I launched Bob Marley but maybe he launched me – Chris Blackwell

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I met Bob Marley and the Wailers more than 50 years ago. They walked into my office in London and I realized right away they were the real thing. Our relationship was built on mutual trust. I believed then, and still believe to this day, that you keep your word in business and in life. I still find it incredible and gratifying that Bob’s music and image has traveled all over the world.

A few years ago, there was a National Geographic documentary set at Mount Everest. In a corner of Nepal, there was a huge poster of Bob. It’s rewarding that he’s still so relevant and revered. My life leading up to starting Island Records and working with all the amazing artists I worked with has its own twists and turns.

I am a member of the lucky sperm club. I was born lucky in the sense that the prosperous family I was born into were of Jamaica, and of Britain via Ireland, and they shall we say had contacts, they were something in the world. My parents formed quite a family, quite a unit, the Blackwell from my father with pirate ancestors indirectly linked to the Crosse and Blackwell canned food company, and my mother on Jamaica with ambitious merchant ancestors, linked in the 20th century to the Wray and Nephew company that were famous Rum makers on Jamaica. From birth my direction was more or less embedded in that dynamic, even if it wasn’t the direction I actually took.

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I ended up in the early 1950s being sent to a famous public school in England, Harrow, but being something of a rebel and rubbish with rules I ended up being kicked out. My mother tried other ways of educating me, and they didn’t work out. That was ok, because however much academically I messed up, I had a ready-made world to enter into – a great Jamaican family company to inherit and run. Even as an educational failure, I still had privileged access to a stable future. I couldn’t help but be fortunate. Lucky me. But that future didn’t actually happen. The family sold Wray and Nephew. That particular destiny collapsed. Lucky me, actually. Because being kicked out of school and not running the family firm didn’t scupper the luck. It didn’t interfere with the accidental meetings, the chance moments. They kept coming. I went with the flow, which turned out to be more my thing anyway.

A very good friend of my mother, the actor and musician Noel Coward, invited us to a party at the Dorchester Hotel held for Elizabeth Taylor and her then husband, Mike Todd, to mark the release of the blockbuster film ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ which Todd’s company had produced. I can pass on no advice about how to get yourself in a situation like that. It’s why I admit I can’t really be any kind of guru that will help anyone not experiencing life the way I did. Other than saying, make good use of whatever access you happen to have, to whatever set of circumstances. Or, if you can, be born lucky, and stay lucky.

Attending the film party is the then Governor of Jamaica, Sir Hugh Foot, who my mother also happened to know. He politely asked her, “How’s Christopher doing?” My mother rolled her eyes, like I may well be a lost cause. It turned out, he could give me a job, to help her out as much as me, as a sort of civilian aide-de-camp to him in Kingston, Jamaica. Basically, I was an assistant to the Governor. I found myself working in the capital of Jamaica in 1957 at the time the country was working towards independence from the British Empire, getting to know local politicians, including future Prime Minister Michael Manley.

After that experience, and others a little less formal, I found myself getting more and more interested in music – jazz, blues, and how that was fast becoming rock and roll and pop. The Jamaican music scene was incredibly active and fertile, and hunting new experiences I was learning a lot about local musicians and mesmerising new styles emerging out of the local mento and calypso that would become ska, rocksteady and reggae. Jamaican music quickly reacted to jazz and blues and then rock in a brilliantly original way, adding its very own heat, spice and rhythm.

I moved to London in the early 1960s, which happened to be a perfect case of right time, right place, especially if you had access to a certain sort of rare, exciting music. I could take new records out of Jamaica straight to the new Jamaican immigrants who’d just moved to England, giving them a welcome little taste of home.

I landed in the middle of very exciting times. Exciting times given a soundtrack because of songs that were put onto records, these relatively new things called singles. Great songs instantly reflecting and creating a whole new way of life for post-war liberated young people and the newly formed fashion tribes they belonged to.

