Music icon

Music icon Chris Blackwell shares how he met Bob Marley, travels

When it comes to rock and roll, 84-year-old London-born Chris Blackwell is a household name. As founder of Island Records, the label he established in Jamaica in 1959 and England in 1962, Blackwell propelled a long list of music icons to fame: Robert Palmer, Melissa Etheridge, The Cranberries , U2, Bob Marley and many more.

Others know Blackwell as the patriarch of GoldenEye, author Ian Fleming’s famous home where he wrote all the James Bond novels – now a luxury resort and celebrity hideaway.

In fact, before music, Blackwell got his start in the travel industry more than four decades ago when he worked as a water ski instructor at Half Moon Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

He then owned and managed properties in Miami and the Bahamas. He still runs Strawberry Hill, Jamaica’s Blue Mountains and the clifftop caves in Negril, while dividing his time between the island and New York.

Now, Blackwell’s storied career working with the world’s most famous artists is chronicled in a memoir: “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” (out June 7 and available for pre-order now).

Blackwell, who is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, spoke to The Post about his adventures in hospitality and recording and discovering the stars whose songs we all sing aloud.

Known for GoldenEye but have always worked in the travel industry in Jamaica?

The Island Records founder got his start in the hospitality business in his beloved Jamaica.
Mark Sagliocco/GC Images

My cousin John Pringle opened Round Hill in Montego Hill in the 1950s which immediately attracted an elite crowd due to his extensive network of friends. Noel Coward came to stay, as did the Kennedy family before John became president.

I was a teenager at the time and so impressed with the whole setup that I was inspired to enter the hotels. I started by giving water ski lessons to guests at Half Moon, which was near Round Hill. At the same time, air travel to Jamaica resumed and Montego Bay was becoming popular with tourists. I loved the energy.

Wasn’t it your work in the hotel industry that led to your musical career?

Yes. Bands played in restaurants and bars on weekends in Round Hill and Half Moon, and I was drawn to their music, especially jazz. Once a band from Bermuda came to play at Half Moon with a blind pianist. A few drinks in an afternoon, I told them I wanted to record them. I didn’t know anything about recording, but that was the rum talking.

A few days later we drove to Kingston, three hours away, and went to a recording studio. After that experience, I started going to gigs and recording different Jamaican bands that I liked. This is how Island Records started.

After devoting more than 20 years to music and leaving hotels behind, you returned to it in the early 1980s. Why?

Chris Blackwell at Compass Point (Bahamas) Studio with engineer Steven Stanley (far right).
Chris Blackwell at his Compass Point studio in the Bahamas with famed Jamaican sound engineer Steven Stanley (far right).

I was going to Miami to meet a singer from Detroit and was shocked at how run down all the hotels in town were. I saw this abandoned hotel in Miami Beach that was for sale and spontaneously decided to buy it. I had just met the fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki who designed the costumes for this singer and I asked her if she wanted to do the interiors. She has accepted. This property was called the Marlin and was among the first fine hotels to open in Miami Beach. I ended up buying and managing seven other properties there, including the Tides and the Leslie.

They thrived throughout the 80’s, but I ended up getting frustrated with the way things worked: properties had to be shut down whenever a hurricane was forecast. I sold the hotels and moved to the Bahamas where I opened two hotels in Nassau: Pink Sands and Compass Point.

I was still running Island Records, so I built a recording studio there. Robert Palmer recorded his hit “Addicted to Love” there.

You still own three hotels in Jamaica. What makes them unique?

Exterior of the GoldenEye complex.
Blackwell’s GoldenEye complex was once the home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
Christian Horan Photography / is

Strawberry Hill is 3,100 feet up in the mountains and stunningly beautiful. The Caves has just 15 rooms and is on the beachfront in Negril. You can jump off the cliffs there straight into the ocean.

GoldenEye is famous for being the home of Ian Fleming and where he wrote all of the James Bond books. The beauty of the property is its simplicity. It has over 60 rooms and four different ranges and is a large open space. There are no hallways and you feel very free.

You knew Fleming personally. Where did you meet him and how was he?

English writer Ian Fleming (1908 - 1964), best known for his James Bond novels, in his study at Goldeneye, his home in Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica.
Author Ian Fleming and his dogs at his GoldenEye estate in 1964.
Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

Fleming first came to Jamaica in the late 1940s when I was about nine or ten years old. My uncle, who was a writer for the local newspaper, met him through a mutual friend, and the two became close friends. I was in boarding school in England but I saw him when I came home from school holidays.

He was very warm and very disciplined. He followed the same routine daily: a long swim, then breakfast, then hours of writing locked up in his room. He would emerge at 1:30 p.m. for lunch and return to more writing.

You have made so many stars famous. Who is the most memorable?

This must be the first person I met: Millie Small, who grew up on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. She had the most unique high-pitched voice, and I brought her to England in 1964 to record “My Boy Lollipop.” It ended up being a huge success and made her very famous.

Suddenly I was catapulted from the guy who was running around London trying to sell Jamaican music to the guy who was in the TV studios with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Tell us about the discovery of Bob Marley.

Chris Blackwell with (lr) Junior Marvin, Bob Marley & Jacob Miller en route to Brazil, 1980.

Blackwell with (left to right) Junior Marvin, Bob Marley and Jacob Miller, en route to Brazil in 1980. Blackwell says he met Marley by chance in London after lending him some money.

I was working in London when Bob Marley and the Wailers went to Scandinavia to record a movie, but it failed. They had no tickets or money to return to Jamaica and ended up in London. A friend asked me to help them get home. I lent them some money and we immediately connected. They made a record for me, and that was the start.

What do the hospitality industry and music have in common?

Both industries are all about entertainment and dating.

Of all the rock stars you’ve met, which one stood out to you the most and why?

Maybe Elton John. We met in London long before he was famous. He was the most amazing but very shy songwriter. I made the mistake of thinking that he wouldn’t be a very strong person on stage. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

But among the musicians with whom I worked, I never knew anyone personally. I’m more of a loner and I’m more content to be alone.