Chris Blackwell: Founder of Island Records

Chris Blackwell, then and now. His memoirs, The Islander, is more than just his story.

The Islander (2022) tells the story of Chris Blackwell’s life in music, and of the rhythms of his soul, his deep, spiritual love for Jamaica and the people there who he felt an enduring connection. A white man, of privilege, the struggles and inequality, as well as the joyous spirit of the Jamaican people were deep-rooted in his psyche. The book constantly returns Blackwell to the truth of character and earnestness of what he learned in those early years.

Chris Blackwell created a music label that challenged the magic record labels. Living between London and Jamaica, Blackwell helped popularize Jamaican music beyond Jamaica, spreading ska, reggae and other ethnic rhythms to the world.

His little record company branched out into rock and roll and became a major player in the music industry. It started with finding new music for his jukeboxes that populated clubs in Kingston. He made regular buying trips to the U.S. in search of recordings no one else had. From this he branched out into finding young talent in Jamaica and making low-tech recordings. He started Island Records to release his recordings. In the early 1960s, returned to London to build his fledgling record label.

Millie Small was the first international Jamaican recording star, who had her only big hit for Blackwell’s young Island Records.

He would soon discover and sign 16 year old Steve Winwood, a high-pitched Ray Charles type singer who also played keyboards. Steve and his brother Mutt were teamed with Spencer Davis and licensed to a larger record company, Fontana. Blackwell understood the need to put his artists with the most potential with a label with more reach and horsepower than his tiny independent. The first Spence Davis Group hit, “Keep on Running,” was written by a Jamaican songwriter that had the ska sound. Blackwell was blending music vibes of one country with the talents and appeal of musicians in a different country, to make a sound sought by a larger audience. This recipe would be repeated many times with great success.

After their second hit, Blackwell sent them off to write a song on their own, the iconic “Gimme Some Lovin.’” Blackwell then hired American Jimmy Miller as producer, who would also produce the Rolling Stones during their late 1960 to early 1970s classic albums.

Miller and Winwood promptly wrote another class, “I’m a Man,” another driving, danceable slice of R&B/rock. Soon, Winwood left to form a new group that broadened the musical pallet even further, Traffic.

Traffic was dispatched to the English countryside to work on songs. This was 1966, the beginning of psychedelia, the Swinging London and just ahead of the Summer of Love. Trip pines was in the air as Dear Mr. Fantasy took shape. Blackwell’s music roster was shifting from the island sounds of Jamaica to the British Isles sound of psychedelic-pop, fed by pot smoke and LSD trips. Heady times indeed.

Winwood soon broke off, teaming up with Eric Clapton to form Blind Faith, for one album. Winwood then gravitated back to Traffic. Blind Faith saw the emergence of what Blackwell called progressive British rock. Progressive-rock would take many forms in the coming decade. Clapton would veer toward the blues, while Winwood would incorporate jazz and folk into future recordings.

Blackwell released Blind Faith, future Traffic albums, but passed on a young piano player who would soon change his name to Elton John. There were others that Blackwell did not pursue or didn’t have the resources to outbid the giants to land, but Blackwell does not dwell on these, the future is forward, not in the rear view mirror.

As Island evolved, Blackwell broadened his company’s reach, making deals with partner companies to add artists and services. Blackwell guided careers, owned recording studios and had distribution deals around the world. He may have come from a privileged background, but he grew his businesses from his own risk and opportunities. Remember, this was back in the days where unscrupulous impresarios fleeced young artists, stealing their publishing, locking them into long term deals and basically having the artists work for them. Island was not of that mold, and that was due to Blackwell.

Two artists that came into the Island orbit were Nick Drake and John Martyn, two folk-inspired singer-songwriters. Both shared a challenge connecting with audiences, but brought something enduring to their musical legacies. Drake had the shortest career and only found wider appeal years after his unfortunate death. Martyn achieved more success, but was derailed by drink, demons and self-destructive behavior. What these artists represent was the creative and supportive culture Blackwell had with those on his roster. Those were different times, but Blackwell had a very hands-on relationship with those who worked with him.

Cat Stevens was a teenager when persuaded Blackwell to sign and get him out of his record deal with Decca – he wanted a more artist-friendly environment. Blackwell wasn’t impressed at first, but one of his new songs hit Blackwell like a sledgehammer. Blackwell put him with a new producer and encouraged Stevens to follow his muse. Million selling albums and singles soon emerged. Stevens would eventually leave music and the secular world to follow a different muse.

Even more than Winwood, Blackwell is most closely associated with Bob Marley. Island was familiar with the Wailers, having released a few of their singles, years before. Jimmy Cliff was Island’s primary Jamaican star in the early 1970’s until he was offered a big advance and jumped to another label. Marley and the other Wailers came back into the Island orbit, a much different and more distinctive sound now. Reggae, outside of the Jamaica region was an acquired taste, it certainly had not broken in America. What Island had originally featured in the early days was the faster, peppier rhythm, ska.

The Wailers were primarily Bob Marley, Peter Trish and Bunny Wailer when they signed to Island. Before they even signed a contract, Blackwell gave them £4000 and sent them back to Jamaica to record an album. He and Marley mixed it, adding instrumental tracks to give it extra appeal in the American market. Catch a Fire was the result. Introducing reggae was a slow build, releasing several albums behind a concerted marketing and touring effort. Reggae was the music of struggle and political experience, a bit different from the upbeat energy of Island’s earlier Jamaican releases. Blackwell knew he had something special here.

Catch a Fire was followed by Burnin, which had “I Shot the Sheriff,” a major hit for Eric Clapton, and “Get Up, Stand Up,” which was a hit for the Wailers. Live! was recorded on tour and “No Woman, No Cry,” was released as a single. It was their first international hit, although Johnny Nash had covered, “Stir it Up,” which was a hit for Nash.

