Why you should care
Because music is magic.
If spotted on the street, there’s absolutely nothing about the white-haired and bearded septuagenarian Chris Blackwell that surprises. Very specifically, he looks like lots of other seventy-something cats cruising around New York’s Upper West Side. Nothing about the British accent even really attracts notice.
But like the Lucifer-esque character played by Robert Blake in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, he’s in your house. And on your phone and any other place you can play what constitutes the music of your life. You see, Chris Blackwell, back in the late 1950s, made manifest an elemental interest in the music of the Jamaica where he grew up by deciding to put out what he calls, over drinks at his place, “a little music.”
“There was nothing ‘little’ about either the volume or the significance of what he cleared the path for, musically and artistically speaking,” says House of Faith owner, producer and musician in his own right Bart Thurber. From selling 7-inch records — or, as they were called back then, 45s — out of the trunk of his car to DJs in London or Trenchtown, Jamaica, Blackwell built Island Records, an indie record label that would in short order damn near turn the world on its head.
Presuming you have any ear at all for what came before reggae. Or reggae. Or Bob Marley. Or Jimmy Cliff, Sly and Robbie, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Tom Waits, U2 and, well, the list goes on and stunningly on. What the Lomax family, the famous chroniclers of early American blues, meant to all of the music that came after them closely parallels what happened with Blackwell and the music of the country he still considers home. And though these days, years after selling Island Records to Polygram, Blackwell’s involvement with music has taken a backseat to his now-all-consuming interest in Caribbean real estate and the rum he makes, it’s still clearly his drug of choice.
But we’ll let him tell it.
On Bob Marley: There had never been a real effort made to feature Jamaican music that wasn’t calypso or music for tourists. I wanted to do that. And the first time Bob Marley walked into my office it was … it was really something. They were like that band in The Harder They Come [the 1972 film Blackwell coproduced]. Lots of bad luck. But Bob was something else. He had it. The others didn’t talk very much, but Bob had wanted me to break him on Black radio in America. I told him it’d be better to introduce him as a Black rocker. So we did.
On U2: No one remembers this, but when I went to sign U2, there was not really a bidding war, but it was strange. Nobody really liked them. One other label was interested, but they were interested if they kicked out Larry [Mullen Jr., the drummer]. What they didn’t know is that the band was Larry’s. I mean, he started it.
The Best Singers in the World: There was nobody like Frank Sinatra. I found a radio station that plays nothing but Sinatra, and I love it. His phrasing was great. You can listen to him and you hear every word, and more importantly, you feel every word. And there’s only one other singer I’ve ever heard who can do that and who does that: Rod Stewart. You listen to “Maggie May,” and you are right THERE.
On Not-So-Swinging London: Millie Small [the singer who delivered him his first hit record] showed up in London at, what, 15 or 16? Her mother sent her to me. I went and tried to get her a place. When they found out she was this Jamaican girl, no one wanted to rent to her. Place after place. But this is the way things were back then. She eventually just went out and got her own place. She was just so damn charming.
On Losing a Great: I was angry and upset, very upset, when I lost Jimmy Cliff, and I understood why I lost him. Well, it was just upsetting. He had been getting ripped off by all of these labels. And I had promised him if he stayed with me for a certain period of time, he’d make $50,000. But that was if he had made music that whole time. He went off and did The Harder They Come and so wasn’t making music the whole time, and so we fell short and he left. I understood it, but it made me very unhappy.
Passing on Punk Rock: You have to have three things to succeed in music: looks, attitude and, well, music. Punk rock got a 10 out of 10 for attitude. Looks? Meh. But the music was lacking. Though, you know, I did sign The Slits. And I quite liked The Clash. They had it all, and of course were heavily influenced by reggae, so I liked that.
The It Factor and the Ones That Got Away: I let over a billion dollars of music get away. Pink Floyd. Elton John, who I thought was too shy to make it. And Madonna, among many. But I never even saw her perform. I just met her at Danceteria and … meh. But it’s not always easy to see inside of who can make it and who won’t. This is something I don’t lose any sleep over, though.