Chris Blackwell, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Series, Cleveland, OH- 2/20
It’s highly possible that the music world could have missed out on Bob Marley, Toots & the Maytals, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Traffic, Free, U2, Cat Stevens, Tom Waits, Robert Palmer, Nick Drake, King Crimson, Jimmy Cliff, Richard Thompson, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music and others if Chris Blackwell did not take the advice of a fortune teller and got involved in the film industry rather than make the moves that brought us Island Records and a roster of legendary artists.
His decision was one of many enlightening moments revealed to the sold out audience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Series event. His appearance was part of the Rock Hall's focus on reggae during its celebration of Black History Month.
Over 90 minutes, he discussed his life, from privileged upbringing to figuring out matters as he went along in the recording industry and discovering and dealing with talent.
“My grandmother didn’t want me to do any work at all. She felt that her generation had worked and I was supposed to just live in the South of France. That’s what she told me I should doI don’t know why I didn’t take her advice,” he said, laughing.
“The thing that galvanized me, the wealth disappeared. I was in the garden on a certain occasion and all the furniture was being sold from the house.”
His answers and attire presented a casual, matter-of-fact approach. That straightforwardness would understandably be appealing to musicians who want a little respect and attention to go along with a favorable royalty rate.
Then, again brutal honesty isn’t always appreciated.
Discussing how a teenage Steve Winwood overshadowed the rest of the members in his band, Blackwell said, “I told Spencer, You should call it the Spencer Davis Group because, quite honestly, Steve Winwood is really the act here. And if you call it the Spencer Davis Group, it’s like your band.’ Strangely enough, he rather resented me for saying that because it was indicating that I didn’t feel that he really had the talent, but he didn’t.”
With Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, he praised their charisma but Wailer’s unwillingness to leave his Jamaican homeland and tour, and Tosh’s unreliability damaged both artists’ careers. “I found it easier to work with Bunny than with Peter cause Peter would change his mind all the time. You’ve got to be able to work with somebody, if they say they’re going to do something it’s going to happen. Otherwise, it’s a nightmare. Plus, you yourself lose credibility. You say, The Wailers are going to go on tour,’ and then they don’t tour”
Later, when he discussed signing U2, he spoke of seeing the band at a small club in front of less than a dozen people. “And they played just like they do now, in front of thousands of people.”
Despite Blackwell’s relaxed appearance Warren Zanes, the Rock Hall’s Vice President of Education, seemed nervous and apologetic for keeping the 2001 Hall of Fame Inductee onstage for a few extra minutes, as if the negotiation to bring him to Cleveland included a strict curfew. (Or the record impresario’s occasional cough indicated a need for bed rest.) Surprisingly, thoughts of a quick getaway disintegrated when Blackwell willingly hung out with fans of his label following the event, discussing and signing various albums and books.
An affinity for the common man can be viewed as a by-product of his early years. Although he lived a colonial existence, illness kept him among the staff of nearly two dozen who worked at his family’s luxurious Jamaican estate. “Through that time I established a relationship. I can’t tell you it was a natural relationship in the sense that I was this little Mr. Fauntleroy person. But it became a natural thing because I spent so much time with them that after a bit the differences broke down and they became people who I was really fond of.”
The sounds of classical music that played in his home became his introduction to music. “A child should be played Mozart because it’s the basic training and learning of the best. If you hear that from very early on, you have something to judge against, even though it may be rap, people still, somehow, get a feel of whether it’s good or bad if you have a good basic training.”
Sent to an English boarding school at nine years old a friend brought him, musically, into the 20th century with recordings of New Orleans jazz musicians.
He shrugs off that experience, not seeing it as a life changing one yet Bermuda jazz pianist Lance Haywood became Island Records’ debut release in 1959. Asked what made him think he could start a label, he responded, “A place like Jamaica, which is very small, probably the same with a small town, something is much more attainable.”
His mother knew Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, as well as other entertainment elite such as Errol Flynn and Noel Coward who had Jamaican residences. Due to the association, he got a job working on Dr. No. When filming on the island was completed he was offered a position with the film company, but instead he turned it down in favor of releasing singles in his country and, later, England.
Because of his upper class surroundings, Blackwell admitted that he knew of native Jamaicans who worked for his family, but had never met an actual Rasta until a boating mishap.
"The Rastafarians were considered outcasts by everyone, black and white. The just formed their own way of lifestyle. Essentially, they were unemployed because no one would hire them because of the way they looked. So, what they were was fishermen, carpenters, self-employed people. In general, there was a lot of negative publicity about them. Whenever you saw the name Rastafari’ it was usually to do with some murder and then that was couched as some racist murder.
His first encounter with a Rasta came out of duress. Years later some of its practitioners become his label’s lasting legacy.
“This boat I was in, I hate to say, it ran out of gas. It would be more glamorous to have a serious accident. I spent the night in these mangroves. And the next day I set out. It was very far away from anywhere, now it’s a bit built up. I didn’t think I was going to make it because I was literally dying of thirst. I came into this cove and I saw a hut and this guy looked out of the hut with these locks. And I was terrified but I was also thirsty.”
