As the founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell guided the careers of Bob Marley, U2, Cat Stevens and more. Now, with the label he launched turning 60, one of the music business’ greatest-ever moguls looks back on a career, and a life, well-lived.
Chris Blackwell sits at the head of a broad wooden table, rum punch in hand, as the orange sun sets off Jamaica’s north coast in front of him.
He’s discussing his portfolio of properties on the island: an inland farm, halfway between Oracabessa and Montego Bay; an all-inclusive luxury resort called The Caves in Negril, on the far-west coast; Strawberry Hill, his house outside Kingston where Bob Marley famously retreated after being shot in 1976; and GoldenEye, Blackwell’s crown jewel, where he lives most of the year and where British author Ian Fleming wrote all 14 of his James Bond novels. It was Fleming who planted the twin almond trees that shade the table in this yard back in the late 1940s, when he lived in its Spartan three-bedroom house, and Fleming whose legacy attracts many of the resort’s guests each year.
But it is Blackwell, who purchased the property in the 1970s and through the years has expanded it into one of the world’s most prestigious getaways, whose presence now looms largest. Few, if any, who come here are unaware of his storied career, and his omnipresence on the property makes for an easy rapport with his guests. “I enjoy the process of meeting people when they visit the place and showing them around,” he says in a slow British drawl. “It’s like playing somebody a record.”
For Blackwell, 82, the resort business is a distinguished final act in a career that has influenced nearly all facets of media and entertainment. And many of his guests reflect the rarefied circles to which he has earned entry. Sting, a frequent visitor, wrote most of The Police’s 1983 album, Synchronicity -- including its lead single, “Every Breath You Take” -- while staying at the Fleming House. Harry Belafonte, a close friend, comes down for a week around his birthday every March. Grace Jones, who lives nearby, is among those who require no invitation to swing through and say hello; musicians, producers, designers, filmmakers and entrepreneurs often drop in for leisurely lunches, joining Blackwell at GoldenEye’s central Bizot Bar as the hours melt away. “There’s a great energy here,” he says. “It’s a great thing to do on your last go-around, so to speak.”
Back in 1959, the England-born, Jamaica-raised, Harrow-educated 22-year-old was getting by as a water-skiing instructor at a hotel on Jamaica’s North Coast when he fell in love with a local cocktail band and decided to record its music -- an inauspicious step into a business that would go on to change dramatically. From his early days of selling Jamaican 45s out of the back of his Mini Cooper in London’s West Indian neighborhoods to licensing records made by Jamaican sound-system selectors and DJs like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid to sell overseas, Blackwell would go on to guide the careers of Jones, Steve Winwood, Cat Stevens, Melissa Etheridge, Robert Palmer, Roxy Music, U2 and, most famously, a young Jamaican singer named Bob Marley. Along the way, he forged innovative distribution deals that redefined what an independent label could do and fostered dozens of imprints and subsidiaries that allowed Island to expand into African music, hip-hop, folk and dance -- all without diluting its brand. (He also founded a publishing company, Blue Mountain Music, in 1962 and sold an 80% stake in it to Primary Wave last year in a deal reportedly worth $50 million.)
Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, Island Records -- which Blackwell built from a scrappy British indie among giants like Decca and EMI into a worldwide brand with a fiercely artist-friendly reputation -- is one of the foremost record labels in the world, boasting acts like Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato and The Killers, as well as a deep, impressive catalog of classics that cross genres and cultures.
“He always has been the compass, the guiding light, for presidents before me and hopefully for presidents after me,” says Darcus Beese, Island’s current president, who started as an intern in the company’s promotions department in 1989. “The legacy he built for Island with all the artists, whether it was Traffic or Bob, whether it was African and world music or the Delicious Vinyl or Priority label deals that gave us N.W.A, he was, and still is, the North Star.”
These days, you’re more likely to find Blackwell talking about the impending full moon, for which he has planned a viewing excursion for guests, or his plans to continue developing the area around GoldenEye into a resort town, or taking meetings about his rum company, than reminiscing about the old days. Not that he doesn’t have stories. A typical conversation might start with him talking about distributing The Meters in the United Kingdom, turn into an aside about a recording session led by Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey, then morph into an appreciation of the reggae group Black Uhuru before drifting back to New Orleans, where Blackwell was stranded for three months in the 1950s, then on to the many wives of Fela Kuti, who once asked Blackwell to manage his career and almost stood him up for a show he produced in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1960s, which he only put on because... Where were we again?
Jamaica in June is sweltering, with only the northeast trade winds and the waters of the Caribbean to take the edge off. Blackwell is holding court at the Bizot with his longtime lieutenant, Cathy Snipper; Rémy Walter, a friend from Paris who is building a skate park in Kingston; and Biggie London, who runs Blackwell’s rum company in England and who looks strikingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, like Biggie Smalls. It’s midafternoon, and Blackwell is telling the story of how he, Jimmy Buffett, MTV co-founder Tom Freston and MTV executive Bill Flanagan were in Timbuktu, Mali, during the 1990s and were nearly kidnapped, an experience he doesn’t embellish: “That was close,” he says. “Very close.”
