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|Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell|
22 June 1937|
Westminster, London, England, UK
Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell (born 22 June 1937) is an English businessman and former record producer, and the founder of Island Records, which has been called "one of Britain's great independent labels". According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to which Blackwell was inducted in 2001, he is "the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music."
Forming Island Records in Jamaica on 22 May 1959, not quite aged 22, Blackwell was amongst the first to record the Jamaican popular music that eventually became known as ska. Returning to Britain in 1962, he sold records from the back of his car to the Jamaican community.
Backed by Stanley Borden from RKO, Blackwell's business and reach grew substantially, and he went on to forge the careers of Bob Marley, Grace Jones and U2 amongst many other diverse high-profile acts. He has produced many seminal albums, including Marley's Catch A Fire and Uprising, and The B-52's' self-titled debut album in 1979.
Blackwell was born in Westminster, London. Blackwell's father, Joseph, who was English, was related to the founder of Crosse & Blackwell, purveyors of jarred foods and relishes, and had some residual wealth. He became a major in the Jamaica Regiment.
Blackwell's mother, the former Blanche Lindo, was born in Costa Rica, of Sephardic Jewish ancestry. She belonged to a powerful family who made their fortune in sugar and Appleton Rum toward the end of slavery. The Lindos are named as one of the 21 families who controlled Jamaica in the 20th century. She died at the age of 104 in August 2017.
Blanche was considered the love of Ian Fleming's later life, becoming the James Bond author's muse and the inspiration for the character Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. She owned several thousand acres of land near Oracabessa, Jamaica, and sold properties to both Fleming and Noël Coward.
Deciding not to attend university, he returned to Jamaica to become aide-de-camp to Jamaica's Governor, Sir Hugh Foot. After Foot was transferred to Cyprus, Blackwell left King's House to pursue a career in real estate and other businesses, including managing jukeboxes up and down the country, which brought him into contact with the Jamaican music community.
In 1958, Blackwell was sailing off Helshire Beach when his boat ran aground on a coral reef. The twenty-one-year-old swam to the coast and attempted to find help along the shore in searing temperatures. Collapsing on the beach, Blackwell was rescued by Rasta fishermen who tended his wounds and restored him back to health with traditional Ital food. The experience gave Blackwell a spiritual introduction to Rastafarianism, and was a key to his connection to the culture and its music.
Only in his early 20s, Blackwell formed Island Records in 1958 with a start-up investment of $10,000 provided by his parents. The business took its name from Alec Waugh's novel Island in the Sun. Radio personality Graeme Goodall was his initial business partner. Blackwell received an allowance of £2,000 per year from his mother, which enabled him to have his own apartment at a young age and build on the low revenue that the business was bringing in. Island's debut release was a piano and vocal album by Bermudian jazz pianist Lance Hayward. Blackwell began recording Jamaican popular music in 1959, achieving a number one hit there with Laurel Aitken's "Boogie in my Bones/Little Sheila".
In 1961, Blackwell acted as a location scout and production assistant for the Bond film Dr No (1962). After the film wrapped, producer Harry Saltzman offered him a full-time position. Conflicted between music and film, Blackwell visited a psychic, who told him that he would be successful if he stayed in the music industry.
By 1962, the fledgling record producer had released 26 singles and two albums on Island. Blackwell returned to England that year and continued to grow his business. He began having success with the niche market of Jamaican music, and progressed to bringing in licensed master tapes. One of these contained a performance by fifteen-year-old Millie Small, who Blackwell brought over to England. In 1964, he produced Small's cover of a 1956 Barbie Gaye song "My Boy Lollypop" which was one of the first songs recorded in the ska style. Millie Small's version was a smash hit, selling over six million records worldwide. It launched Island Records into mainstream popular music, and is acknowledged as the first international ska hit.
