Would the world have ever heard reggae music or known the songs of Bob Marley if it weren't for Chris Blackwell? Probably. But if reggae's most controversial promoter hadn't taken such an interest in trying to get a white rock audience for Jamaica's pop music, Marley — and a host of other reggae artists — almost certainly wouldn't be the superstars they are today. Always the creative entrepreneur and savvy svengali, the innovative Blackwell took reggae to the top of the charts by marketing Bob Marley as an irresistible Rasta rebel and tweaking reggae's sound to appeal to white British and North American teens.
Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the white British-Jamaican used his money and influence to forward his love of music. He helped kick start the Jamaican music industry alongside the island's future Prime Minister, and then nearly turned his back on it in favour of British rock. His company, Island Records, developed a reputation for releasing creative, underground and progressive rock in the late '60s and early '70s and diversified to include disco dance, punk, new wave and world music by the 1980s. Blackwell himself was at the helm of many a band's career, producing, managing and inking deals. He started by delivering records in a Mini Cooper and eventually built the largest independent record label in the UK, not only by using his knack for discovering new talent and trends, but by gaining a reputation for giving musicians artistic control and being a straight-shooting business man. He was the driving force behind such diverse artists as Cat Stevens, Jimmy Cliff, Traffic, Robert Palmer, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Steel Pulse, B-52s, Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie, Melissa Ethridge, King Sunny Ade, U2, and the Cranberries.
Though Blackwell sold Island in 1989, he remained active in the company until 1997, whereupon he started a new label called Palm. With the new imprint Blackwell has diversified into film and with his hotel company, Island Outpost, he has developed a group of luxury resorts including Ian Fleming's former residence, Goldeneye.
Chris Blackwell is born in London but moves to Jamaica soon after, where his father, Middletown Joseph Blackwell, becomes a Major in the Jamaican Regiment. His father's family had acquired wealth through the Crosse and Blackwell Foods Company and his mother, Blanche Lindo, is from one of 21 families considered to control Jamaica in the 20th century. Their fortune was made towards the end of slavery in sugar and Appleton rum.
1945 to early 1950s
Blackwell is sent to school in England at age eight. At age ten, he attends the prestigious Harrow private school but leaves at age 18. He is not an inspired student and instead spends his time developing his distribution skills by selling other students liquor and cigarettes. "I wasn't exactly expelled, but it was suggested that I might be happier elsewhere," he tells David Katz in a 2004 interview with Air Jamaica's Sky Writings magazine.
Blackwell fails to get his General Certificate qualifications for university but works briefly at Price Waterhouse Coopers accounting firm. He leaves soon after to try his hand at professional gambling. Unsure what to do with his life he spends the mid-‘50s between London and Kingston.
Blackwell returns to Jamaica and works various jobs including running a waterskiing school at the Half Moon Hotel (run by a cousin), renting cars to tourists, selling real estate and working as Assistant Aide-De-Camp to British High Commissioner Sir Hugh Foot, a family friend. "It was essentially the kind of job that was a gopher," he says of his employment.
During his stint at the Half Moon Blackwell befriends a jazz band from Bermuda lead by blind pianist Lance Hayward. He decides to record them and try his hand in the record business. Blackwell's first record label is called R&B Records and mainly focuses on "bluebeat" or Jamaican blues, an early mixture of American blues and ska. His intuitive business sense sees a hole in the Jamaican market, a still fledgling industry that up until now had only recorded calypso bands. Jamaica's record industry consists of Sound Systems playing the hottest tunes from the United States. Blackwell starts importing music from New York and sells it at vastly inflated amounts to Sound System operators. "One of the ways that I financed myself when I was starting my own record label in the late ‘50s was by bringing the latest, most obscure 78s down to Kingston to sell to Sound Systems. I would scratch off the titles on the labels so I could get a lot of money for them, since no one would know who the artist was for two or three months," he admits. (Quoted in the introduction to Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music.) Sound System operators such as Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid would soon start cutting their own records, just as Blackwell has already started to do.
Be the first to comment