Born June 22, 1937 in London, England; son of Middleton Joseph and Blanche Lindo Blackwell; immigrated to Jamaica at six months; returned to England to attend school; children: two; grandchildren: one. Addresses: Office Palm Pictures, Four Columbus Circle, Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10019.
Chris Blackwell may have come across as a laid-back businessman enjoying the good life in the Caribbean, but as Rolling Stone wrote in 1999, he was "responsible for the most important music of the last forty years." Founder of Island Records and Palm Pictures, Blackwell nurtured and promoted the careers of a diverse group of artists including Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Steve Winwood, U2, Inner Circle, and The Cranberries. He also brought reggae music to international attention during his tenure at the helm of Island.
Born in London to an Irish father and Jamaican mother in 1937, Blackwell spent his early years in Jamaica, from the age of six months. His mother, Blanche Lindo, was part of the Jamaican aristocracy who traced their roots in Jamaica back to the late 1600s. The Blackwells socialized with a crowd that included actor Errol Flynn and authors Noel Coward and Ian Fleming.
Blackwell returned to England to be educated after repeatedly missing school due to childhood asthma. There he attended private school, but was asked at 17 to leave for trafficking cigarettes and liquor to fellow students. Blackwell then embarked a checkered career that included gambling, teaching water skiing, and working as location manager on the first James Bond film, Dr. No.
Trips to the United States to visit his father and stepmother changed Blackwell's life. It was here, in the jazz clubs of Chicago and New York, that his passion for music was sparked. Upon returning to Jamaica, he heard a jazz ensemble in Montego Bay that he wanted to record. Lance Hayward at the Half Moon was released in 1959 and became the first Island Records release.
In 1960, Blackwell opened an office in Kingston, Jamaica and recorded two consecutive hit songs. Within two years he would produced 26 singles. Eventually, Island releases were selling well on another island the United Kingdom. Blackwell chose to move his company's headquarters to London in 1962, the same year Jamaica gained its independence. From that period through the mid-1960s Island's main focused was on Ska, a new Jamaican music that found acceptance among London's Mod teen subculture.
It was also during this period that Blackwell and two other producers formed BPR Music to concentrate on pop music. He discovered 15-year-old Jamaican singer Millie Small and brought her to England in 1963 to record "My Boy Lollipop." Blackwell felt that the popularity this record would generate would far outpace the fledgling company's ability to keep up with sales. Thus, he licensed the song to Fontana and sure enough, six million records were sold worldwide in 1964, marking his entry into the mainstream pop music business.
Soon after, Blackwell discovered another teen sensation at a London nightclub. The Spencer Davis Group, fronted by young Stevie Winwood, was immediately signed by Blackwell and licensed to Fontana as well. They soon had a hit with "Keep On Running," and followed with "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man."
The Spencer Davis Group broke up, but Winwood formed a new group--Traffic. The band debut release, Mr. Fantasy was Island's entry into rock music in 1967. Soon, the company added other rock artists and groups including Free, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Mott The Hoople, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, and Robert Palmer. Island also entered the British folk rock genre with a roster including Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Nick Drake.
In the 1970s Island inked to a contract a group that continues to influence music: Bob Marley & The Wailers. Marley's group brought reggae and Rastafari, a Jamaican music form and a black religion tied to the back-to-Africa movement, to mainstream attention. "Bob Marley was a gamble," Blackwell told Nigel Williamson of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. "I gave him £4,000 upfront to make the first album. Everybody said I was mad and I'd never see the money again. I took the risk and trusted him and it paid off many times over." Bob Marley & The Wailers released Catch a Fire in 1972. The group toured the United Kingdom and United States in support of the album.
It was also his association with Marley that caused Blackwell to lend financial support to the film The Harder They Come, which starred reggae artist Jimmy Cliff. Through these relationships, he was attracted to other Jamaican reggae groups including Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, and Inner Circle. The Mango subsidiary was formed in 1973 by Blackwell solely to promote Jamaican music in the United States.
Although Blackwell and Island Records would become legendary for exporting reggae from Jamaica to the rest of the world, his part in this export would come into question. Was Blackwell, a white Jamaican, continuing a traditional of black exploitation? Blackwell, himself, was acutely aware of racial and class differences. As a child, he reportedly saw a servant chastised for breaking some trinket. "I didn't like the ruling society of Jamaica, didn't relate to it," he told Conde Nast Traveler. "And I didn't want to be part of it."
That resolve continued into his adulthood. According to a 1999 account in Rolling Stone, when returning to Jamaica with Millie Small in the 1960s following a world tour, he accompanied her to her family home in Kingston, Joe Boyd recounted that Small's mother came to the door, then bowed to Blackwell as she backed away. "At that point,' says Boyd, echoing Blackwell's embarrassment, 'Chris realized he wasn't a genius but an idiot'."
