REVIEW by Barbara Blake Hannah
Chris Blackwell begins his autobiography with a story of how some Rastas once saved his life when he got lost while boating with friends in Kingston Harbour. It made me smile to read, as once when I was lost under the bitter hatred of British racism, Chris Blackwell gave me a job promoting THE HARDER THEY COME that introduced me to Rasta and saved my life. For that reason I found “The Islander – My Life In Music and Beyond” even more interesting than the average reader will.
Most readers will pick up Blackwell’s book looking for juicy stories about the music celebrities with whom he has been associated from his youth, when his mother was beloved by James Bond storyteller Ian Fleming, to his adult years as the famous Island Records music producer and friend of reggae icon Bob Marley. Yes, Blackwell calls many names in his book, but the notes he reveals are all musical. No salacious titbits about any of the many big names he calls, from Ernie Ranglin, Jimmy Cliff and Millie Small, through Stevie Winwood, Cat Stevens, U2, Grace Jones and many in between. Instead of gossip, “The Islander” is a very special handbook of the Jamaican and British music industries that all who love music will find an interesting fountain of knowledge.
JUKE BOXES AND TALENT SHOWS
Growing up as a privileged White Jamaican, Blackwell tells his story with light humour and a total lack of self-pride, revealing the details of his professional wins and losses honestly, beginning with the chance job that started him in the music business. While Chris’ parents had some money, they were not so wealthy that he didn’t need to work. After some tries including as aide-de-camp to the Governor General, the job he found was a hardworking slog around Jamaica’s highways and by-ways installing and supplying records for a line of jukeboxes that provided musical entertainment in those days at bars and clubs.
When competition forced him to find new sources for records to replenish the jukeboxes, he decided to make his own, and with the help of record store owner Leslie Kong and Australian Graham Goodall whose band was stuck in Jamaica, he picked some singers making a name for themselves on the weekly Vere Johns talent shows, recorded them and therewith began Island Records.
From recording Jamaican artists in competition with such early producers as Duke Reid and Coxone, Blackwell expanded the Island market from Kingston to London, hoping to gain more sales from the growing Jamaican and Caribbean communities of Britain. He tells he story of bringing young Jimmy Cliff to England with the hope of making him a star (a plan that only materialized years later with Jimmy’s starring role in “The Harder They Come”) and finally getting lucky with Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” mega-hit song that finally established Island as a viable music company. Blackwell’s story is fascinating because it also tells the story of the development of British music in the ‘Swinging Sixties” when British music topped world charts and provided Island’s inspiration and competition.
Island’s success as a member of the British music industry came with his discovery of the talented young English musician Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group, getting Jamaican Jackie Edwards to write songs for the group and seeing it become a successful part of the blossoming of the British 60s music scene that included the Animals, Small Faces, the Kinks, Yardbirds, Jethro Tull, the Who, and groups with names like Granny Takes A Trip and Mott the Hoople.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Blackwell signed many unknown groups and artists, explaining that Island was “always looking for the new and the next”. But he tells why he didn’t sign the Rolling Stones when he could, and how much he regrets passing on the group Procul Harum that went on to record the massive hit song “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, some of the episodes that make “The Islander” a fascinating read. Blackwell even admits there was a subsidiary Island label that produced X-rated albums by risqué comics like Nipsy Russell and a ‘Music to Strip By” album that was sold with a G-string attached.
Reading through the detailed account of Island’s music history, it is clear that Blackwell paid his dues and worked hard as a genuine member of the music industry at a time when England was the world’s musical mecca, with Island turning out enough hits and hit-makers to be a serious competitor in the British and U.S. music industries. As Island grew, Blackwell gained a deep knowledge of music production and management, always relying on his instincts to select artists and artist managers to stay alive in the highly competitive industry. Music insiders and historians will enjoy the details.
Of course, what will bring most readers to the book is where Blackwell tells of how the Wailers came to his office, persuaded him to let them make an album, then went on to become one of the worlds’ biggest groups ever and Bob Marley a musical icon. Most details have become well known reggae music legends. Blackwell adds more details of this very unique music history that is even more interesting because his work with the Wailers benefited from both his English links and experience, as well as the Jamaican roots that have been the foundation of his life.
One especially poignant story is about what happened at the sad end, when Bob recorded the music that was eventually released as the two albums ‘Rebel Music” and “Legend”. The decision to record “Redemption Song” just as an acoustic solo, also says how well Chris Blackwell knew Bob’s spirit and how deeply it was expressed in that one song. Reading Blackwell’s words about that part of his life and musical career, one can see the sorrow that still rests in his memory of a man who was more than just an artist, but a friend.
SLY & ROBBIE, GRACE JONES
After Bob died, Blackwell tells of “trying to fill the space Bob left behind” by building Compass Point studio in the Bahamas and bringing Sly & Robbie to join composer Willy Badarou as foundations of a studio band, hoping to offer musicians an island vibe that unfortunately could not happen in politically volatile Jamaica. His attempt to christen the studio with what he thought was a traditional Jamaican ritual of the blood of a headless chicken, led to Lee Scratch Perry’s lifetime-long bad vibes, while his effort to record rock-n-roll legend James Brown there ended after 4 days. But the Rolling Stones loved Compass Point, and so did U2, the super band he signed that became Island’s biggest hit group after the Wailers. Compass Point was also where Grace Jones, the former model and disco diva, found her grove on Sly & Robbie’s bass rhythms and developed into a superstar, later becoming one of Blackwell’s best friends.
However, the huge success of U2 caused Island financial problems that were only solved when Blackwell sold the company to Polydor. The sad story of that episode explains a section of his life that has never before been revealed in detail. Turning his back on music after Polydor, Blackwell looked to his interest in real estate for a new career, that led to his development of a rundown beachfront section of Miami Beach into a string of world-class hotels that gave him another success story.
Despite that success, Miami could not hold him. Blackwell is truly an island boy and we Jamaicans know how the magnetic pull of our beautiful island draws us back, no matter how far we travel. The story of Blackwell’s return to develop Strawberry Hill, The Caves Negril and finally Golden Eye into Jamaica’s most unique celebrity hotels is told with his usual modesty in describing how, with the help of his wife Mary, he created three legendary and exclusive Jamaican resorts where he can name-drop guests like Beyonce and JayZ, Elon Musk, Prince Charles and Daniel Craig.
But no matter how famous the names may be, none have left a greater imprint on Blackwell’s life than Bob Marley. As he comes to the end of his story, he admits that memories of Bob can bring tears. “Every day you hear a song, are asked questions, get sent a link to some way that Bob Marley has had an impact on the world, how he brought people of different faiths together. You realize that Marley’s songs are something more than songs, and their strength keeps growing. His global reach keeps extending and it’s been amazing to see that growth continue in my lifetime.” he writes.
In the final chapter I realize Blackwell’s book has not been written as a boast about his life achievements, but instead as a tribute to all the good friends who traveled with him along his life’s way. “One way or another, I have lost many fellow travelers, friends and colleagues,” he mourns in his closing words. As well as Bob, he lists actress Nathalie Delon, Millie Small, Toots Hibbert, Seeco Patterson, Sean Connery, Countryman and his great friend Dickie Jobson. His book is a loving story about them that members of the music industry – especially the Jamaican music industry, will want to read, reflect on, and learn from.
Barbara Blake Hannah, Jamaican journalist, film maker, cultural consultant, author of “GROWING OUT – Black Hair & Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties”; Penguin Books 2022