I drove around London selling my records from the back of a racy Mini Cooper, and I loved it. I had a steady income because of the family I had been born into, so what was interesting to me was just doing what I was doing without having to be desperate to make cash. Not for one minute did I think I’d get a hit, I just loved meeting people and giving them records they were hungry for. My direct competition in terms of distributing the hottest Jamaican sounds was a label called Blue Beat, who were so successful that “bluebeat” was the word people started to use to describe Jamaican pop music. It was like they were the Hoover of Jamaican music. I was just any old anonymous vacuum cleaner fighting Hoover. But I could give my customers personal attention in the way Blue Beat couldn’t. I could offer deals in the way Blue Beat couldn’t. So I sold a few vacuum cleaners from my Mini Cooper that could do the job just as well as Hoover!

And then in 1964 a tremendous teenager singer from Jamaica called Millie Small changed everything for me. She was the daughter of parents who worked on a sugar plantation and with her powerful voice had won second prize in some posh talent competition in Montego Bay. I was a fan of this great R&B/Shuffle song from the mid-50s by the Cadillacs called ‘My Boy Lollipop,’ and I got it done for Millie in a really lively ska way having learnt from my experience in selling music for Juke Box’s what people liked. One of the things I learnt was that you grab people’s attention from the very first few seconds. Bang, you’re in. And bang, we were in.

The label I had called Island Records to release a few discs I liked actually became a label. A going concern. “My Boy Lollipop” was a huge hit and suddenly I was catapulted into the middle of the brand new 1964 British pop scene – from nowhere being no-one driving into run down areas of London I was one of 50 making a bit of a name for themselves, as though you actually knew what you were doing.

I would go with Millie when she was appearing on pop TV programmes like ‘Top of the Pops,’ ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ and ‘Ready Steady Go’ and find myself by chance hanging out backstage with the likes of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks. Somehow I gained access to a world where the rules were being made up week by week. One sort of energy would lead to other sorts of energy and so on, and you had to adapt quickly to new situations and possibilities, which really suited the way I liked to live. No rules, and when rules got made, they would be quickly broken.

Suddenly, all these different people started calling me with songs and musicians they thought I might be interested in. I got asked to go to Birmingham to see a group called Carl Wayne and the Vikings, who would become the Move. They wore uniforms – the Beatles did at the time, even the Stones really – which I didn’t like. So I got taken somewhere else, with the people taking me saying they didn’t know if I’d like the next thing, it was a bit different. It was in a club on the third floor of a building. Walking up the stairs, before I even saw anything, I heard this voice that sounded like Ray Charles on Valium.

It was amazing, and there was no way of knowing if the person singing was black and white, young or old. Then I walked in to the club and saw the singer, this kid on stage, about 16, playing great guitar and piano as well. He was called Stevie Winwood. My first English signing to Island Records, and that took me some other place than Jamaican music. Island records grew from Millie and Stevie – inventive Jamaican music, and other music from outside the Anglo-American world, and progressive, out there British rock with fantastic singing. Different forms of freaky, of seeing the new world in a new way.

I’m still looking out for the new, some sort of unprecedented energy, in whatever form it takes. Recently I’ve been listening to a new Jamaican artist that I really want to work with. I still get excited about new acts, especially when I hear something fresh coming out of Jamaica, somebody making a new music, with a confidence unique to the island. There has been so much music that has come out of Jamaica since the 1950s, a whole list of genres, mento-calypso, ska, reggae, dub, dancehall, lover’s rock, it’s astonishing for such a small island, all this influential, imaginative energy, this changing shape, and there’s clearly still more to come.

I began working with musicians in 1959, it’s a long time ago, a lots changed – a lots stayed the same – but I am still looking for something else that I think the world should know about. Something that comes from outside what there usually is. How do you know that something is good? Well, you either know, or you don’t. It’s a feeling. It’s a kind of trust in something. There is no secret, no plan. The strategy is often that there is no strategy, only energy. Positive energy. Something that needs arranging and amplifying without being spoiled. You hear something, or you see something, and you think, here we go again. I think, I like the idea of the world knowing about this. What can I do to help? 

You never know if something you start working on is going to work and get the world’s attention – even if it is Bob Marley or U.2. – but you do learn to take advantage of the things that happen, often originally because somehow you happened to be in the right place at the right time. If I can give any advice, that would be it. Get yourself in the right place at the right time. How do you do that? Work it out for yourself. Then you learn how to keep track, and keep moving. The more you travel, the more things start to happen. And then you end up where you end up. If you’re lucky, it’s where you were always meant to be.

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