Waiter! There’s an Island in my soup…

Chris Blackwell has been a name that has constantly popped up all through my years of buying music, across various labels and various genres. I’ve always found him an interesting fella, mainly, initially at least, gaining my attention due to the ‘posh’ bloke appearance coupled with a Jamaican accent.

He was born Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell in the June of 1937 in Westminster, London, the son of Middleton Joseph Blackwell, a member of the family that owned the food company Crosse and Blackwell and Blanche, a Jamaican heiress born in Costa Rica from the Sephardic Jewish community.

Soon after Chris’s birth, the family moved to Jamaica, when Joseph became a major in the Jamaica Regiment. Chris was soon back at school in the UK from the age of 8 however and educated at Harrow from 10, with his parents divorcing when he was 12. By that age, he was already displaying an entrepreneurial spirit, and a few years later he was selling booze and fags to his schoolmates. Rather than being expelled, his headmaster declared that ‘Christopher might be happier elsewhere.’

Failing to get to university, he instead returned to Jamaica and worked at a water-skiing school, ran a rental car service, sold property and then working as a ‘gopher’ for the Governor of the island Sir Hugh Foot. He then took a job looking after jukeboxes around the country, thus exposing himself to the sounds of the musicians in Jamaica.

In 1958, his boat ran into real trouble off Hellshire Beach. Thankfully he was helped by fisherman from the Rastafarian faith. They gave him ‘Ital’ food and tended his wounds.  He would later declare this a true turning point in his life.

Aged 21 he first set up ‘R&B Records’ alongside Graeme Goodall who left later to set up the Doctor Bird label. Then with a $1,000.00 loan from his parents, that became ‘Island Records’ with the name coming from the novel ‘Islands in the Sun’ by Alexander Waugh, brother of Evelyn. 

To supplement the slow income from the venture at first, Blackwell visited New York and imported records that he then sold to the operators of Sound Systems. Island then hit number one in the local charts with ‘Boogie in my Bones’ by Laurel Aitken.

In 1962, he worked on the production side of the James Bond film ‘Dr No’ – his mum Blanche was a long term lover of the writer of the Bond novels Ian Fleming – before once again settling down in the music business following advice from a psychic, who said he would be successful if he followed that path.

Later that year, he returned to the UK, and sold records licensed from the likes of Coxsone Dodd and Leslie Kong from the boot of his Mini Cooper to growing numbers of recent homesick arrivals and new enthusiastic fans, by performers like The Skatellites, The Maytals and one Robert Morley  – later to be Bob Marley – with the tune called ‘Judge Not.’

He then hit the jackpot with a cover of the song ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by 15-year-old Millie Small. Produced by Blackwell at Olympic Studios, it had Ernest Ranglin on the session, and Rod Stewart on harmonica, or at least this is what Millie claimed at the time, though in actuality no one really knows, though both Pete Hogman and Jimmy Powell of the group The Five Dimension claimed it was they.

Millie then toured the UK due to the success of ‘Lollipop’, which went on to sell 6 million copies worldwide. It went top 5 both in the UK and the US via the Fontana label, which handled distribution. As a result of the sales, Island and Blackwell were catapulted into the mainstream from the margins and Ska had its first universal hit.

Accompanying Millie on her tour, Chris then discovered the Spencer Davis group in Birmingham and signed them up. They of course went on to have consecutive number one hits with ‘Keep on Running’ and ‘Somebody Help Me’ both written by Jackie Edwards.
Lead singer Steve Winwood left to form Traffic in 1967 with Blackwell managing that band too.

He was busy elsewhere also bringing in Guy Stevens to run the Sue label in 1964 and he formed Trojan records with Lee Gopthal later in 1968

He was also looking after Jimmy Cliff who has a hit with ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ in 1969 and then reggae broke into the UK top ten with ‘The Liquidator ‘ by Harry J All Stars on Trojan in the same year.

In 1972, he part funded the film ‘The Harder They Come’ directed by Perry Henzell which starring Jimmy Cliff as the central character Ivan Rhygin. The word of mouth success of the film and its soundtrack, all added to a new bigger audience finding a love for reggae.

Despite all that success, one bump in the road for Blackwell was Jimmy Cliff leaving Island for EMI. But true to form, even that opened a door to opportunities. A week later, Bob Marley & The Wailers who were in London met Blackwell, and he found them struggling to get a career underway. 

Blackwell decided to back them, against all advice and with no contract, to the tune of £4,000, for them to record an album. Blackwell sensed that Bob was ready and ambitious enough to cross over and become a global star. He had the talent figured Blackwell, and he certainly looked the part. Blackwell was ready to also trust Marley, inspired he said by the memory of his beach rescue by those Rastafarians back in 1958. The resulting album, ‘Catch A Fire’ was released in April 1973, and the rest as they say is history.

Blackwell went on to build Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas in 1977 and bands that recorded there over the years included The B-52’s, Talking Heads, Puff Daddy The Rolling Stones, Missy Elliot, Dire Straits, Madness, Roxy Music and Björk. Irish band U2 signed to Island in 1980 after being discovered by Rob Partridge, head of publicity at the label.  Fair to say, that went rather well…

Blackwell then sold his stake in Island to A&M (Polygram) in 1989, for $300 million and parted with the company in 1997, it now being part of the Universal Music Group. 

When inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Blackwell said  ‘Steve Winwood was really the cornerstone of Island Records. He’s a musical genius and because he was with Island all the other talent really wanted to be with Island.’

Names associated with Blackwell in one capacity or other include, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, Toots and the Maytals, Nirvana, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tom Waits, King Crimson, Third World, Grace Jones, Free, Fairport Convention, Robert Palmer, The B52s John Martyn, Sly and Robbie, Sparks, Spooky Tooth, Burning Spear, Roxy Music, Etta James, Baaba Maal Melissa Etheridge, Derek and Clive, Black Uhuru, Salif Keita and King Sunny Adé.

In recent years, Blackwell has diversified into property development after being the long-term owner of Goldeneye in Oracabessa, the one time home of James Bond author, Ian Fleming.  He also owns luxury hotels in Miami and other parts of the Caribbean.

In 2004, Chris Blackwell was awarded the Order of Jamaica and in 2009, Music Week named him the most influential figure in the last 50 years of the British music industry.

Not without controversy and with a leg up, most can only dream of, it is fair to say, Blackwell made the most of any opportunity he was given.

As I occasionally like to do, I’ll leave the last word to the subject himself. ‘
The bigger labels are like supermarkets. I like to think of Island as a very, classy, delicatessen.’

The Mumper of SE5



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