Many of Blackwell’s stories are by now the stuff of music-industry legend: that he signed an unknown, 16-year-old Millie Small in 1962 and watched her track “My Boy Lollipop” sell millions in England, knocking The Beatles from the top of the charts. That he turned down signing Elton John because he believed the singer to be too shy (“He never forgave me”), Pink Floyd because he thought the band too dreary and Madonna because, as he puts it, “I only ever signed somebody if I felt I could contribute in some way, and she seemed ready to do whatever she needed to do.” (“In this business, you can’t be right all the time,” says Seymour Stein, who ended up signing Madonna to his label, Sire. “I have the greatest respect for Chris Blackwell -- he is one of my heroes.”) There was also the time he convinced Cat Stevens to push for his release from Decca by telling the young singer to demand the label fund an album backed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which Decca found absurd; shortly after Decca dropped him, Stevens came to Island and released his breakthrough 1970 LP, Tea for the Tillerman. And then there’s the time, a week after Jimmy Cliff stormed out of Island’s London office, unhappy with the promotion of his title track to the Jamaican film The Harder They Come, that Marley and his rowdy band of Wailers walked in.
Blackwell’s story can’t be disentangled from Marley’s and vice versa. The two transformed each other’s lives and careers in ways that would effectively change the world of music, too. “When he saw Marley, he realized that if reggae stayed as it was, it would just be like calypso -- small-time music -- unless he made it into rock music,” says Wayne Jobson, a producer, musician and longtime friend of Blackwell’s, whose cousin Diane was Marley’s attorney. “Chris just flooded the rock market and the college market, got The Wailers to open for Traffic and delivered it to the rock’n’roll audience. He saw that Bob had the charisma to be a rock star.”
Another story from the vault: When Marley and The Wailers visited Blackwell’s London office in 1972, broke and cold in a foreign land, he gave them 4,000 pounds to go back to Jamaica and make an album. When Marley returned the next year with the tapes for what would become Catch a Fire, it was Blackwell who tapped guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick to record the overdubs that would turn it into an album that appealed to the kids obsessing over Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. “I felt that he would reach the rock community, the college community, because his lyrics were strong and his points of view were great,” says Blackwell. “And I was right, and it really worked.”
Island was thriving by the time Marley came along, already the industry leader in Jamaican recordings. “Jamaicans were hungry to hear music from their own people in a contemporary manner,” says Blackwell. For other successes with Millie and The Spencer Davis Group (as well as with Winwood, its frontman), Blackwell had the foresight to license songs he felt would be hits to larger distributors like Fontana instead of trying to press and distribute them himself, which could have potentially bankrupted the company. By the time Winwood started Traffic in 1967, Island was established enough to distribute the group’s albums on its own. Later, Blackwell would take on distribution for others, like Virgin and Chrysalis, helping indies who would eventually become competitors.
It was one of his innovative distribution ideas that inspired his hero, mentor and friend, Atlantic Records co-founder/president Ahmet Ertegun, to call Blackwell “the baby-faced killer.” It was the late 1970s, and Blackwell was looking for a new partner after a deal with Robert Stigwood’s company went south. He approached Ertegun and asked to cut a deal with Atlantic’s CFO, Sheldon Vogel, nicknamed “Dr. No” for his frugality. Rather than take an advance against royalties, however, Blackwell turned the deal around, offering Atlantic an advance from him to distribute Island’s records. “I was dealing with an accountant, and an accountant can never refuse free money,” he recalls, laughing. “So I made the deal, and then Island took off. U2, particularly, took off.”
“He is one of the top five music men of the Golden Age,” says U2’s Bono. “He’s not a forceful character to be around musically. I remember somebody saying, ‘Oh, Chris Blackwell was just in the room when such-and-such a recording was made. It’s not him.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Well, he was in a lot of rooms when the magic happened -- maybe he is the magic.’ He’s much more magician, shaman, than he is corporate mood board.” When it came to the group’s music, Blackwell was notably hands-off. “He allowed us to be independent spirits,” recalls Bono. “He just got out of our way, which I suppose was the biggest compliment he could give us.”
By the time U2 made it big, Blackwell was becoming more hands-off with the business in general. Island was too big to be an indie but still too small to compete with the financial might of the majors, and some of the luster was beginning to wear off. In 1978, Stevens -- Island’s biggest artist at that point -- converted to Islam and decided to abandon his music career. And then, on May 11, 1981, Marley died of cancer.
“That was a disaster,” says Blackwell. “To see him grow and grow and be conquering the world was the high point, really. And when he died, it lost a lot for me. Because it was exciting -- it wasn’t just the regular record business, it was something that was bigger. I don’t even know how to describe it. It was special for a certain time. But it wasn’t the same. It had gotten too big for me, I suppose.”
