Published Jan 01, 2006Would 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.
Biographers point to an incident that happened in 1958 as a key to understanding Blackwell's willingness to, and sense of mission about promoting Rastafarian music. While boating with friends off Helshire Beach Blackwell's craft runs aground on a coral reef. The 21-year-old swims to shore and undertakes an arduous search for help under scorching sun along the coast. When he collapses on the beach he is rescued by Rasta fisherman who care for his wounds and nurse him back to health with "ital" food. This romantic story comes to be understood as Blackwell's spiritual introduction to Rastafarianism.
1959 to 1960
Has first hit with Laurel Aitken's "Boogie in My Bones," which reaches number 1 on local charts. It was recorded with mostly white Canadian musicians at Federal Studios, the same place competitor and future Prime Minister Edward Seaga records his artists for his West Indian Records Ltd (WIRL). This success allows Blackwell to set up a small office on South Odeon Ave. in Midtown Kingston's commercial suburb of Half Way Tree. Other notable artists recorded at this time by Blackwell include Jackie Edwards, who would later write hits for the Blackwell-managed Spencer Davis Group.
Blackwell's mother is a good friend of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. While filming Dr. No in Jamaica, Blackwell gets a job as production assistant, scouting out shooting locales. After the movie's completion producer Harry Saltzman offers him full-time work. Torn between music and film Blackwell visits a psychic and is told he will have success if he sticks with the music industry. He obliges.
1962 to 1963
Blackwell starts Island Records, named after the novel Island in the Sun by Alec Waugh, and also fellow Jamaican Harry Belafonte's calypso hit of the same name. Initially he has a business partner, radio personality Graeme Goodall. After Jamaican Independence, Blackwell movies Island to London and incorporates the company in May, 1962. On the way, he goes to New York to see Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun to study how he nurtured his artists. By moving to London, Blackwell can go into business with his Jamaican rivals. He leases the international rights to Jamaican singles from producers such as Leslie Kong and Coxsone Dodd and builds a market for Jamaican music with the West Indian population, mainly in London and Birmingham, but pays private radio stations to help break records to other demographics. One such record Blackwell released in the UK at this time was "Judge Not," attributed to Robert Morley (Bob Marley). Others included bluebeat, ska and rocksteady releases by Lord Creator, the Skatalites and the Maytals.
Blackwell has bona fide hit in February with 16-year-old Millie Small's cover of 1957 R&B hit "My Boy Lollipop," recognised as the first Jamaican international hit. Legendary Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin heads the recording session and a young Rod Stewart plays harmonica on the song. It reaches the Top 5 in both the U.S. and the UK and sells seven million copies, giving a great financial boost to the company. Blackwell starts getting interested in British rock and roll and signs his first pop group, teenage Steve Winwood's band, Spencer Davis Group.
1965 to 1966
Graeme Goodall leaves Island to form the Doctor Bird label, also specialising in West Indian Music. Spencer Davis Group has two consecutive #1 hits with "Keep on Running" and "Somebody Help Me," both written by Blackwell artist Jackie Edwards.
1967 to 1968
Steve Winwood leaves SDG to form Traffic in 1967. Blackwell manages the band and they go on to achieve three Top 10 hits in the UK. Blackwell gets more involved with British rock and forms an association with Lee Gopthal to start Trojan Records. Trojan becomes the main distributor for reggae in the UK but by 1968 the company is divested by Island, a move that points to Blackwell shifting gears and getting out of the reggae market in order to concentrate on progressive rock. Blackwell wants to concentrate on the album market with his rock releases and until this point reggae is still a singles market. The label head is almost out of the reggae business entirely except for Jackie Edwards and one other Jamaican artist he is managing, Jimmy Cliff. Cliff moves to London and is groomed by Blackwell as a solo star for the underground rock market, teaming him with British musicians Ian Hunter (of Mott the Hoople), P.P. Arnold and Madeline Bell. This is Blackwell's first stab at bringing a rock element to reggae with Cliff covers such as "Whiter Shade of Pale." Cliff appears alongside the Incredible String Band and Jethro Tull on Island samplers.
