Chris Blackwell is music's quietest 'record man.' his artists speak loudly.

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Chris Blackwell is music's quietest 'record man.' his artists speak loudly.
Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, in New York, May 10, 2022. In his new memoir, “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond,” the 84-year-old reflects on helping bring the music of Bob Marley, U2 and Grace Jones to the world. Daniel Weiss/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK, NY.- Most music industry memoirs are front-loaded with celebrity name-dropping. “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records — whose success with Bob Marley, U2, Steve Winwood and Grace Jones would offer plenty to boast about — instead opens with a parable.

In 1955, Blackwell was a wealthy, 18-year-old Englishman whose family was part of Jamaica’s colonial elite. Lost and thirsty after his motorboat ran out of gas, Blackwell came across a Rastafari man — a member of what was then still an outcast group feared by Anglo-Jamaicans as menacing “black heart men.” But this Samaritan in dreads took Blackwell into his community, offering him food, water and a place to rest; the young visitor awoke to find his hosts softly reading from the Bible.

That encounter set Blackwell on a remarkable path through music, with Jamaica at its center. He is one of the people most responsible for popularizing reggae throughout the world, and as Island grew to a trans-Atlantic miniempire of rock, folk, reggae and pop, it became a model for nimble and eclectic indie labels everywhere.

Yet it may be impossible now to not also see the Rastafari episode through the lens of race and colonialism, as the story of a privileged young man gaining access to the primarily Black culture that would make him rich and powerful. Blackwell, who turns 85 this month, acknowledged that debt in a recent interview.

“I was just somebody who was a fan,” he said, in a mellow upper-class accent shaped by his time at British public schools. “I grew up amongst Black people. I spent more time with Black people than white people because I was an only child and I was sick. They were the staff, the gardeners, the grooms. But I got to care a lot about them and got to recognize very early how different their life was from mine.”

When asked why he started the label, in 1959, he said: “I guess I thought I’d just have a go. It wasn’t about Chris Blackwell making a hit record or something. It was really trying to uplift the artists.”

ALTHOUGH HE IS from the same generation of music impresarios as Berry Gordy and Clive Davis, who have been tending their reputations in public for decades, Blackwell is perhaps the most publicity-shy and least understood of the so-called “record men.” As label boss or producer, he has been behind era-defining music by Cat Stevens, Traffic, Roxy Music, the B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Tom Tom Club, not to mention U2 and Marley.

Yet in his heyday Blackwell went so far to avoid the limelight that few photos exist of him with Marley — he did not want to be seen as the white Svengali to a Black star. Meeting last month for coffee and eggs near the Upper West Side apartment where he spends a few weeks a year, Blackwell had a thin white beard and was dressed in faded sweats and sneakers. Back in Jamaica, his preferred footwear is flip-flops, or nothing at all.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say Chris offered a role model to some of us on how to live,” Bono of U2 wrote in an email. “I remember him saying to me once standing outside one of his properties: ‘Try not to shove your success in the face of people who don’t have as much success. Try to be discreet.’ His perfect manners and plummy tremolo of a voice never came across as entitlement. He was himself at all times.”

Paul Morley, the music journalist who wrote “The Islander” with Blackwell, said it was only after Blackwell sold Island to PolyGram in 1989, for nearly $300 million — it is now part of the giant Universal Music Group — that he began to show any interest in claiming his place in history.

“Chris always likes to be in the background,” said Jones, who released her first Island record in 1977. “I’m even surprised that he’s done the book.”

BORN IN 1937 to a family that had made its fortune in Jamaica growing sugar cane and making rum, Blackwell grew up on the island around wealthy Brits and vacationing celebrities. His mother, Blanche, was friendly with Errol Flynn and Noël Coward. She also had a longtime affair with Ian Fleming, who wrote his James Bond novels at the nearby GoldenEye estate — though in the book and in person Blackwell goes no further than describing the two as “the very best of friends.”

By the late 1950s, Blackwell was involved in the nascent Jamaican pop business. He supplied records to jukeboxes and the operators of “soundsystems” for outdoor dance parties; “I was pretty much the only one of my complexion there,” he recalled.

Soon he began producing records of his own. In 1962, Blackwell moved to London and began licensing ska singles — the bubbly, upbeat predecessor of reggae — which he sold to shops serving Jamaican immigrants out of the back of his Mini Cooper.

In 1964, he landed his first hit with “My Boy Lollipop,” a two-minute slice of exquisite skabblegum sung by a Jamaican teenager, Millie Small. The song went to No. 2 in Britain and in the United States, and sold more than 6 million copies, though Blackwell was aghast at how instant stardom had transformed Millie’s life. Back in Jamaica, her mother seemed to barely recognize Millie, curtsying before her daughter as if she was visiting royalty. “What had I done?” Blackwell wrote. He swore to no longer chase pop hits as a goal in itself.