Blackwell later remembered his breakthrough release:
I didn't put it on Island because I knew it was going to be so big. Independent labels in those days couldn't handle hits, because you couldn't pay the pressing plant in time to supply the demand, so I licensed it to Fontana, which was part of Philips. It was a big hit all around the world, and I really wanted to look after Millie, so I went everywhere with her, which took me into the mainstream of the record industry. I was lucky enough to see Stevie Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group, at a TV show in Birmingham. So then I started to spend more time in that area. This whole new music was emerging.
After discovering The Spencer Davis Group, featuring Steve Winwood, Blackwell focused on the rock acts that Island had signed. Island became one of the most successful independent labels of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s with artists like Nirvana, Traffic, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, Free, Fairport Convention, John Martyn, Sly and Robbie, Sparks, Spooky Tooth, Nick Drake, Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, Etta James, Melissa Etheridge, The Cranberries and U2. Blackwell also signed artists in non-English speaking countries, one of them was French singer Charlélie Couture whose album, Poèmes rock, was released on Island. "The bigger labels are supermarkets", Blackwell remarked. "I like to think of Island as a very classy delicatessen." However, Blackwell has admitted to turning down some major names. One was Elton John: he considered the pianist too shy to become a successful performer.
Island and Blackwell himself became renowned for a relaxed, nurturing approach. Blackwell showed skill in spotting and creating trends, as well as a gift for finding talent. He had an imaginative flair for marketing, and Island's releases were often packaged in lovingly designed gatefold sleeves. Blackwell has said: "I really believe that if people see something that looks good, subconsciously they'll think maybe there's something going on inside, on the record. There were times when somebody came out with a cover which was actually better than the record itself, so I'd have to send them back to remake the record."
Island Records was also the first distribution home for Trojan Records, Chrysalis Records, Bronze Records, Stiff Records and Virgin Records and the American Label Sue Records, who produced Jimmy McGriff, The Soul Sisters and Ike and Tina Turner.
For Toots and the Maytals, the group that introduced the term "reggae" in song with their single "Do the Reggay" (1968), Chris Blackwell was the one who decided on the line-up of the group before introducing them to an international audience. Blackwell had signed Bob Marley, and now Toots and the Maytals. In November 2016, Jackie Jackson described the formation of the group in a radio interview for Kool 97 FM Jamaica. Accompanied by Paul Douglas and Radcliffe "Dougie" Bryan in studio, Jackson explained,
We're all original members of Toots and the Maytals band. First it was Toots and the Maytals, three guys: Toots, Raleigh, and Jerry. ...And then they were signed to Island Records, Chris Blackwell. And we were their recording band. One day we were summoned to Chris' house. And he says, "Alright gentleman, I think it's time. This Toots and the Maytals looks like it's going to be a big thing". By this time he had already signed Bob (Marley). So in his camp, Island Records, there was Toots and the Maytals / Bob Marley; we were talking about reggae is going international now. We kept on meeting and he (Blackwell) decided that the backing band that back all of the songs, the recording band, should be the Maytals band. So everything came under Toots and the Maytals. So we became Maytals also. And then we hit the road in 1975...we were the opening act for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. We were the opening act for The Who for about two weeks.
The first Toots and the Maytals album released and distributed by Chris Blackwell's Island Records was Funky Kingston. Music critic Lester Bangs described the album in Stereo Review as "perfection, the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released." As Blackwell says, "The Maytals were unlike anything else...sensational, raw and dynamic." Blackwell had a strong commitment to Toots and the Maytals, saying "I've known Toots longer than anybody - much longer than Bob (Bob Marley). Toots is one of the purest human beings I've met in my life, pure almost to a fault." Blackwell appeared in the 2011 documentary "Reggae Got Soul: The Story of Toots and the Maytals" which was featured on BBC and described as "The untold story of one of the most influential artists ever to come out of Jamaica".
Eventually, Island moved into movies and released The Harder They Come (1972) in the UK, which featured Jimmy Cliff. Produced and directed by fellow Jamaican Perry Henzell, the film marked the first time that Jamaican themes appeared in mainstream cinema.