Jethro Tull is signed by Island in 1968 after successful shows opening for Pink Floyd at the first free rock festival in London's Hyde Park, and an appearance at Sunbury's Jazz and Blues Festival. The band's hybrid folk/blues/rock style takes them away from the Alex Korner-inspired British blues boom they grew out of and sits well with Island's growing reputation for cross-pollinated music. Their debut, This Was, is released in November. The band's managers, Terry Ellis and Chris Wright, found Chrysalis Records, who, for its first 12 years, is an Island subsidiary. Another band leaving their traditional blues nest, Free, is also signed by Blackwell and release their debut Tons of Sobs. Their raw approach to blues rock helps kick-start hard rock and later proto-metal. John Martyn becomes Island's first white solo artist in 1968 with release of London Conversation. He begins a long relationship with the label despite never achieving commercial success. Through artists such as Martyn, Blackwell develops a reputation for nurturing and persevering with artists he likes, regardless of financial gain.
By now Island Records is a reputable label specialising in experimental and underground rock and soon becomes the UK's largest independent label with major acts including Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Free. Jimmy Cliff finally breaks into the UK charts with "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" but it is another reggae act, the Harry J. Allstars, that have the first reggae song to reach the Top 50 in the UK with "The Liquidator." They go on to be featured on the Top of the Pops, signifying that reggae has broken into the mainstream, but it is still viewed by the UK audience as a novelty genre without real quality.
1970 to 1971
Following on the heels of John Martyn, folk-rock singer Cat Stevens is signed to Island and releases his third album, Mona Bone Jakon in April. The first single, "Lady D'Arbanville," is the artist's third Top 10 hit and in August Jimmy Cliff has a hit with the Stevens' penned "Wild World." His next release for the label a year later, Tea for the Tillerman, is driven by the three powerful singles his own version of "Wild World," "Moonshadow," and "Peace Train" and turns the singer into an international sensation with the album going gold. By this time Blackwell has built up a diverse and successful label. He continues to sign and work with innovative British rock acts such as King Crimson, Vinegar Joe, Uriah Heap, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Spooky Tooth and begins his first forays into film. He invests $3000 (U.S.) of the $200,000 needed to make Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come, a movie based on infamous Kingston outlaw Ivan Rhygin. Blackwell gets Jimmy Cliff the starring role.
A watershed year in the career of Chris Blackwell, who once again turns his attention to Jamaica. He has groomed Jimmy Cliff for several years and is about to see a pay-off with the release of The Harder They Come as a film and soundtrack, both of which will deliver reggae to an international audience. Blackwell intends to market Cliff using the sexy rebel image of his character in the film. He believes if he markets a reggae artist in the same way you would a rock artist, rock audiences will buy into it. But before he can capitalize on Cliff's newfound recognition, Cliff leaves Island for EMI, citing the fact that the label boss spends too much time on his rock catalogue. Cliff is the first of many reggae musicians associated with Blackwell to voice dissatisfaction with his business practices. Ironically, Blackwell feels his rock pedigree could ultimately help him break reggae music.
A week after Cliff leaves the label, Bob Marley shows up in Blackwell's London office. The Wailers are stranded in London and penniless after an ill-fated deal with CBS Records and a tour with American soul/reggae singer Johnny Nash (after which the Wailers actually embark on a mini tour playing in British secondary schools). Marley asks Blackwell to front the cost of a new single but Blackwell tells him he wants a reggae band to record a full album virtually unheard of at this point. When Marley tells him it would take between 3000 and 4000 [pounds], Blackwell gives him the latter. Such trust is unheard of in the Jamaican music industry but the Wailers, despite having a rude boy reputation, make good on their part of the deal, delivering Catch A Fire to Blackwell later that year.
In the Wailers Blackwell recognises the elements needed to capture the all-important rock listener: "I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music. I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image, the real one that Jimmy had created in the movie." This turn of events leaves many music historians wondering if Cliff hadn't left Island, whether he would be the current king of reggae.