Given fresh water and place to rest, he found out firsthand that the talk of Rastafarians was more myth than truth. “All they did was read to me from the Biblevery fantastic, actually. Then, they took me to the nearest area and I got someone to take me back and rescue the boat.”
He moved to England in 1962 to establish Island Records office, but his interests remained in his homeland. Recognizing the worth of others creating a particular Jamaican sound, he deferred to producers such as Sir Coxsone Dodd who he described as “the Berry Gordy of Jamaican music. He was like a university, in a sense, where every artist went to him.
While Blackwell did some production work he never let his ego get in the way of a good recording. “Their records started to do much better than my records. My records started to sound cleaner, and their records were rougher and tougher and better and sold well. So, I thought in view of how I’m packaged, I would be better off going to England and representing my competitors in Jamaica.”
At that time deals pretty much consisted of handshake and one’s word.”
Addressing those early business contracts’ he said, “There were no royalties. I paid a bit more for the records than a lot of the other guys. But it didn’t really make sense to have royalties at that time because nobody at that time knew that those records would have a value today. At the time you think you put the record out and sell 5,000 or something. Somebody would much prefer to get a check right then than hope it might sell and then hope they get paid.”
While Island did good enough to stay afloat, it became an internationally-known entity when Blackwell took a chance on a young female singer with a high-pitched voice and helped spread the ska rhythm across the globe. Released in 1964, the Blackwell produced “My Boy, Lollipop” by a 15-year-old Jamaican girl named Millie Small became the smash that launched the label as a major player.
He brought her over to England to record, and when he attempted to find her housing, Blackwell was confronted by racist attitudes. Forced to put her in his apartment, it “cramped my style considerably.”
“One day I had an appointment, and I woke up, set my bath and jumped back into bed. And I must have fallen asleep. Then, I woke up and there’s splashing in my bath, and it was Millie. And I was so mad. I said, Listen, this can’t go on. You better leave.’ She said, Where?’ I said, I don’t care. You just gotta go.’ And I stormed out of the house.
“So, I come back and she had gone. I rang my assistant. She hadn’t heard anything, but her suitcases were still there. That evening she walks back in, picks up her suitcases. She had found an apartment herself. Incredible. So, I knew she was a winner from that.”
His hands-on activity and instincts proved to have a strong track record, but Blackwell acknowledged that splendid timing and good luck consistently worked to his advantage, bringing such opportunities as discovering Steve Winwood and U2 and signing Bob Marley.
He recalled a phone call recommending him to check out a band that featured another 15 year old, a young vocalist/keyboardist named Stevie Winwood. Asked if he recognized the young musician’s talent upon witnessing him play for the first time, Blackwell stated, “You’d have to be deaf and blind not to.” He further went on to describe him fondly as "Ray Charles on helium" due to similar vocal phrasing.
Later, when Jimmy Cliff left the label due to the damage he felt was done to him by starring in "The Harder They Come" in lieu of recording more albums, a call came shortly afterwards from Marley seeking a meeting. “I wanted Jimmy to go in “The Harder They Come” because that was the background from which all this music was coming from.”
“Jamaican music in England was considered novelty music. It wasn’t considered serious. It wasn’t considered proper music in a rock environment.”
Admittedly angry at Cliff’s departure, he used that as motivation in his desire to break Marley as a rock artist. “I did say to him that the Wailers should be more like a Black rock group. None of those [other] reggae groups were self-contained. I thought the best way to position Bob was more as a self-contained band.”
And for that the concentration focused on albums not singles. “In 1972 we were definitely the hottest label in England. And what that meant was you had the momentum going, you had credibility going, so I thought I could slot The Wailers right into it because most of the people who had influence on records, the distributors and retailers, they go by catalog numbers rather than names.”
To gain the trust of Marley and the Wailers, Blackwell simply gave the band members a check to make a record, with the faith that a recording would be delivered. Hearing the result, Blackwell described what’s now known as Catch a Fire as “one of the highest points in my life. It was such an incredible record. You can hear every penny put it into it.”
While he went on to release world artists on the Mango Records imprint, he had a special place reserved for the numerous artists he signed from his homeland. “I just loved Jamaican music. I really loved it. I still do. But I really loved it at that time because it’s very exciting to be in the middle of something which is just happening.”
Despite his enthusiasm for music, Blackwell grew disinterested in the growing corporate mentality of the music industry where the renegades of the past like himself were as hard to find as releases on vinyl. Initially, he sold Island Records in 1989. Then, he left the music biz altogether in 1997. Since that time, he’s developed a new passion. Starting the multi-media entertainment company Palm Pictures, he releases provocative, experimental films and DVDs, and music.
Asked by one audience member what advice he had for his son who’s studying music marketing, Blackwell encouraged him to look elsewhere for a career. Feeling remorse at his callousness, he later recanted by offering something a little more hopeful to all future music visionaries.
Alluding to how much things have changed since the days of bands gaining that Golden Ring, a recording contract, to the 21st model that finds anyone can start their own record label. “Now is an exciting time because you don’t need the industry. You can have your rights. As long as you have talentalthough it may take a long time.”