One of Blackwell's achievements was bringing Bob Marley & The Wailers to the attention of international audiences. Without a signed contract, Blackwell advanced money to The Wailers for their first Island album, displaying the trust which stemmed from his 1958 beach rescue by Rastas.
Excerpt from an interview of Winston Grennan by Carter Van Pelt:
...Chris Blackwell say, 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. I give them the money to make this record.' But at that time they was forming the band. Bob (Bob Marley) came to me, figure it was me, Gladdy, Winston Wright, Jackie and Hux to be the band. That was the band that Bob did really want, but those guys didn't want to get involved. You know that the situation around Bob was pretty hectic...They turned it down. So right away, I couldn't get involved, because I didn't want to leave the guys...If I leave, I feel it would be a bad vibes. When Hugh Malcolm joined the group, he couldn't keep up, so they got rid of him. A little later on a drummer came along name Paul Douglas, every so often we would bring him in, because I couldn't play on a session. Paul was about the only guy, that these other guys would trust to really come and play amongst them.
Blackwell's gesture led to the longterm success of both Marley and the label.
Of his experience with Marley, Blackwell has said:
He trusted my instincts, which were that he should go after being a rock star, rather than a star on black American radio. His music was rough and raw and exciting, but all black American music at the time, other than James Brown, was very slick and smooth. Bob trusted me on that, he was as keen as I was.
Blackwell also formed Mango Records, which featured Jamaican and other artists from the Third World. Mango introduced Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Third World, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Angélique Kidjo, King Sunny Adé and many others.
Blackwell sold his stake in Island in 1989, eventually resigning from the company in 1997. In 2009, Blackwell was at the centre of celebrations held in London for Island's fiftieth anniversary.
Each of Blackwell's companies was eventually sold to PolyGram and, in 1998, were part of the Universal Music Group conglomerate, but Blackwell left with a unique reputation for looking after artists as diverse as Bob Marley, U2, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, Steve Winwood, Melissa Etheridge, Tom Waits, The Cranberries, Richard Thompson and PJ Harvey.
After selling these companies, Blackwell went on to found Palm Pictures, a media entertainment company with music, film and DVD releases. In the late 1990s, Blackwell merged Palm Pictures with Rykodisc to form RykoPalm, a new operation.
Blackwell has long owned Goldeneye in Oracabessa, the previous home of Ian Fleming, where the author wrote all the James Bond books. Until his death, Fleming was the longtime lover of Blackwell's mother, Blanche. Blackwell developed the property into a community of villas and beach cottages, each with its own private access to the sea, and Goldeneye is considered the most exclusive of the Island Outpost resorts.
Blackwell currently runs Island Outpost, which he set up to operate and market a group of elite resorts in Jamaica, including Strawberry Hill in the Blue Mountains (where Marley recovered after being shot in 1976), The Caves in Negril, and GoldenEye Hotel & Resort in Oracabessa. Island Outpost also owned The Tides and The Marlin in Miami Beach, Florida. The Miami Beach properties including The Tides, The Marlin and The Kent along with several other hotels in Miami Beach and The Bahamas have since been sold.
Blackwell is involved in a number of philanthropic organizations. Among these are Island ACTS, the Oracabessa Foundation, the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary, the Mary Vinson Blackwell Foundation (established in honor of his late wife to whom he was married from 1998 till 2009), and the Jamaican Conservation Trust.
In 2003, Blackwell launched the Goldeneye Film Festival, which ran for 3 years. In September that year, Blackwell received the coveted Jamaican Musgrave Medal, awarded to Jamaicans who excel in the arts, music and public service. In 2004, the Order of Jamaica was bestowed upon Blackwell for philanthropy and outstanding contribution to the entertainment industry.
Blackwell revisited his family's legacy in Jamaica's banana, coconut, and rum export industries in 2009, when, at the age of 72 years, he introduced his own brand of rum, "Blackwell Black Gold", onto the market. The beverage is made from Jamaican sugar cane, water, and yeast, and aged in American oak barrels.