For the first time a reggae band has access to a state of the art studio and is treated in the same way as their rock contemporaries. While the album is mainly recorded on eight-track at Harry J's in Kingston, Blackwell wants to remix it for a rock audience, creating "more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a reggae rhythm." [Quoted in the liner notes to 2001 reissue of Catch a Fire, written by Richard Williams.] Marley travels to London to oversee Blackwell's overdubbing, which includes mellowing the mix from the stark bass-heavy sound of Jamaican music and cutting two tracks entirely. Marley biographer Timothy White says of this process, "Chris Blackwell disentangled, revised and otherwise restructured Bob's primitive mixes and sometimes stiff arrangements." Blackwell brings in session players (un-credited on the final release) to help get the rock sound he is looking for, including Alabaman lead guitarist Wayne Perkins from the Muscle Shoals, who happens to be in an adjacent studio at the time. He has never heard of reggae and can't understand a word Marley says to him, but under Blackwell's direction he lays down the definitive overdriven blues licks and feedback that complete tracks like "Concrete Jungle" and "Stir it Up." Also integral to the album's sound is Texan John Rabbit Bundrick's (of Free) organ and clavinet work on all nine tracks. His clavinet on "Concrete Jungle" sets the bar for all future work by Wailers' keyboardist Tyrone Downie, and subsequently for reggae keyboard in general. The instrumental arrangement Blackwell fashioned on Catch a Fire would be the template Marley and the Wailers would use for the rest of their career. It is worth noting that both Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer used this same template, as did many of the same players for the own solo records in the late '70s. 1972 also sees the release of the debut self-titled album by art school grads Roxy Music. Produced by Island artist Peter Sinfield of King Crimson, Roxy Music breaks into the Top 10 and receives glowing reviews. The band will go on to be one of pop's most influential acts.
Catch A Fire is released in April, packaged in all its album glory like a rock record, using a unique Zippo lighter lift-top as a marketing gimmick. It does not make Marley a star, initially only selling 14,000 units, but it receives favourable critical attention. With Cliff's onscreen rebel and Marley's real life rebel, Blackwell's theory starts to show promise. Later in the year the Wailers' second album, Burnin', is released. It is not given as lavish a package as Catch A Fire and the music is not as doctored by Blackwell. Nonetheless, the stand-out track, "I Shot the Sheriff," catches the ear of Eric Clapton, who remakes it into a huge hit. Interestingly, many Jamaicans didn't like the "new improved" sound of reggae presented by Catch A Fire, but Burnin', with its less rock-centric Trenchtown style, appealed to both the reggae and newfound rock crowds. Around this time Blackwell gives his Kingston residence and company headquarters, at 56 Hope Rd. dubbed Island House to Bob Marley. It houses Tuff Gong Studios and becomes not only Marley's office to meet the press, but also his primary residence.
When Peter Tosh tells Blackwell he is working on a solo album and wants Island to pick it up, he is told that it would put Peter at cross purposes with the Wailers. Tosh quits the band, as does Bunny, citing a general dislike of international travel and the difficulty of getting ital food on the road. Many cite Blackwell and his favouritism for Marley as the reason for the original group's split, including Tosh himself, who feels he and Bunny are not getting a fair share of the money or attention. It is no secret that Tosh and Blackwell never got on and Tosh loves to taunt the record boss by calling him "Whiteworst." According to Timothy White, Tosh at one point even threats Blackwell with a machete during an argument. Another favourite Blackwell artist, former Vinegar Joe singer Robert Palmer, releases his first solo album on Island, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley. Like John Martyn, Palmer doesn't bring immediate commercial success to Island, but Blackwell is willing to let his creativity be his guide.
British-Jamaica dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson criticises Marley for the commercialization of reggae, and for working with Blackwell, whom he calls a "descendant of slave masters." He admonishes Blackwell for marketing Marley as a Rasta rebel to boost lagging record sales.
"No Woman, No Cry" is the Wailers' first chart hit.
Natty Dread, by the renamed Bob Marley and the Wailers is released. The emphasis on Marley in the band's new name is not, in fact, a Blackwell construction; Lee Perry had already released tracks by the band in Jamaica under the same moniker. Natty Dread not only makes Marley an international superstar, its success causes Blackwell to get back into the reggae business full time. He starts signing acts that go on to define the sound of reggae in the late 70s, for many the golden era of the genre. These include Burning Spear, Third World, Toots Hibbert, ASWAD, Steel Pulse and, somewhat ironically, Linton Kwesi Johnson. He also enters into a verbal licensing agreement with experimental Jamaican producer Lee Perry. The first major release from this agreement is Max Romeo's "War In a Babylon." A good sign that Island's reggae roster is successful comes in the form of Virgin Records founder Richard Branson, who, not be outdone by Blackwell, starts his Front Line imprint and starts releasing several albums by soon to be prominent Jamaican artists.
