood that it could quickly can wear out. Therefore, he made sure that his single, Chirpy My Boy Lollipop, lasted less than 2 minutes, reducing the expected duration of a song. The result was “7 million copies sold”, Blackwell said proudly.
Today, he calls Smalls’ recording “the most important song of my life”. Plus, it inspired him to make records that went even deeper. He found a perfect voice for it after discovering 16-year-old Steve Winwood, who was playing with the Spencer Davis Group at the time. “I would describe his voice as Ray Charles on helium,” Blackwell said. “He’s a musical genius.”
The Spencer Davis Band’s first hit, Keep on Running, became a song written by Wilfred Edwards, a Jamaican artist brought in by Blackwell to help them connect with London’s Caribbean community. The label chief soon made another important discovery by bringing in an energetic young American producer, Jimmy Miller, to work with Winwood’s new band, Traffic. Miller’s recordings with him impressed the Stones enough to hire him for their most important album (Beggers’ Banquet Through Exile on Main Street).
Blackwell allowed his most interesting artists to grow organically, supporting them through albums that weren’t big sellers. The label released four catchy, but quirky, albums by Mott the Hoople that bombed and a slew of daring attempts by one of Blackwell’s pet bands, Spooky Tooth, failed to ignite. “They were great musicians,” he said of Spooky Tooth. “But they never had the right songs.”
The members of one of their pet peeves, Free, were incredibly young when he signed them. “The leader of the band – Andy Fraser – was 15!” Blackwell said. “I felt like they were my kids.”
Still, he was confident. When Blackwell told him that free-thinking listeners would believe they could get his music for free, Blackwell told him he would not sign until the name was up. The band was adamant that Island would not release All Right Now as a single, considering it a freak throwback. Blackwell overtook them, resulting in one of the best-selling singles of the ’70s and a big money-maker to date.
One of the book’s saddest sections deals with Nick Drake, who died at the age of 26 from an overdose of his anti-depressant drug. Although sales of his three albums plummeted, Blackwell valued his work so much when he sold the company. In the late ’90s, he put in a clause stating that Drake’s albums could never be removed from the catalogue, no matter how poorly they performed. That decision long put him in vogue to inspire the use of Drake’s haunting song Pink Moon in a major advertising campaign for Volkswagen, which made him a star decades after his death. Blackwell was equally instrumental in creating the success of Bob Marley. His decision to market him as a rock star made a huge difference. “I felt that the rhythm in the music had to be a little bit more rock, to reach that broad, college audience,” he said.
At the same time, the other Wailers – Peter Tosh and Bunny Weller – resented Blackwell for placing his efforts behind Marley’s solo climb. Tosh nicknamed him “Whitewurst”, while Jamaican dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry called him a bloodthirsty. The striking, Jamaican-born artist Grace Jones, on the other hand, found her ideal sound through her suggestions. His first three albums, which leaned towards traditional disco, did not click. But for her fourth, Blackwell found her the right band (anchored by Sly and Robbie’s permanent rhythm section), gave her the right material (pulled from New Wave) and issued a significant instructable. Pointing to a photograph of Jones, which captured her at her most fanciful and grand, she said, “This record sound like this picture looks like,
Similarly, a photo from Roxy Music – rather than their music – prompted Blackwell to sign them. “They just looked like stars,” he said.
He had an equally strong feeling about U2, although his music didn’t speak to him personally. “I’m more bass and drum oriented and they were more high-frequency,” he said. “But I knew they’d make it. They’re all really smart. And they were blessed with being a really good manager. A lot of the people who manage the band aren’t really capable of doing anything. But theirs The manager was serious.”
When U2 became massively successful, however, Blackwell was overstretched financially and, therefore, did not have the money to pay all the royalties. Instead, he offered the band a piece of the island, a move that gave them a far greater windfall than their original deal.
Ironically, U2’s mega-success became one of the factors that helped end the era of Blackwell’s Island. His immense popularity turned the label into a much larger company than its originator, contributing to his decision to sell his stake. For Blackwell, another sad aspect of his career is the list of artists he worked with that didn’t last long, including Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Jimmy Miller, Free’s Paul Kosoff and Traffic’s Chris Wood. “It’s a pathetic part of the music business,” he said.
At the same time, he finds great satisfaction in the artistic leap that came from his decision to follow his collection to his best talents. “I don’t tell people what to do,” he said. ‘I encourage them to do what they can.