Caribbean Beat Magazine

Jamaica’s Chris Blackwell

Jamaica's Chris Blackwell made Bob Marley and U2 household names. Chris Salewicz traces the career of the Caribbean's entertainment mogul

  • Photograph by Adrian Boot
  • Chris Blackwell. Photograph by C. Kinkead

Blackwell’s island

In 1958, Chris Blackwell, a 21-year-old white Jamaican, started a small record label in Kingston. Producing the records himself, he gave the label the name Island Records. Just over 30 years later, he sold what had become one of the world’s truly innovative and creative music and film companies for $300 million to Polygram, the multinational entertainment conglomerate.

In 1962, Blackwell decided to move to London, having made licensing agreements with the leading Jamaican producers to release their products in the UK. Blackwell’s releases were aimed at Britain’s Jamaican immigrant community. Ironically, one of the first records he put out was a tune from Leslie Kong, Judge Not by Robert Marley, whose surname was misspelt as “Morley” on the British release.

In 1964, Millie Small, a Jamaican singer Blackwell was managing, had a huge worldwide hit with My Boy Lollipop. After that, Chris Blackwell was drawn into the world of pop and rock. He managed The Spencer Davis Group, which featured Steve Winwood, and launched Island as a rock label on the back of Winwood’s band, Traffic. Soon Island became the most sought after label to record on for groups specialising in the “underground” rock of the late 1960s.

Further enhancing the impact of the new artists was the advent of 16-track recording, first introduced in 1967. In Basing Street, in the immigrant section of Notting Hill, Island established its new headquarters, building a 16-track studio in the basement. Upstairs, the record company functioned around an egalitarian round table, at which all employees sat.

After taking on the management of Jimmy Cliff, the successful Jamaican singer, Blackwell observed with pleasure Cliff’s sexy rebel image in the groundbreaking movie, The Harder They Come. It looked as though Chris had found what he had been seeking: a way to take reggae into the rock market. But then Cliff announced he was going to leave Island. He could make more money with a major label, he told Blackwell, and he criticised the amount of time the label boss had spent on rock music. To no avail, Blackwell told him that his understanding of the rock market was crucial in trying to break reggae into the market.

A week later Bob Marley walked into Blackwell’s office. “He came in right at the time when in my head there was the idea that this rebel type of character could really emerge … and that I could break such an artist. 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 somebody who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image, the real one that Jimmy had created in the movie.”

Although he had released Marley’s first single, Blackwell had hardly kept track of his career. All he knew was that he had been warned about The Wailers, that these guys were “trouble.” But, “when people are described like that, it usually just means that they know what they want.”

Blackwell paid the group an advance of £4,000, and they returned to Jamaica to record their first Island LP, Catch A Fire. Although Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer would leave the group in 1974, Catch A Fire marked the beginning of the unstoppable worldwide rise of Bob Marley, the Rastafarian reggae star who caused a global shift in cultural thought and attained an iconic status akin to that of Che Guevara.

Once described by Rolling Stone magazine as “the most creative man in the music business,” Chris Blackwell has long enjoyed a reputation in the society pages of newspapers as a personification of cool. A humble, thoughtful, humorous man, he hardly takes such an accolade seriously; but there are many stories which support it.

One of the best of these stories tells of his ceaseless workrate, coupled with an anarchic Jamaican approach to life. One of Blackwell’s greatest pleasures is to ride the waves on his jet-ski off Goldeneye, the former home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, which Blackwell has transformed into a luxury boutique hotel. Technological advances have only increased this pleasure. With a waterproof cellular phone in his possession, Blackwell will travel far out to sea on his jet-ski and would calmly sit there, calling up fellow moguls around the world, sometimes drifting out of sight of land, using the position of the sun to navigate his way back home to Goldeneye.

In Jamaica, Chris Blackwell is known as “the ghetto millionaire,” a term used to describe someone who is more comfortable with the man-in-the-street than with an ostentatious lifestyle. At Goldeneye, where he spends much of his time when not in New York or Miami, Blackwell’s home is a circular wooden hut; at Strawberry Hill, his personal accommodation is a modest one-bedroom cottage.

As a teenager in Jamaica, Blackwell was on a boat which ran aground in shallow waters. After a long and exhausting swim to the shore, he collapsed on a beach where he was picked up and carried to a Rastafarian encampment, whose inhabitants cared for his wounds and fed him with both ital food and rhetoric from the philosophy by of Rastafari. He was never the same again.

Blackwell’s father was an officer in the Irish Guards who was stationed in Jamaica. Blanche, his mother, was a member of the Lindo family, descended from Portuguese Jews who had settled in Jamaica in the 17th century. The Lindos were one of the 20 families who reputedly ran Jamaica. At her homes near Oracabessa, in St Mary on the island’s north coast, and in Kingston at what is now the Terra Nova hotel, Blanche Blackwell mingled with the top socialites who frequented Jamaica in the years immediately following World War II.

Only nine hours from New York by plane in those days, the journey to Jamaica was not epic. More significantly, it was not affected by the stringent post-war currency regulations which affected pre-war luxury holiday spots like the south of France. The north shore of Jamaica was becoming extremely popular with what later became known as the international jet-set. In Port Antonio, Errol Flynn was to set up home close to where German steel magnates, the Thyssens, would purchase a substantial property. In Montego Bay, Round Hill, a luxury cottage development for the rich and famous, catered to the likes of Princess Margaret, John F. Kennedy, Alfred Hitchcock and Paul Newman. And at Goldeneye in Oracabessa, Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, made his winter home. Nearby lived the playwright, actor and musician Noel Coward, whose homes at Blue Harbour and Firefly were the epicentre of this social world.