1976 to 1977
December 3, 1976, Chris Blackwell sits in Lee Perry's Black Ark studio enthralled listening to Perry voice "Dreadlocks In Moonlight." Perry persuades Blackwell to stay and miss a Wailers rehearsal at 56 Hope Road. This possibly saves his life. In his absence, gunmen storm Island House, shooting Marley, his wife and manager none fatally. Rumours abound on the cause of the attack, including a betting scam and drugs links, but it is generally assumed that the gunmen are members of Jamaica's JLP Party, who routinely wage war with the governing PNP. (Marley's ties with Prime Minister Michael Manley are a possible cause.) Blackwell and Perry meet Marley in the hospital, and soon after Marley is whisked off to Blackwell's resort in the Blue Mountains above Kingston, called Strawberry Fields, and then off to Bermuda for his safety.
As Bunny Wailer's debut solo album release date approaches, Blackwell gets antsy because he hasn't been able to pin the singer down to a contract. Bunny is allusive and is said to have a "guza-guza," or natural mystic quality. Blackwell drives around the countryside and into Kingston ghettos searching for Bunny and, while parked, the singer materialises in the passenger seat. Throughout the following negotiations Bunny insists that Blackwell insert a death clause into the contract so that if Blackwell should die, Bunny is free from his contract. Blackwell is puzzled by this but agrees. Bunny responds with: "Good. That means I can get out of my contract at any time."
Blackwell licenses Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" from Lee Perry after hearing it played while stopped at a Jamaican roadblock. The song finds critical and commercial success in both UK and U.S.
Blackwell's interest in reggae not only allows Jamaican artists to gain international exposure, by the late 70s Island Records has launched the careers of British reggae artists that will go on to reach legendary status. Virgin's Front Line label is really his only serious competition in this area. Two Island artists, Steel Pulse and ASWAD, not only meet critical and commercial success, as Jamaican reggae begins to evolve into the computerised dancehall era, they carry the torch for conscious roots reggae.
Blackwell's second foray into film results in the excellent Rockers starring Burning Spear drummer Leroy "Horse Mouth" Wallace. The Trenchtown Robin Hood story is packed with a who's who of the Jamaican music industry and a blistering soundtrack but doesn't reach anywhere near the audience of The Harder They Come.
In 1977 Blackwell, always ready to broaden his market, senses the commercial power of disco and signs Jamaican-born/ New York-raised Grace Jones. Blackwell feels she has artistic potential but the former model is a hard sell to an audience that views her more as a personality. Her first three records for Island fail to break. Blackwell starts a new business venture in 1977, launching the world class Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas and, predictably, many Island sessions are recorded there. The state-of-the-art facility is used by major artists and producers of various musical backgrounds including AC/CD, the B-52's, Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, Iron Maiden, Madness, Third World, Roxy Music and Carly Simon.
Lee Perry gives Blackwell what he considers to be one of his finest albums, the Congos' Heart of the Congos. Blackwell doesn't release it, later saying he must have thought it wasn't a strong enough recording. Roy Johnson, of the Congos, says the album was too good and Blackwell was afraid it would take public attention away from his star artist Marley. Other reggae artists believe Blackwell is sacrificing their careers to forward Marley's. Max Romeo criticises him for not adequately promoting Reconstruction, his follow-up to War In a Babylon: "We were all victims, all sacrificed to make the Marley empire." [Quoted in People Funny Boy by David Katz.] Blackwell's general response to such charges is that Marley was simply a better artist and as such achieved more success. "I didn't push Bob above anybody else. Bob just had more going for him, I honestly believe that is the case," he says in Sky Writings. He is fond of saying that instead of breaking or making a musician, he instead is just a very good career guide.
Blackwell refuses to release Perry's Roast Fish and Return of Super Ape albums. This effectively ends the licensing agreement between them. Perry will continue to speak ill of Blackwell and go so far as to verbally attack him in song.
