The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

Chris Blackwell has for decades told a terrific story of how he came to an appreciation of Jamaica’s Rastas. It was in the mid-1950s. The jet-setting handsome son of an elite family was on a motorboat zipping past quays off Jamaica’s southeastern coast. Low on petrol, the company stopped at a nearby coast. Stranded and hungry, Blackwell was at the mercy of the land. A rescuer came in the form of a bearded Rasta man. Like most Jamaicans Blackwell feared what he saw. The Rastaman he met on the beach was unexpected. A gentle, caring man who opened his hut, fed, and soothed the white man until his safe return to Port Royal.

It is the sort of romantic tale intended to make sense of Blackwell’s life. He took a chance and trusted this Rasta the way he would later in 1972, as one of the greatest record label owners of the 20th century, trust a trio of Rasta singers called The Wailers to record the breakthrough 1973 Catch A Fire album. You cannot explain Bob Marley’s phenomenal rise without Chris Blackwell, and you cannot explain Blackwell as his and Marley’s biographers have realized, without mention of this episode.

The story is on the first page of Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography The Islander, written with celebrated British music journalist Paul Morley. It sets up Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell as a romantic rogue, a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future. It is the second line of the prologue that betrays the story of Blackwell’s life. “I have sometimes embroidered the first part of this story to make me look less stupid and give the narrative a dramatic boost.”

This is the great challenge of an autobiography of an extraordinary life. How can we trust Blackwell’s claims of the many fractal pieces that together make up not only his career, but also a significant part of Jamaican and popular music history? It is Morley’s job to draw coherence out of Blackwell’s stories and present order to a life that has thrived on considered spontaneity. What Morley has produced is compelling even though it may be, “sometimes embroidered.”

Chris Blackwell’s privileged upbringing as the son of famous socialite Blanche was unusual preparation for fame. On a small island on its crawl toward independence, Blackwell was in the right place at the right time. Asthmatic and naturally rebellious, Blackwell’s teen years in England are dealt with in a flash. Neither he nor Morley is concerned with excavating them for clues other than his rejection of rigid public school rules in the early 1950s. Their legacy is his posh accent. He admits it has been an advantage in most instances. But it is equally a source of suspicion by Jamaican music people who heard condescension in it. “Whiteworst” was Peter Tosh’s preferred rephrasing of Blackwell.

Blackwell was somewhere in between an assertive music businessman and the wealthy playboy of his young adult years. He worked as a gofer for the British Governor of Jamaica in the 1950s and enjoyed the luxury life of late colonial Jamaica. All the while he built a network of supporters, who put him where he needed to be to take advantage of the popular music scene growing like crabgrass in Kingston. The chapters that cover this period, which saw Blackwell relocate to London selling Jamaican singles out of the boot of his car, are intriguing but short. Millie Small, a precocious teenager from Clarendon parish was his breakthrough artist. Small’s My Boy Lollipop was the biggest hit of any Jamaican singer and cast a long shadow of expectation on the island. Small and Blackwell—still in his 20s—were thrust into a spotlight they were unprepared for. A telling moment is when Millie’s mother curtsied to him at her 1964 homecoming in Jamaica. The class and racial distance and the psychology of colonialism hit him starkly. It is something that one wishes the book could have explored further.

This underlying tension might partially explain the differences between Blackwell’s relationships with his artists. His aversion to being pictured with them is to avoid any perception of being a Svengali, a role he abhorred. Still, judging from the book’s middle chapters, one senses that in this period at least Blackwell found greater ease with white artists. They get more attention in the story of the impressive rise of Island Records in the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Blackwell’s approach was bespoke. After moving operations to Basing Street in London in the late 1960s, Island recording studio became a hive for experimental, independent British artists. By the early 1970s, Island could count many hits. The Spencer Davis Group (Gimme Some Lovin’), Cat Stevens (Wild World), and the catalog of greats such as Nick Drake and John Martyn.

At the same time, Blackwell kept one eye and both ears on his label’s Jamaican heritage. After Ska faded, Rocksteady music was briefly followed. But it was the sudden rise in the late 1960s of the Reggae beat that infused new interest in Jamaican music. The Spencer Davis Group’s monster 1965 hit Keep on Runnin’ featured a bopping Jimmy Cliff in a distant corner in the studio shouting “c’mon.” Cliff was on his way to becoming Jamaica’s biggest international star and Blackwell was a major part of the mission to bring that distant voice to center stage.

What started with Millie Small came to its maturity with Jimmy Cliff in 1972. The Harder They Come soundtrack to Perry Henzell’s visceral film classic in which Cliff played the lead, was a showcase of what early Reggae music offered: tight arrangements, horns, spongy rhythms, and fresh voices narrating the hard and funky life of a magnetic Caribbean city.

