The Man From Jamaica

Chris Blackwell, Island Records and Remembering Bob Marley

Last week, on the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, Chris Blackwell, Mr. Island Records, joined the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber for a very rare public interview.

On hand for the multi-media event, which included the video for Island’s first hit – Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, footage of “The Harder They Come” and some spectacular photos of Grace Jones – were eager life-long reggae fans (some sporting t-shirts with Bob Marley’s photo), various folks from the industry and even some major music-makers themselves, including Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Paul Holdengraber had the enviable but rather serious challenge of providing, in such a limited time, a satisfying conversation with a man who seems to have lived one thousand lives in one.  Starting at the beginning of the beginning, Holdengraber and Blackwell recreated Blackwell’s youth – his life in a tony expat enclave in Jamaica, where Noel Coward and other major English notables, good friends of Blackwell’s mother, played prominent roles. Blackwell, who worked for a while as a water-skiing instructor, first witnessed water-skiing when Errol Flynn, fully-clothed, lit cigarette in mouth, miniature dachshund under his arm, rolled up his trousers and took to the water. Blackwell’s mother, one of Ian Fleming’s great loves, also undoubtedly had much to do with Blackwell’s employment as local guide for one of the first Bond films – “Dr. No”. This early immersion amongst larger than life talents and personalities led Blackwell to develop a natural touch amongst celebrities and would-be stars alike. More importantly though, his days in Jamaica planted the seeds of his lifelong love of Jamaican music, which while not always reflected in the top-selling acts he signed in later years, stayed with him and led to perhaps his greatest legacy – introducing the world to Bob Marley.

But long before the days of Bob Marley, Blackwell began Island Record’s discography by rather unglamorously loading his Mini with his then-slim  catalog –re-mastered records from cassettes sent him from Jamaica—and taking sales trips to the outskirts of London, to places like Brixton, Lewisham, Hackney.

Apart from his total devotion to musicians whose music he believed in, Blackwell’s success also has as much to do with his total devotion to musicians whose music he may not have felt a natural affinity to but whom he believed in as individuals. Cat Stevens and U2 are perhaps the most famous of these.  Blackwell told of finally, politely relenting to a meeting with Cat Stevens, who had reportedly wanted Balckwell to help him produce a musical. After hearing “Father and Son,” Blackwell told Stevens, “I’m really not interested in doing a musical, but I would love to sign you.” When Stevens asked him how should he go about getting out of his contract with Decca – with Dick Rowe no less, the man famous for turning down the Beatles – Blackwell had the perfect plan – Stevens should tell Rowe that the next record absolutely had to include the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Blackwell assured him Rowe would think him a bit mad and give him his release. He was right.

Like Stevens, U2’s music, which Blackwell mused was “rinky dink,” was far from anything seemingly natural for Island Records. Yet Blackwell was deeply impressed by the group and their manager and his only instructions to his staff at Island was to just follow the band’s lead.

When Blackwell began to actively seek out rock music to produce, he realized that Island was known for its reggae and he’d perhaps have to differentiate the label in some way to include rock. He came up with the pink album cover for his rock records, saying that at the time he thought, “people would know, nothing pink would ever come from Jamaica.”

The evening closed with tales of two of the major icons of Island Records, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff’s success in Jamaica reached its height with his role and album for “The Harder They Come,” which Blackwell strongly urged him to do. Yet soon after, Cliff finally succumbed to the siren’s calls of big money and international fame. Totally personally and professionally devastated by seeing Cliff go, Blackwell was perfectly poised to receive Bob Marley and The Wailers, who entered his world soon after. The group had acquired a less than positive reputation amongst the producers in Jamaica and Blackwell’s  early trust of Marley despite this has become legendary. Blackwell fondly recalls , “They were broke but they walked in like kings.” Blackwell  advanced them the 4000 pounds they requested, simply telling them “go make your album”. Before the evening concluded with Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” Blackwell noted that “Jimmy Cliff played the character (in “The Harder They Come”), but Bob Marley was the character.”

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