Artist and former Blackwell critic Linton Kwesi Johnson issues his second album Forces of Victory, as his Island debut. The artist not only heralds a potent new genre called dub poetry, but, by taking cues from the DJ culture of Big Youth and U Roy and adding his intellectual and explosive post-colonial political commentary, he is a major player in laying the foundation for American rap and hip-hop. Bob Marley tells Melody Maker in an interview that he could have made it without Blackwell. "Chris Blackwell didn't help me. I had to work hard while Blackwell flew out and enjoyed himself. He had the contacts at the time that we felt we needed." Blackwell offers to sign new romantic act Spandau Ballet but they decline.
After being turned down from every record company they could think of, Irish band U2 try to interest Chris Blackwell's publishing company, Blue Mountain Music, to pick them up, hoping that this will pave the way for the company head to get interested in the band and sign them to Island, still seen as an outsider in the corporate rock world. U2's popularity in Ireland, combined with a stellar show put on at Dublin's National Boxing Stadium, convinces Island A&R rep Bill Stewart to sign them to the label. Once the details are worked out Island gives U2 a four-album deal that would see the company accept the records unseen. The band receives 50,000 pounds up front and another 50,000 for tour support. U2's biographer, Eamon Dunphy, says Island's ethos was, "You back people, look for commitment, take the long view, and were prepared to work." Island releases Boy.
Innovative Jamaican rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare dominate Jamaica's sessions. Dunbar's band, the Revolutionaries, backs up most of the artists for Channel One studio and subsequently many of the Front Line signings. Blackwell scores a coup, however, when he signs Sly and Robbie as a production team to Island Records. The first fruit born of this union is a new Jamaican super-group that ushers in a new era in commercial roots music. Black Uhuru, backed by Sly and Robbie and led by vocal trio Michael Rose, Sandra "Puma" Jones and Derrick "Duckie" Simpson release Sinsemilla, a militant yet spiritual collection overtop Sly Dunbar's new rockers-style drumming. The band embraces a rock edge, a Rasta consciousness and remains quintessentially Jamaican, right down to the classic vocal trio line-up, but is slicker sounding than their 70s counterparts.
Realising disco is dying, Grace Jones opts for a new direction and Blackwell pairs her Sly and Robbie. The team head to Compass Point and turn out the critically acclaimed experimental new wave inspired Warm Leatherette, followed the next year by Nighclubbing. This produces Jones' biggest hit, "Pull Up to the Bumper," a song patterned after Black Uhuru's own "Right Stuff."
Also in 1980 Island licenses small New York postpunk label Ze. One important band that will emerge from this union is Kid Creole & the Coconuts.
Marley visits Blackwell in New York to tell him about his brain tumour; he dies shortly after. Aston Familyman Barrett, the Wailers' bassist and arranger, later says that the Island deal with the Wailers was a three-way split between Marley, Barrett and his brother, Carleton. He claims that when Marley died, Island stopped paying royalties to the Barrett brothers. Island sends emissary to Dublin to tell U2 that the cover shot for October is terrible. The band and their manager get mad at the company for interfering in their artistic decisions and Blackwell backs down, letting them keep the cover. Years later U2 admit that the picture was hideous.
Hybrid music and creative experimentation being benchmarks of Island's best artists, Blackwell branches out again and begins to develop world music artists on his Mango label, which will eventually include Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo. One of the major artists signed during this period is Nigerian King Sunny Ade, whose juju songs were a mixture of Western pop and traditional African music. Ade is billed as the African Bob Marley and releases three albums with Blackwell.
Roxy Music releases critically acclaimed and chart topping Avalon.
A third reggae movie, Dickie Jobson's Country Man, is released by Island. While its soundtrack is the only place Marley's "Jah Live" is released, the movie fairs poorly internationally. In Jamaica, however, it brings in the largest box office receipts ever.
Blackwell signs Tom Waits, who previously released a fine catalogue of records on Asylum. His tenure during a decade at Island would prove to be his most fertile, and the bold artistic statements he released during this time (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Bone Machine) not only cemented his reputation as an experimental and singular artist, but also enforced Chris Blackwell's standing as a label head interested in experimental music and willing to let his artists express themselves in non-commercial forms.