It was at that point that Bob Marley walked into Blackwell’s London office. The meeting has been waxed multiple times by Blackwell’s interpreters and the man himself. Marley always said little about it. It was another stop in an unending chain of failed promises by record company people who said they would make him a star. In The Islander Blackwell acknowledges its importance by titling a chapter, “Meeting Bob Marley.”

Album sleeve of Catch a Fire by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

“Maybe it was kismet, I thought—just when Jimmy stormed out, Bob, Peter, and Bunny strolled in.” There follows a short review of this pivotal moment in which Blackwell offered steer and strong advice that The Wailers needed to refashion themselves as a black rock act and gave them £4,000 to record Catch A Fire. That figure is greater than past accounting and Blackwell now shifts from previously calling it an enormous amount to give unknown artists, to now claiming that it “wasn’t that much.” He abandons an earlier legend that he did not know The Wailers’ music. That claim was always dubious given that the group was the biggest local act in Jamaica in 1972.

It is the absence of Marley’s voice in this moment and Blackwell’s accounts of the enormous fame that came after that is the greatest shortcoming of The Islander. Bob Marley floats through the pages. What quotes are offered from him sprout like mystic koans. There are some interesting life lessons he gives Blackwell that the producer frequently references in the pages as he has done in interviews. But all this puts greater distance between the greatest of all of Chris Blackwell’s musical successes and the Island boss. There are no insights into recording sessions. Little is said about Marley’s process. The hard work to transform studio songs into epic live reimaginations—the Island promotional plan of the 1970s—is all underdeveloped in the book.

Marley’s death was clearly tragic for Blackwell. It seems as if the loss made him lock away the memories and Morley had to rely on the mediation of others in filling blank spaces. It is a pity. The book that should have given the long-missing insight into the making of one of the greatest cultural phenomenons of the last half century ends up a familiar contribution to his deification.

Much better coverage is given to Grace Jones, who comes alive in the book. Blackwell’s affection for Jones is obvious. She was the progenitor of modern female defiance: black but raceless in her art; “an orgy of hybrids,” according to Blackwell. Blackwell spotted what others could not. At his Compass Point studios in Nassau, headquarters to one of the most productive phases in the Island story and told with riveting attention to detail in the last quarter of the book, Jones and Jamaican musicians crafted landmark albums that went beyond music.

In the wake of Jones’ success, Blackwell took his label deeper, making links with other imprints and signing on more experimental artists. Insofar as Jamaican music went, the label remained selective, pushing artists they believed would produce guaranteed success. Even in death, Bob Marley topped this list. The masterstroke of Island’s Legend album in 1984 helped make the afterlife Marley a global name. Blackwell also sought to make Jamaica “as a kind of artist.” He has promoted luxury villas and his own Blackwell rum. Jamaica is Blackwell’s ultimate muse, and he has been an enduring lover.

It is apt to think of his relationship with Jamaica this way because so little is revealed about his personal life in the book. No purchase can be made of his views on romance, parenthood, or life itself outside of his work. Certainly, we get mentions of past lovers and heartache over the untimely death of his wife Mary Vinton (a match made by Grace Jones). But no sense of introspection on his relationships and how they made him. He appears almost emotionless, a man who feels deeply for music but does not necessarily find in it a revelation of his own feelings. The fervent religious sympathies of Cliff, Stevens, Marley, U2, do not appear to have struck any personal chords. It is as if what he gave them was more impacting than what he took.

It might be that Chris Blackwell is foremost an enigma and with all such personalities their interior feelings are exposed in actions. The selling of Island Records was for him a sensible business move. His eventual excision from operations was hurtful.

Blackwell’s greatest commercial signing was U2 in 1980. The other famous story he tells is of leaving Bob Marley’s last ever UK concert in June 1980 to see the quartet play for a small audience at a club in south London. U2 eventually made Island bigger, and its colossal success nearly broke the label.

It is fitting therefore that the best tribute to Blackwell’s achievements, controversies aside, has come from Bono. At Blackwell’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, a tipsy Bono gave moving praise of the privileged Anglo-Jamaican whose vision and luck changed how we listen to music. He sensed what it was Blackwell brought to the world he inhabited and in his own way changed it. “When you are in the room ten, twenty, thirty times [with Blackwell] and the magic has happened you start to wonder, is it him, is it you…Chris Blackwell is a magic man.”

This is the way that Blackwell is best memorialized and despite its stumbles, The Islander gives us justification of its truth.

Further Reading