In Mel Brooks History of the world: part onecried Louis XVI, “It’s good to be king!”
Likewise, one might expect that readers of Chris Blackwell’s autobiography The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond (Gallery Books, 352 pages. $28.99) to say, “It’s good to be Chris Blackwell!” After all, he was born into a wealthy British family in 1937, grew up in Jamaica, had a small role in Dr. No, created Island Records when he was only 22, opened the world to reggae music, smoked ganja with Bob Marley, signed bands like Traffic, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, U2 and the B-52s, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alas, there is no Piss Boy in Blackwell’s story, but Blackwell’s net worth is estimated at over $300 million, so he has it all.
Still, with material like that to work with, Blackwell and co-author Paul Morley didn’t find a book very exciting. Everything is rather superficial, the tone of the volume is actually to the point of becoming banal at times. Probably linked to the British tendency to understatement. However, the islander provides valuable insight into the inner workings of Island, a highly successful boutique brand that was, for a while, undeniably cool.
Blackwell is an intriguing individual with a distinguished lineage. His father was a member of the Blackwell family, which owned Crosse & Blackwell, a maker of condiments, marmalades and sauces since the early 19th century. It should be mentioned, incidentally, that seafood lovers would do well to try their cocktail sauce, which is available in the country.
Blackwell’s mother was a Jamaican heiress whose family had lived in Kingston for generations, making their fortunes in finance and farming. She was a close friend of Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, and is said to have been the inspiration for several female characters in the Bond canon, including Pussy Galore and Honeychile Rider. As Blackwell himself says, “There’s no two ways about it: I’m a member of the lucky sperm club.”
Blackwell grew up in Jamaica, alternately associating with the ruling class and exploring the island’s indigenous culture. A pivotal moment in his life occurred when, as a teenager, he was rescued by a dreadlocked Rastafarian after running out of fuel on a boat ride. Blackwell was dehydrated and weak after days of walking the island’s remote coast when he saw “a tiny crooked wooden shack held together with bits of string”. At the time, young white Jamaicans were told to avoid Rastamen, and Blackwell was scared, even in his desperation. “Because I had never laid eyes on a Rasta, they always existed in my head as bogeymen,” Blackwell writes. “In my confused, desiccated state, about to pass out, I looked at the man in front of me and thought, ‘Maybe this is the end.'”
But that was not the case. The man gave Blackwell water and a place to sleep. When he wakes up, the man, then joined by friends, gives the young ital food, vegetarian cuisine eaten by the Rastas, who believe that it is a sin to kill and eat animals. “I was overwhelmed by the incredible, almost mystical sweetness that surrounded me,” Blackwell says. “They were good men of faith. They weren’t burning children or plotting a violent revolution. Without hesitation, they had taken in and cared for a helpless, pale white boy who had fallen on top of them and collapsed in their midst.
After immersing himself in island culture, Blackwell tapped into his trust fund and set up an informal import/export business, taking Jamaican records to London, selling them and buying British records back to Jamaica, where they were prized commodities. Consequently, he became a player in the music scenes of both regions, quickly moving into record production and artist management. His first hit was “My Boy Lollipop”, with Caribbean flavors, recorded in 1963 by Jamaican singer Millie Small and sold millions of copies in England and the United States.
By then, Blackwell had become “addicted to making things happen” and was aiming for greater heights. He began hanging out in London music clubs, befriending artists who were introducing American blues to the British. Among his acquaintances were members of the Rolling Stones. “At one gig, I stood close enough to the young Stones to witness the moment they found their drummer, Charlie Watts,” Blackwell said. It seems the band were unhappy with their current drummer and so sought the advice of Cyril Davies, one of the main driving forces behind the British blues boom. Davies said his band’s drummer was good enough to play with the Stones, but Watts might be a better choice, despite his jazz leanings. Blackwell praises Davies for his generosity of spirit, noting: “He went out of his way to recommend his friend Charlie Watts. He knew how great the Rolling Stones could be with the right drummer. Blackwell also considers the downsides of this decision. “A few years later, when the Stones were a big hit, I saw Cyril’s drummer working in a hot dog stand at Wembley Stadium. It’s a tough world, pop music.
Despite all the capitalist maneuverings of his musical career, Blackwell remains – like Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic and Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers – a “record man”, putting music above all else, just as devoted to art as to business. “Music is so beautiful when it works,” Blackwell writes, “and so frustrating when it doesn’t.” He has generally been a pioneer, taking risks that usually pay off. As for Roxy Music, one of Island Records’ most important bands, Blackwell admits that at first he didn’t quite understand the band’s appeal. However, he signed the band because “it was unlike anything else at the time, which still piques my interest”.
Blackwell’s most significant achievement was introducing the world to reggae music and culture. He first met Bob Marley, who would become reggae’s biggest star, when he was a member of the Wailers with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. “They were immediately something else, these three – strong characters,” Blackwell writes. “Measuring them, I thought: Damn that’s the real thing.”
He explained to the band members that in order to achieve their US release goal, they would have to make a few changes. “At that time,” Blackwell writes, “there were radio stations that played only rock music and R&B stations that played only black music. And neither category of station played reggae. The solution, Blackwell thought, was to “come as a black rock band”. Tosh and Wailer were skeptical and somewhat offended. But Marley saw the strategy and stuck with Blackwell, becoming an international star before he died of cancer aged 36. The Islander, Blackwell addresses accusations that he exploited Marley and other reggae artists. “I never paid a Jamaican act a penny less in royalties than an English act. I was helpless without the artists. I wasn’t a singer or a writer; it made no sense to rip them off. J I did everything I could to bring Bob’s music and Jamaican music to the general public,” says Blackwell.
There are plenty of big names (Miles Davis, Steve Winwood, Melissa Etheridge) scattered throughout the book, as well as Blackwell’s quick shots of the people mentioned. Of dapper singer Robert Palmer, Blackwell notes, “Already dazzled by his looks and the fact that his clothes were wrinkle-free, I was dazzled even more by his voice.”
When he first met Jamaican singer and fashion icon Grace Jones, Blackwell wrote, “She was the ultimate modern, ambitious representation in an infinitely connected world, of a Jamaica that came from everywhere, a Jamaica that had absorbed hippie, LSD, disco, punk. , New York, Paris, Japan, London, etc. She was an orgy of hybrids. When U2 frontman Bono is mentioned, Blackwell says of the singer’s powers of persuasion: “Bono is a very good talker.
And finally, Blackwell too. Now 85, he looks back on a life that would be nearly impossible to have in today’s entertainment business climate, with just about every major record label being part of a conglomerate. After selling Island Records, he tried to work for his new parent company, but he never fit in, nor did his typical boardroom attire of t-shirt, cargo shorts and flip flops. In the end, the stresses of corporate life proved too much for the aging entrepreneur. As Blackwell says, “I like to go my own way and answer to no one.”