Proof that the U.S. music industry has accepted reggae music as a serious musical form comes when the Grammy Awards offer their first Reggae Award. Black Uhuru win it for their album Anthem. Forming film production company Island Alive, Blackwell releases Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and The Trip to Bountiful, which go on to win William Hurt and Geraldine Page Academy Awards for Best Actor and Actress respectively.
Blackwell encourages producer Trevor Horn to start a label. He launches ZTT and goes on to have chart topping success with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC, the Pet Shop Boys and Grace Jones among others.
U2 have their second spat with Island over their decision to go with Brian Eno as producer of their new album. Blackwell concedes; the result is The Unforgettable Fire. They have met the terms of their original Island contract and renegotiate with Blackwell. Blackwell makes serious concessions to the band, going so far as to give their publishing rights back. This deal will pay off for Blackwell in a few years when his company hits upon hard financial times.
Blackwell is looking to expand his operations and has his eye on Canada. He travels to Toronto where he sets up Island Records of Canada Ltd with Doug Chappell as President and Lee Silversides as Vice President. His first signing is roots rocker Andrew Cash. Cash releases two albums but neither go very far. The only other Canadian signing is Myles Hunter, though the label looks seriously at picking up Lorenna McKennit, Ron Sexsmith, the Rheostatics and the Phantoms.
Lee Perry releases "Judgement In A Babylon" where he slanders Blackwell and calls him a vampire. He is very outspoken about his hatred of Blackwell, going as far as to say the Island boss gave Marley cancer and killed him. ("I saw Chris Blackwell in Nassau / Drinking the blood of a fowl from a rum glass Chris Blackwell is a vampire / Sucking the blood of the sufferers / He killed Bob Marley and take away his royalty / He killed Bob Marley because Bob Marley was speaking the truth Chris Blackwell came to Jamaica want to sign up all the artists / Because he want to control Jamaican music / Then he can take the black man music and promote his white artists .He give Bob Marley cancer ") For his part, Blackwell admits to the vampire charge. He told Perry biographer David Katz that drinking blood "is part of a custom in Jamaica. You kill a chicken and mix the blood with rum in your mouth." As far as sucking the blood of the sufferers goes, in the same interview a typical nonchalant Blackwell says: "I don't agree with it, but if he felt that way at the time, that must have come across to him." With sales lacking and no big artist like Marley to push reggae, most of Island's reggae roster is cut. King Sunny Ade's Aura is a commercial flop and Island starts heavily culling their African artists by 1985.
As U2 is putting the finishing touches on The Joshua Tree they are told that Island Records is close to bankruptcy and can't pay the band the 5 million dollars it currently owes them. In an astonishing move U2 decide to deliver the new album to Island anyway, not demand the money owed to them and actually loan the company more money to get out of the financial slump. The relationship between U2 and Blackwell was always favourable and U2's generous goodwill is a sign of the trust they have in Blackwell and their appreciation for all he has done for them. The move is not lost on Blackwell who, over the next year, gives the band ownership of all their masters, a deal only bands the stature of the Rolling Stones usually receive. In an unprecedented move Blackwell also gives the band a share of the company (usually reported to be around ten percent) to entice them to stay with Island and not sign with a major label.
1987 to 1988
By Island's official 25th anniversary, the label's diverse catalogue boasts Tom Waits, the Christians, U2, Julian Cope and Anthrax. U2 win the Grammy for Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree, their first number one album, and Blackwell wins a bidding war with EMI, A&M, Capitol, and Warner Bros. when he signs American singer-songwriter Melissa Ethridge. It is not long until Ethridge is drawing comparisons to Springsteen and John Mellencamp.
1989 to 1990
Blackwell sells Island to A&M (PolyGram), ending its tenure as an independent label. According to Lee Silversides the reason for the sale was simply that Blackwell "was a very astute business man and the time was right for him to get the most value for his company." Blackwell stays on for another seven years to oversee much of the label's work. The new ownership effectively shuts down the Canadian division and Andrew Cash is one of the casualties. One particular band Blackwell brings into the fold at this point is Irish pop rockers the Cranberries, who will prove to be the company's biggest selling act in the 1990s.