“The Islander” makes a case for the record label boss not as a domineering captain but as an enabler of serendipity. Shortly after his success with Millie, Blackwell saw the Spencer Davis Group, whose singer, the teenage Steve Winwood, “sounded like Ray Charles on helium.” In 1967, Blackwell rented a cottage for Winwood’s next band, Traffic, to jam, and seemed content to just see what they came up with there.

A little over a decade later, Blackwell put Jones together with the house band at Compass Point, the studio he built in the Bahamas. Jones said the results made her a better artist.

“I found my voice working with Chris,” she said in an interview. “He allowed me to be myself, and extend myself, in a way, by putting me together with musicians. It was an experiment, but it really worked.”

When U2 began working on its fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire,” the band wanted to hire Brian Eno as a producer. Blackwell, thinking of Eno an avant-gardist, opposed the idea. But after talking to Bono and the Edge about it, Blackwell accepted their decision. Eno and Daniel Lanois produced “The Unforgettable Fire” and its follow-up, “The Joshua Tree,” which established U2 as global superstars.

“When he understood the band’s desire to develop and grow, to access other colors and moods,” Bono added, “he got out of the way of a relationship that turned out to be crucial for us. The story reveals more on the depth of Chris’ commitment to serve us and not the other way around. There was no bullying ever.”

BLACKWELL’S MOST FASCINATING artist relationship was with Marley, where he used a heavier hand and had an even greater effect.

Although Island had distributed 1960s singles by the Wailers, Marley’s band with Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, Blackwell did not meet them until 1972, after the group finished a British tour but needed money to return to Jamaica. He was immediately stuck by their presence. “When they entered they didn’t look broken down,” he said. “They looked like kings.”

Yet Blackwell advised them that to get played on the radio, they needed to present themselves not as a simple reggae band but as a “Black rock act,” and go after “college kids” (code for a middle-class white audience). Blackwell recalls that Livingston and Tosh were skeptical but Marley was intrigued. The three recorded the basic tracks for their next album in Jamaica, but Blackwell and Marley then reworked the tapes in London — bringing in white session players like guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboardist John Bundrick.

The resulting album, “Catch a Fire,” was the most sophisticated-sounding reggae release of its time, though it also kicked off a debate that continues today: How much was Marley’s sound and image shaped by Blackwell and Island for the sake of a white crossover? That question comes into bolder relief when Blackwell recounts the origins of “Legend,” the hits compilation that Island released in 1984, three years after Marley died.

In the book, Blackwell writes that he gave the job to Dave Robinson of Stiff Records, who came to work at Island after Blackwell made a deal with Stiff. Robinson, surprised by the low sales of Marley’s catalog, targeted the mainstream white audience. That meant refining the track list to favor uplifting songs and limit his more confrontational political music. Marketing for the album, which included a video featuring Paul McCartney, downplayed the word “reggae.”

It worked: “Legend” became one of most successful albums of all time, selling 27 million copies around the world, according to Blackwell. And it did not erase Marley’s legacy as a revolutionary.

Marley’s daughter Cedella, who runs the family business as the chief executive of the Bob Marley Group of Companies, had no complaints. “You can’t regret ‘Legend,’” she said in an interview. “And if you want to listen to the loving Bob, the revolutionary Bob, the playful Bob — it’s all there.”

Throughout “The Islander,” Blackwell drops astonishing asides. He passed on signing Pink Floyd, he writes, “because they seemed too boring,” and Madonna “because I couldn’t work out what on earth I could do for her.”

Still, it is sometimes puzzling what Blackwell omits or plays down. Despite the centrality of reggae to Island’s story, giants of the genre like Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse are mentioned only briefly. Blackwell writes about former wives and girlfriends but not his two sons.

Even those who might take offense still seem in awe. Dickie Jobson, a friend and associate who directed the 1982 film “Countryman,” about a man who embodied Rastafarianism, gets little ink. “Chris’s best friend in life was my cousin Dickie Jobson, so I was a little disappointed in the book where Dickie is only mentioned three times,” said Wayne Jobson, a producer also known as Native Wayne. “But Chris has a lot of friends,” he said, adding that Blackwell is “a national treasure of Jamaica.”

The latter chapters of the book are the most dramatic, where Blackwell recounts how cash-flow shortages — Island couldn’t pay U2’s royalty bill at one point, so Blackwell gave the band 10% of the company instead — and bad business decisions led him to sell Island. “I don’t regret it, because I put myself there,” Blackwell said. “I made my own mistakes.”

In recent years, having sold most of his music interests, Blackwell has devoted himself to his resort properties in Jamaica, seeing it as his final legacy to promote the country as he would an artist. Each improvement or tweak to GoldenEye, for example, he sees as “remixing.”

“If you say it yourself it sounds soppy,” Blackwell said. “But I love Jamaica. I love Jamaican people. Jamaican people looked after me. And I’ve always felt that whatever I can do to help, I would do so.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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