|Island Records turns 50
The iconic company turns 50 this month. Its founder, Chris Blackwell, recalls how his tiny reggae label grew into a global phenomenon
There are three huge walls full of silver, gold and multiplatinum discs hung around the staircase that leads to the small, wood- panelled bar in Chris Blackwell’s Strawberry Hill hotel, 3,000ft up Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. U2, Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Black Uhuru, Bob Dylan, Aswad and many, many more are all represented. But there’s one small picture — in fact, a copy of a picture — hanging behind the bar that means more to him than all the expensively framed awards combined. In the photograph, originally taken by Nathalie Delon, ex-wife of the actor Alain Delon, Blackwell, then just 33, sits next to Marley, his brightest, biggest star. Both men are laughing at some long-forgotten joke. It is the only image of the two alone together he has.
“Early on, I told Bob we would never have a picture taken,” he says as we shelter from the morning sun in his private garden set within the hotel’s grounds. “It was essential for what Bob represented that he had a black manager. Then one day, in September 1980, he turned up at my house in New York — he was with Cindy [Breakspeare, the Jamaican Miss World 1976] at the time — and there was a photographer present. Bob actually asked for a picture with me, and the guy took it. But my original was destroyed in a fire last year, and the photographer won’t give me a copy. He says it’s his pension. The really sad thing is, it was that very day that Bob told me he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had just six months to live.”
Marley died 28 years ago, in May 1981. “I loved him so very much,” he says. From the look on Blackwell’s face, it could have been yesterday.
Island Records is 50 years old this month, and Blackwell has just been named the most influential figure in the half-century of the British pop industry. In May 1959, though, he was simply the son of a wealthy Jamaican family whose trading interests ran to rum, sugar, coconuts and cattle. Just back from six months spent on the New York jazz scene, where he’d become friends with Miles Davis, Blackwell was working as a water-skiing instructor at the Half Moon hotel, on Montego Bay. It was there he first heard a blind Bermudan pianist called Lance Haywood, who played in the hotel bar every night. “He was a little like Oscar Peterson,” Blackwell says, “but more cocktail. I decided to record him, as that was my way to get closer to the music I loved. I pressed up 250 copies. I had a lot of stock for a long time! But I was in heaven — this was what I wanted to do.”
Then, as now, the Jamaican music scene was about records and the sound systems that played big open-air events every weekend, rather than bands and gigs. Blackwell began to feed this market, and soon he had three consecutive No 1s.
Suddenly, Island Records was a powerful voice in the quickly developing Jamaican music business. “This was the first popular music made by Jamaicans,” Blackwell says. “The sound systems and the radio stations loved them.”
Within weeks, all the B-sides had charted too. For a while, Blackwell, who, thanks to his local knowledge, had just accepted the post of production assistant on Dr No, had six songs in the Top 10. “The sound-system guys, like Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd [his nickname was derived from the 1940s Yorkshire cricket hero Alec Coxon], thought,‘Well, if this honky can make records, then so can we.’” he says. “Their records were the real thing, really rough. They knew their market and worked it.”
By 1962, Island Records’ smoother sounds were selling better to Jamaicans in England than to the ones back home. At the same time, the big producers were complaining about the bad treatment they were getting from UK record distributors. Blackwell put the two things together, moved Island Records to England and started promoting the records himself. In 1963 alone, he oversaw the release of more than 80 singles, each one selling between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, but the record that changed everything — the one that, to this day, is still a startlingly vibrant burst of pop genius — was Millie’s My Boy Lollipop. The daughter of a plantation overseer, Millie was just 17 when she recorded the single. Within weeks of its release in 1964, it had sold 600,000 copies. It went on to sell 6m.
“I went from bum to hero overnight,” Blackwell says. “Millie and I went to Hong Kong, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore, Hawaii, all across America — the world opened up for me. It was the same time as the Beatles were breaking and this new world was exploding. This massive hit meant I was in the gang.”
