Christopher Percy Gordon “Chris” Blackwell (born 22 June 1937) is a British – Jamaican record producer and businessman, who is the founder of Island Records. Island is acknowledged as the most successful and groundbreaking independent record company in history. Blackwell has been a music industry mogul for over fifty years. 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 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.
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. Blackwell is known for his laid-back approach to his business, and the care he shows for his artists and the release of their work. He is recognised as one of the most influential people in Britain, and the global music industry.
Blackwell was born in London to an Irish father and a Costa Rican-born Sephardic Jewish mother. Blackwell’s father, Joseph, 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 Jamaican Regiment.
Blackwell’s mother, Blanche Lindo, was of Jamaican ancestry. She belonged to a powerful family who made their fortune in sugar and Appleton rum toward the end of slavery. They are named as one of the 21 families who controlled Jamaica in the 20th century. Blanche was considered the love of Ian Fleming‘s later life, becoming the James Bond author’s muse and the inspiration for the characterPussy Galore in Goldfinger. She owned several thousand acres of land near Oracabessa, Jamaica, and sold properties to both Fleming and Noel Coward. Due to her heritage, Blanche was viewed as a white Jamaican.
Blackwell spent his childhood in Jamaica, and was sent to Britain to continue his education at Harrow School. Deciding not to attend university, he returned to Jamaica to become ADC to the Governor of Jamaica 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.
Aged 22, Blackwell formed a record label in 1958 with a start-up investment of $10,000 provided by his parents, taking its name from Alec Waugh‘s novel Island in the Sun. Radio personality Graeme Goodall was his initial business partner. Blackwell received a small allowance from his mother, which enabled him to have his own apartment at a young age and survive on the little he was earning.Island’s debut release was a piano album by Bermudian 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 1962 Bond film Dr No. After the movie 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 Phillips. 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 Traffic, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, Free, John Martyn, Sly and Robbie, Sparks, Spooky Tooth, Nick Drake, Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, Melissa Etheridge, The Cranberries and U2. “The bigger labels are supermarkets,” Blackwell remarked. “I like to think of Island as a very classy delicatessen.”
Island and Blackwell himself became renowned for a relaxed, nurturing vibe. 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 home for Trojan Records, Chrysalis Records and Virgin Records and the American Label Sue Records, who produced Jimmy McGriff, The Soul Sisters and Ike and Tina Turner.
Eventually, Island moved into movies and released The Harder They Come 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 notable 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. 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 (band), Salif Keita, Baaba Maal,Angelique Kidjo, King Sunny Ade 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 are as of 1998 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 Nineties, Blackwell merged Palm Pictures withRykodisc to form RykoPalm, a new operation.
Blackwell currently runs Island Outpost, which he set up to operate and market a group of elite resorts in Jamaica and the Bahamas, including Strawberry Hill in the Blue Mountains (where Marley recovered after being shot in 1976), Jake’s in Treasure Beach, The Caves in Negril, and the recording studio and private hotel Geejam near Port Antonio, where artists such as Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, Drake and Gorillaz have recorded. Island Outpost also owns The Tides and The Marlin in Miami Beach, Florida.
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 is involved in a number of philanthropic organizations. Among these are Island ACTS, the Oracabessa Foundation, the Mary Vinson Blackwell Foundation, and the Jamaican Conservation Trust.
In 2003, Blackwell launched the Goldeneye Film Festival, which continues to be held annually at the resort. 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.
With a family legacy rooted in Jamaica’s banana, coconut, and rum export industries, Blackwell served as the inspiration behind the recently launched Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum. The aged rum is a deep, rich, and fragrant black gold liquid that has been infused with tropical flavors.
In April 2009, the UK magazine Music Week named Blackwell the most influential figure in the last 50 years of the British music industry.