Blanche Blackwell was a close friend of Coward’s, and in such a milieu her son Chris spent his childhood and adolesence. “It was great to meet somebody like that,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have met somebody like that if I was living in London. Also, to meet all the famous people who came out with him, many of whom were more famous to me than he was, let’s say because they were movie stars, and seeing how they were with him and how much he was very much the man to all of these people who were such huge stars in their own right. So for me it was certainly a very valuable education in understanding and being able later on to deal with people who’ve become very big stars. I’ve never felt ill-at-ease with anybody except this one person I met who’d been to the moon. I couldn’t believe that: who’d landed on the moon.”

Blackwell first hit the Jamaican charts in 1959 with a local artist called Laurel Aitken and the tune Boogie In My Bones. The record made the Cuban-born Aitken, who had emulated the style of the Memphis bluesman Roscoe Gordon, the biggest star in Jamaica. With the proceeds of this project, Chris Blackwell set up shop in a small office on South Odeon Avenue in uptown Kingston’s thronging commercial suburb of Half Way Tree.

In 1961, however, the first James Bond movie, Dr No, was filmed on location in Jamaica. Drawing on his local expertise, producer Harry Saltzman made Blackwell his production assistant. When the film
wrapped, Saltzman offered him a more permanent position. Torn between the two paths before him, Chris Blackwell took advice from a local seer, a Lebanese woman; his future was clear to her: he should stick with the record business, she said. The next year Blackwell moved his operations to London.

On his way to begin his record company in London, Blackwell stopped off in New York. There he had lunch with Ahmet Ertegun, the owner of Atlantic Records. Blackwell’s approach to the record business was influenced by his observations of the way that black talent was nurtured at Atlantic. “I think Chris may be a little more adventurous than me, a little more avant-garde,” was Ertegun’s conclusion.

At the same time that Bob Marley was mashing up the world charts, Island Records was taking quantum leaps in areas other than reggae. The 80s began with a number of disparate acts ploughing ahead: Grace Jones, The Buggles, Black Uhuru, Kid Creole, Robert Palmer, and a new group called U2. World music raised its head in the shape of the acclaimed King Sunny Ade from Nigeria. The face of New Britain was reflected in Frankie Goes To Hollywood – gay, provincial dance music, brasher and more addictive than anything coming out of New York.

In 1987, as Island celebrated its first 25 years of existence in the UK, U2 were at the top of the charts all around the world with their album, The Joshua Tree. There was a further mixed bag of successful acts: Robert Palmer, The Christians, Tom Waits, Julian Cope. It was as though Island had never been stronger. It was then, of course, that Chris Blackwell sold his company.

Blackwell invested in a chain of upscale hotels in the Caribbean and Miami, each as gorgeous as the next. These include the fabulous Strawberry Hill and Caves in Jamaica; Compass Point and Pink Sands in the Bahamas; and the exotic Marlin, Tides, Leslie, Cavalier and others on Miami Beach.

Even though Island had been sold, Blackwell stayed on as senior vice president with Polygram. Island had been built up by investing in artist development. Bob Marley was the most extreme example of this. The half-a-million dollars invested in the musician had driven Island to the brink of bankruptcy before the worldwide success in 1976 of Rastaman Vibration, Marley’s fourth Island LP. So Blackwell was bound to be at loggerheads with Polygram’s policy of milking the maximum profit from every artist at every stage of their careers. Things finally came to a head in 1997 after a senior Polygram employee allegedly made a number of racist remarks about black Americans. Blackwell broke altogether with Polygram, which was later taken over by Universal.

By now, however, Blackwell was spending more and more time in Jamaica. He loves and cares passionately for the island of his birth. In projects like Strawberry Hill, whose unofficial charter insists on the employment of only local people from the neighbouring environs, there are echoes of the altruistic enterprises of benevolent Victorian industrialists such as Saltaire and New Lanark. Blackwell’s concern is to allow positive ripples to spread outwards from such situations, in the way that Bob Marley’s principal concern was with the general good rather than his own ego. “When we rebuilt Strawberry Hill,” Blackwell told me, “I wanted to create unobtrusive buildings with very little visible bulk. But the best thing about Jamaica is the people. You can learn so much here, and we wanted to build the kind of place that encourages visitors to explore more of the country.”

In Jamaica, Blackwell set up a film division in 1995, specifically to make low-budget films about the Jamaican experience. “Everyone in Jamaica is a star,” he said, “and their stories are absolutely unique and at the same time thoroughly universal.” Dancehall Queen and Third World Cop (as the co-screenwriter I must declare an interest … ) were enormous hits throughout the Caribbean, and did good business in the USA and UK. Further films are scheduled.

Blackwell has also founded Palm Pictures, a company dedicated to cutting-edge creativity in the digital world, with offices in New York and London. Third World Cop was one of Palm’s first fruits. “Palm Pictures is committed to where our roots are: Jamaican music, jazz, African music, new music.” This is how Chris Blackwell defines his new company and his new life, “I don’t live a life of someone who wonders about who to have lunch with, or chases social occasions. I just like building things, causing things and ideas that I’m excited about to happen.”

Chris Salewicz’s latest book is Rude Boy: Once Upon a Time in Jamaica, an account of his relationship with the island.