Live! Captured the Wailers at their peak, after more than a decade together, and reggae now reaching a wider audience. In the meantime, Marley, Tosh and Wailer went their separate ways. Marley recorded Natty Dread, which was followed by Exodus, hailed as Marley’s landmark album. Blackwell was in Kingston as Marley rehearsed to be part of a festival. Blackwell got sidetracked from joining Marley, as gunmen tried to kill Marley, wounding him, wife Rita and another person. With a bullet in his arm, Marley delivered a ninety minute set at the festival. Marley would not be denied.

Bob Marley died in 1981, gone so early. In his lifetime, Marley became the face of not only reggae, but of Jamaica, which concerned a lot of people, and governments. Marley was a symbol and held influence with his audience. Jamaica in those years was undergoing major internal power battles, raging poverty and violence. His music reverberated with passion, activism and purpose, it said to his countrymen to grasp their future and destiny, and chart their course as free Jamaicans.

Island was also home to a few groundbreaking rock bands like Free, whose “All Right Now” is an undisputed rock classic, and King Crimson, one of the seminal progressive-rock bands. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Spooky Tooth, Roxy Music, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Brian Eno, Robert Palmer all released music on Island in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In the 1980s, Blackwell continued to sign and record emerging artists (Buggles, Slits) and made deals to distribute product of other labels like ZTT Records who had Art of Noise, ABC and later, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Welcome to the Pleasuredome). Island entered a commercial phase, focusing on sales rather than the spirit of the content. Legend, the Bob Marley greatest hits album, focused on more the mainstream Marley rather than the impassioned Marley. Blackwell wasn’t happy with steering away from the rebellious songs that were truer to Marley’s values, even though the more neutralized greatest hits collection would sell 27 million copies and occupy the Billboard chart almost as long as Dark Side of the Moon.

By the end of the 1970s, Island was known for another thing: Compass Pointe Recording Studios. Located in the Bahamas, the state of the art studio began attracting artists like The Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, Talking Heads and many others who wanted seclusion in paradise.

Blackwell’s roster of artists ebbed and flowed, as some departed for big $$ from major labels and others just departed, but it was clear that Island was bigger than other independents but lacked the resources of the majors. The B-52s, Black Uhuru, Marianne Faithfully, Tom Tom Club, Grace Jones, The Cranberries were among the Island artists in the 1980s. Quite an eclectic bunch. It shows how diverse Blackwell’s interests were. If he was intrigued by an artist, and it wasn’t always the commerciality of the music. It was common for Island artists to develop slowly, meaning slack sales. Blackwell was usually very patient, he knew it could take time to break a new artist. He also wanted artists that were in for the music, not the quick one hit and out.

Blackwell had missed out on other artists and rarely seemed to regret it. His philosophy was “You just follow your instinct and make a decision at that moment and let it play out.” Many of those gut feelings had payed off. An Irish band named U2 was one much decision.

“In their energy was their own belief in themselves, which was irresistible.”

Chris Blackwell on U2.

Blackwell says that if he had listened to a tape of U2, instead of seeing them live, he would have passed. Meeting them, and their manager, Paul McGuinness, told Blackwell all he needed to know to sign them on the spot. There was no bidding war over U2; but the band knew what they were looking for. McGuinness told Blackwell, “We are not in the record business; we are in the U2 business.”

Boy, U2’s debut did not sell many albums, but it introduced their quirky sound and these four serious lads. Again, Blackwell gave them freedom, and continued to believe in them. Eventually, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree made believers of everyone. More albums, huge tours, U2 was everywhere.

Blackwell might have been the last of the independents, where decisions weren’t made by committees, they were often made by him, or someone he empowered to do so. Early on, Blackwell figured out that if you gave artist’s freedom and let them take ownership of their songs, they flourish.

Some gambles paid off and others didn’t, like the Island film business. In 1989, Blackwell sold the company to PolyGram, a larger company, who was the acquired and merged into Universal Music Group. Blackwell stayed on to run Island for about a decade, but felt he was no longer listened to by the conglomerate he was now a part. He tried other ventures, but only two worked for him: a rum bearing his name, and open a series of small boutique hotels.

For a non-drinker, the rum became quite successful. Buying and renovating old properties, in Miami but mainly in Jamaica, seems to fill the itch he needed to scratch. He bought the old Ian Fleming property, Goldeneye, a part of Blackwell’s youthful memories. His mother swam there daily. In the old days, the Blackwells hung with Fleming, Noel Coward and Errol Flynn who found retreat and renewal in Jamaica.

The deeper Blackwell went into life and worldly success, the stronger the pull Jamaica had of him. Eschewing most of the toys and yearnings of fellow adventurers/CEOs, Blackwell looked close to home for meaning and fulfillment as the backend of his life unfolded. Instead of buying super yachts, taking joyrides to outer space or seeking immortality for his public legacy, Blackwell turned to the unique beauty and blessings of Jamaica.

Known for his casual dress and appearance, instead of looking to the heavens for validation, he looks to the human spirit and vibe found in abundance in his Jamaica.

The Islander is a must read.

4 thoughts on “Chris Blackwell: Founder of Island Records

  1. A lot of these rock autobios are self-serving puff pieces, but Blackwell was a gutsy guy who signed many of my favorite artists. Nice of you to spotlight John Martyn. Not many people know about him, but he was damn talented. His early records, along with wife Beverley, are jewels.

    Blackwell reminds me a lot of Richard Branson, who founded Virgin as a record label and who also had great business and musical instincts.

    If you like this book you might enjoy White Bicycles by Joe Boyd.

    Liked by 1 person

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