Blackwell's relationship with Marley was a different story, though. According to an interview with Marley re-published in Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music From Ska to Dub, their relationship was strictly business. "Chris Blackwell didn't help me," Marley had told Melody Maker. "I had to work hard while Blackwell flew out and enjoyed himself. But he had the contacts at the time that we felt we needed, and perhaps we did. But Blackwell did a lot for himself. I remember a time when he had nineteen Jamaican acts signed, and before my days he wouldn't touch one." Marley did record 10 albums on Island Records, each one of them gold, including Rastaman Vibrations and Uprising. After Marley's death, producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, "swore that Island Head Chris Blackwell was a vampire and responsible for Bob Marley's death," according to another article re-published in Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music From Ska to Dub. These comments severed his relationship with the label.
Another reggae producer held a contrary opinion of Blackwell. Bunny Lee said, "Chris Blackwell [made] all the other companies get involved, after he [made] Bob Marley a star." Blackwell's relationship with Marley continues. After his death, Blackwell formed Blue Mountain Music to oversee the rights to Marley's considerable musical heritage. According to a 1999 Rolling Stone article, attorneys for Marley's widow Rita reported she was pleased with their sometimes-tenuous relationship.
Another important signing for Blackwell and Island in the 1970s was Roxy Music, adding another groundbreaking group to the label's roster. The group is credited as the first "glam rock" band. This subspecies of rock was noted for flashy on-stage attire which included sequined costumes and outrageous makeup as much as for it's unique sound.
The 1980s were no different than the 1970s for Blackwell. Island signed new artists who were continually reached new heights of popularity while simultaneously producing great music. These included recordings by reggae artists Gregory Isaacs, Sly & Robbie, and Black Uhuru. Rock continued to be a successful genre for Island Records throughout the 1980s, as well. Among the groups signed early in the decade was the Irish band U2, who had previously been rejected by every major label in the UK. By 1987, U2 was atop the world with its universally hailed recording The Joshua Tree. 1986 was another watershed year for Island rock artists. Winwood's album Back in the High Life reached number one, and Palmer's "Addicted to Love" was the number one single. Other artists to achieve plaudits during this period were Tom Waits whose albums Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Bone Machine, were critically praised and Grace Jones.
Island Alive, Blackwell's film production subsidiary, mirrored the success of Island Records. In the 1980s the company produced and distributed Academy Award-recognized films such as Kiss of the Spiderwoman, The Trip to Bountiful, Mona Lisa and Dark Eyes. In 1989, Blackwell sold Island Records to PolyGram for $300 million. Blackwell decided to stay at the helm of his companies, which was renamed Island Entertainment Group.
Blackwell diversified his business interests further in the 1990s with the creation of a hotel and resort company called Island Outpost. In 1999, the company had seven hotels in Miami's South Beach district and six Caribbean resorts, including Pink Sands, Strawberry Hill. Among Blackwell's numerous holdings was Goldeneye, the house built by author Ian Fleming the house where he had written the James Bond novels.
Blackwell left PolyGram in November of 1997 amid reports published in Billboard and the Los Angeles Times that he was "unhappy with his working relationship" with president and CEO Alain Levy. The Los Angeles Times Magazine said inappropriate racial comments by a PolyGram executive were in large part to blame for the irreconcilable differences between Blackwell and PolyGram management. Rolling Stone, in 1999, attributed it to a "mixture of corporate interference and apathy" that caused his departure "in a flurry of faxes." Blackwell is reported to have given million-dollar "surprise presents" to several people upon his departure.
Blackwell then formed Islandlife, an umbrella company for the Island Outpost properties and new entertainment-related businesses, staffed with many people who worked with Blackwell at Island Records. Even after more than 35 years of discovering and nurturing new musical talent, slowing down, it seemed, was not an option. "I don't live the life of somebody who figures out who they are going to have lunch with, going to cocktail parties and the theatre, he told Rolling Stone in 1999. "I just like causing things to happen and chasing ideas I'm excited about."
by Linda Dailey Paulson
Chris Blackwell's Career
Formed Island Records in 1959, which would propel reggae music to international attention; moved to UK, 1962; discovered Minnie Small's "My Boy Lollipop;" became first ska hit, 1963; diversified roster with rock groups such as Traffic, Spooky Tooth and Jethro Tull, 1970s; scored rock hits with Cat Stevens and Roxy Music; and introduced Bob Marley & The Wailers to the world, 1980s; scored additional success with groups and artists including U2, Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer and Grace Jones; entered film industry, and produced hits including Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Mona Lisa; sold label to PolyGram for $300 million, and continued to head company, 1989; formed hotel and resort company Island Outpost, 1991; 1990s: left PolyGram's Island Entertainment Group, 1997; formed Islandlife, 1998.
- Barnard, Stephen, The Encyclopedia of Rock, Macdonald & Co. Ltd., 1987
- Potash, Chris, editor, Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music From Ska to Dub, Schirmer Books, 1997.
- Billboard, November 15, 1997; May 16, 1998.
- Conde Nast Traveler, January 1996.
- Los Angeles Times Magazine, ND.
- Music Business International, October 1998.
- Pulse!April 1999.
- Rolling Stone, February 18, 1999.
- Screen International, July 31, 1998.
- Travel & Leisure, October 1997.
- Additional information provided by liner notes for Island 40th Anniversary: Vol. 5, 1972-1995, Reggae Roots, Palm Pictures and Islandlife publicity materials, 1999.