1990 to 1995
American media pranksters Negativland release a record called U2 and invite the wraith of Chris Blackwell, who sues the band's label, STS, for illegal use of the U2 trademark and releasing an album that could be mistaken as an actual U2 LP. Negativland launch a Kill Bono campaign but ultimately the court case bankrupts them. Blackwell is listed in the Sunday Times annual survey as 108th richest man in the world. He sets up Island Outpost, a company dedicated to developing luxury tropical resorts. He debuts Marlin Hotel in Miami's South Beach in November, 1991. He goes on to open resorts across the Caribbean, most notably Ian Fleming's former residence, Goldeneye, which is launched as an Island Outpost property in 1998.
With Blackwell spending more time and energy on his hotels, Compass Point Studios begin to decline, both in reputation and quality. He faces the decision to close it or refurbish it and chooses the latter. Hundreds of thousands are spent rebuilding the two studio rooms and installing all new equipment. A new team is hired to attract major artists once more upon the studio's reopening in 1993. Artists that would eventually use the facility include Björk, Puff Daddy, Shania Twain, the Rheostatics, the Tragically Hip, Nine Inch Nails and Missy Elliot.
Blackwell and U2 members Bono and Adam Clayton land in coastal resort town Negril, Jamaica, in a seaplane owned by Jimmy Buffet. Soon after getting off the plane and into a shuttle boat to shore Jamaican police open fire on the plane thinking, erroneously, that the plane is involved in a drug smuggling operation. No one is hurt.
1997 to 1998
Blackwell resigns from Island in 1997 and starts Palm in 1998, a group of companies dedicated to music and film. While Palm, the music label, signs artists such as Cousteau, Supreme Beings Of Leisure, Earlimart, Nortec Collective, Baaba Maal, and Gigi, the Palm collective also has partnerships with smaller labels, like Bill Laswell's Axiom and Bruno Guez's global groove Quango label. The film division, Palm Pictures, is responsible for successful films such as Sex and Lucia, The Basketball Diaries and Jamaican release Third World Cop, considered a modern-day version of The Harder They Come.
In March Blackwell is inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Paul Simon, Ritchie Valens and Aerosmith. He is the only non-performer inducted at the 16th annual event (joining other non-musicians like Alan Freed, Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy, Jr., Phil Spector and George Martin). In three years one of his first big acts, Traffic, will also share the honour.
Blackwell launches the Goldeneye Film Festival. In September he receives the coveted Jamaican Musgrave Medal, awarded to Jamaicans who excel in the arts, music and public service.
In October Blackwell is awarded the Order of Jamaica for philanthropy and outstanding contribution to the entertainment industry.
The Essential Chris Blackwell
Catch A Fire (Tuff Gong, 1973/2001)
The album that changed reggae music forever, brought Jamaican music to mainstream Western ears and gave Bob Marley the chance to become the first third world superstar. Blackwell produces this album by first giving the Wailers the money to record it the way they want, and then remixing it and bringing in rock session musicians to give it a sound that would appeal to the rock audience. It works and tracks like "Concrete Jungle," "Stir it Up" and "Slave Driver" still stand as some of the most brilliant reggae ever recorded. The double disc reissue from 2001 gives listeners a chance to hear those early pre-Island Jamaican recordings back to back with Blackwell's magical revisioning.
The Joshua Tree (Island, 1987)
Blackwell's faith in a bunch of Irish Christian rockers paid off by giving them artistic freedom and loads of opportunity. Joshua Tree made U2 superstars and one of the biggest rock bands in the world, a title they have rarely let slip since. It also got them on the cover of mainstream American magazine Time, became their first number one album and took the Grammy for Album of the Year spawning many classic songs including "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "With or Without You." This album also gave Island a much needed financial boost just when the label was on the road to bankruptcy.
Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (Mango, 1993)
Look no further for a career overview of Chris Blackwell's crowning reggae achievements. All the early singles are here ("My Boy Lollipop," "Boogie in my Bones," "Simmer Down") plus important turnstiles on the road of Jamaican music's development. That the history of Island Records can so closely be aligned with reggae's evolution shows the power of Blackwell's label in giving reggae a forum for growth and an audience hungry enough to keep it going. The intro to the four-disc box set is penned by Blackwell himself, as is almost every book on the subject again, a pretty convincing sign of the man's sheer dominance in the reggae world.