It was while doing a TV show with Millie in Birmingham that Blackwell first saw the band who would change Island again. The Spencer Davis Group starred Steve Winwood, a 15-year-old multi-instrumentalist with a voice that amazed Blackwell. They would never sign to Island, though Blackwell produced their biggest hit, Keep on Running, and licensed it to the Fontana label. When they split in 1967, Winwood signed his new band, Traffic, to Island, and its reputation as an artist-centred label was born. In the same year, Blackwell signed the folk singer John Martyn and brought in Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions, which had Fairport Convention and the young singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Island signings Free, Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Roxy Music all sold in huge quantities. Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman LP — “close to perfect” in Blackwell’s eyes — was a huge success, but there was room, too, for recordings of Tibetan bells and for artists like Blodwyn Pig and Amazing Blondel, whose appeal was somewhat more selective. Within a decade, Island had become highly influential.
In 1972, Jimmy Cliff, fresh from his success in the movie The Harder They Come, but near broke after spending so much time filming it, had asked Blackwell for £50,000 to stay with the label. Blackwell told him he’d make that figure soon enough, but Cliff wouldn’t, couldn’t wait. “I was devastated,” Blackwell says, “as I knew exactly what to do to break reggae music internationally. The character from that film needed to come alive — to step off the screen and onto the stage — but Cliff split.”
Ten days later, Bob Marley — “the real thing” — who had been stranded while on tour in the UK, walked into Blackwell’s office. “Bob had incredible charisma,” Blackwell says. “When he walked in a room, you knew about it. I gave the band £4,000 to make a record. I came down to Jamaica a few months later and the band played me the Catch a Fire album. It was one of the high points of my life.”
Reggae was still seen as novelty summer music; Blackwell was determined to launch Bob Marley and the Wailers as a black rock band, so he “messed with the recordings a little” to make their sound more palatable to the white rock audience. He knew the band had to tour, but only Bob was up for the challenge.
“He was a fighter. Bob’s father was white Jamaican, of English descent, but he only saw him once, so Bob grew up in a completely black world and suffered a lot for it. He was an outcast, a ‘brown boy’, but he thought black, took on the injustices and expressed them so beautifully. When he started to feel real success was happening for him, around the Exodus record, Bob could see he could touch people worldwide. Still now, when I travel in Africa and Asia, I carry Bob’s tapes, and because my name is on the sleeve, they act like a passport. I travelled through Africa without a single visa — that is an astonishing legacy.”
Four months before Marley visited Blackwell in New York, Island had signed a new Irish band, U2. “The thing I liked most about them was their name,” he laughs. “But they also had the sort of intelligence you must have for any longevity.”
By the mid-1980s, the band were so successful, they were able to bail Island out financially — the only time in history that’s happened. Blackwell was so grateful that he gave the band 10% of the company. They returned the favour by delivering The Joshua Tree, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. By 1989, though, Blackwell had had enough. He sold Island to Polygram UK — now owned by Universal — for £272m. CD sales were still enormous, and nobody foresaw the problems the internet would bring. Since Blackwell sold the label, Island Records has had great success with PJ Harvey, McFly, Sugababes and, more recently, a rejuvenated Paul Weller.
“I couldn’t have started or sold a company in better years,” he says, barely able to contain a smile. “I navigated Island by input. My skill is to assimilate information. But that didn’t work in an increasingly corporate world, where people didn’t tell you what they really felt. I hate Universal — not in England, but the company in America is an example of the worst kind of bullshit corporate behaviour.” Of course, Blackwell still cares, still bangs the gong for the label he started, and is tremendously excited about this summer’s series of anniversary shows. He’s “particularly thrilled” that an artist like Amy Winehouse is on Island.
A helicopter buzzes above our heads. Blackwell is being picked up to go to a meeting at another of his hotels, the Goldeneye resort, which is arranged around Ian Fleming’s old villa.
“Island happened during a golden age of music,” he says, gathering up his things. “The truth is, I didn’t do anything. I was just in the right place at the right time. I only ever wanted to turn people on to new music, new things.” His assistant comes to chivvy him along. Blackwell smiles and says: “I’m just a borderline groupie who got lucky.”
Island Live, a week of shows at the Shepherds Bush Empire, W12, starting on May 26, features Amy Winehouse, Sly & Robbie, Keane, Baaba Maal, Paul Weller, Cat Stevens, Ladyhawke and more; island50.com