The Islander by Chris Blackwell review – misfit who brought Bob Marley to the masses | music books

NIn all, sixty-two was an important year for both Jamaica and Chis Blackwell. The country became independent and presented the first James Bond film, dr no, on which Blackwell worked as a fixer, recommended locations and recruited his musician friends as handles, extras, even as musicians. Co-producer Harry Saltzman was so impressed that he offered Blackwell a job as his PA. The 25-year-old faltered; he was already knee-deep in Jamaica’s frenetic music industry and was about to leave the island to start his own label, Island, in London. Only after consulting ‘a Lebanese fortune teller in the city center’ did he choose music over film.

His decision was the happiness of the world. Over the next 40 years, Blackwell helped revolutionize popular music, with his label becoming a byword for uncompromising artistry and era-shaping acts. In the 60s came Traffic, Cat Stevens, Free, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, followed by Roxy Music, U2, Robert Palmer and Grace Jones. Then there are the passing eccentrics (Sparks, Frankie Goes to Hollywood), venerable bohos like Tom Waits, and there was always reggae; from Millie Small’s 1964 international smash My Boy Lollipop, two minutes of teenage fun, to Bob Marley, the inner-city rebel who became a developing nation’s first superstar.

Born in the upper classes (think Crosse & Blackwell), Blackwell has an exotic background. His father was an Irish security guard, his mother Blanche, a Costa Rican born Jamaican heiress and glamorous socialite, was pursued after her divorce by Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming, both regular visitors to the Caribbean island where Blackwell grew up. As a boy he was sickly and withdrawn, ailments which did little to help him in English public schools. He hated Harrow, where his pranks involved public caning and eviction at age 17. He found work at both ends of Jamaican society and became a gopher for Governor Sir Hugh Foot, and the JA licensee of Wurlitzer jukeboxes, crisscrossing the island. to load the all-important local jukebox with sides from black America and, increasingly, from JA’s own thriving music scene – “a job for which there were no qualifications and I was good at it”.

‘An exotic background’: Chris Blackwell in South Beach, Miami. Photo: Cookie Kinkead/Island Outpost

Blackwell’s account of his time in Jamaica’s fledgling music scene, dealing with swaggering producers like Coxsone Dodd and an array of sound systems and labels in cut-throat competition, is steeped in cultural history. Initially, Blackwell was an exporter, sending hot ska tunes to the UK expat market and licensing them for his own Island print. In London he cut a dashing figure, with good looks, a first-rate character, a West End stables house and a model girlfriend, bowling to Neasden or Lewisham, his race green Mini Cooper filled with boxes of 45’s by Derrick Morgan and James Brown – the latter because Blackwell had struck a deal with Sue Records in New York, a cult soul label.

Quick to find his way into the British music business, Blackwell signed the Spencer Davis Group and their sought-after vocalist, Steve Winwood, who graduated from tough R&B hits like Gimme Some Loving to form Traffic, whose debut album, Mister Fantasy, she made instant hippie cuties. The record was the first on the Pink Island label, “the color most removed from ska and reggae”.

Island Records’ progress was imperious, made possible in part by Blackwell’s clever way of handling real estate – offices, studios, shelters. Blackwell devotes long, fascinating chapters to Cat Stevens and tormented hermit Nick Drake, and of course Bob Marley. People thought Blackwell was crazy to fund a The Wailers album, a trio of Trenchtown toughies went deep Rasta, but 1973’s catch a fire turned out to be a triumph that transformed reggae even when it split the Wailers. Purists berated Blackwell for “commercializing” the group, but the ambitious and infinitely charismatic Marley always had a date with fate and worldwide fame. He and Blackwell were a perfect match. Both attracted CIA files. Marley’s passing left Blackwell deflated, though he recovered after meeting Grace Jones, “a Jamaican who came from all over, who had absorbed hippie, LSD, New York, Paris… She was an orgy of hybrids”. Placing Jones with the reggae rhythm duo, Sly and Robbie, made perfect sense.

His vision was flat, Blackwell sold Island in 1989 for $300 million, stayed with the company for a few years, continued to fly the flag for innovators such as Tricky, and advocate for African acts such as Sunny Ade and Baaba Maal. His story, told warmly with an unobtrusive ghostwriter, is unique in popular music, with Jamaica itself as the hero not Blackwell. (Those early red-and-white Island 45s today cost a coin.) As a young man, Blackwell was a gambler, until losing money hurt too much. The music industry became his casino, and with his ears and enthusiasm with it, his bets proved astute and often inspiring.

The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley is published by Nine Eight Books (£20). In support of the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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