Island had also, in some respects, stopped needing him. In 1984, the label released Legend, the Bob Marley & The Wailers greatest-hits record that would go on to sell 15 million copies in the United States alone, according to the RIAA, and spend an eye-popping 588-and-counting weeks on the Billboard 200, where it remains, to this day, the second-longest run of all time. In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree, the first of eight straight No. 1 albums that cemented its status as one of the biggest bands in the world. In 1989, Blackwell sold Island to PolyGram for a reported $300 million, but he stayed on until the mid-1990s, when he lost interest and began focusing more on expanding his real estate portfolio (particularly in Miami’s South Beach). The label, he says, had lost its identity -- too corporate for the misfit maverick, the Island shaman.
"Twenty-six minutes!" Blackwell calls out. It’s 7:40 p.m., and the dozen or so people gathered in a minibus are running late -- “on island time,” as one person puts it, “when the hand of the clock waves back and forth a bit.” Blackwell has a reason for the tight schedule: “We have 26 minutes until the moon rises.”
The destination is Firefly, the getaway-from-the-getaway that previously belonged to renowned playwright Noël Coward and the pirate Sir Henry Morgan and which Blackwell now leases from the Jamaican government. The property is only 15 minutes away from GoldenEye, up a steep, broken driveway that the government has promised to fix, on a hill overlooking the bay. Upon arrival, the group follows Blackwell as he springs, surprisingly limber, toward a sloping lawn. He stops under the open sky as the moon begins to emerge from behind a cloud -- slowly at first, then all at once, illuminating the sea below like oil on canvas. There is a bar off to the side with large pillows scattered across the grass and two GoldenEye employees readying glasses of wine and hors d’oeuvres. The subject of conversation is pirates and Paris, the plays of Coward and performances by Bob Dylan, depending on who’s speaking.
After a while, Blackwell disappears from the larger group, and slowly people begin to trickle back to the lawn, where he stands still, gazing up at the moon. “I love to come up here,” he says finally. “There is nowhere else that feels quite like this.”
It is a testament to Blackwell’s acumen and personality that Island has stood the test of time, even without his physical presence, when so many of his competitors have faded away. Virgin and A&M are shadows of their former selves, names that live on as minor divisions of larger companies. But Island is still at the forefront of popular music, still operating under the ethos that Blackwell instilled in it from the trunk of his car.
“Chris has the distinguished grace that only the person who signed Bob Marley could have,” says Peter Shapiro, owner of Brooklyn Bowl and other venues and a friend and business acquaintance of Blackwell’s. “You don’t see that a lot now. There are really bright people in the music industry, but they talk fast, they’ve got a phone next to them the whole time. Chris is methodical; when he speaks, he speaks slowly and with an elegance. He comes from another time, but his touch is timeless.”
In a way, Blackwell’s exit from the music business in the late ’90s happened at the perfect moment: Just a few short years later, the digital revolution would crater music sales, sending the business into a two-decade tailspin from which it is only just beginning to recover. During that time, a different kind of executive was needed, one who could innovate on tight margins and stay just ahead of the guillotine of layoffs and cost-cutting while still finding ways to break and promote artists and records. Ironically, that was one of Blackwell’s greatest strengths in Island’s early days (though his first official post-Island venture, Palm Pictures, ended in financial disaster). But now, with budgets expanding and labels taking risks again, a new class of executives is emerging and embracing Blackwell’s other defining traits: boundless creativity and total dedication to an artist’s vision.
“I never really saw myself as a record executive,” he says. “I was good at identifying talent and guiding talent. I was interested in the creative side. And generally, I was interested in the career and the success of the artist.”
After dinner one night at GoldenEye, the conversation turns to The Wailers’ best songs, and as with all things Marley, Blackwell’s thoughts are well documented: His favorite always has been “Time Will Tell,” from 1978’s Kaya. But tonight, his answer is different. “I can play it for you, but the problem is I tear up every time I hear it,” he says. “But tell me what you think.”
Blackwell takes out his iPhone and pulls up a video, shot in June 2018 by Israeli social/music initiative Koolulam, that shows 800 strangers -- Christians, Muslims and Jews, speaking English, Arabic and Hebrew -- all gathered at Jerusalem’s Tower of David. The group met at midnight, after the last day of Ramadan, and learned separate verses and melodies in each of the languages. A conductor leads the crowd in an a cappella rendition of Marley’s “One Love,” culminating in the song’s final hopeful paean: “Let’s get together and feel alright.”
As the video fades, Blackwell pauses in reflection. “Incredible, isn’t it? That Bob would have that impact?” he says quietly. “In your wildest imagination, you couldn’t imagine it. Causes me to tear up -- I guess when you get old, you get emotional. But it’s so incredible to me to see that he would have that impact, for somebody to just produce that, to make that happen. It’s amazing.”