Chris Blackwell founded Island Records 50 years ago exactly. Blackwell, whose family owned a large sugar and rum export company in Jamaica, dropped out of Harrow School, London when he was 17. He immersed himself in the musical culture of the West Indies and New York, where he befriended Miles Davis and other jazz musicians. At first, the fledgling Island Records released jazz and gospel records, as well as Jamaican rhythm and blues infused with strong hints of a local folk style, mento. It was the late 50s and early 60s, and record players were a must-have for middle- class Jamaicans.
Blackwell was the first to produce records for the sound systems, the travelling discos that provided the soundtrack of the shanty towns. Previously these had depended on a supply of R&B records from the United States. As the likes of Coxsone Dodd (Studio One) caught on to the idea, Blackwell persuaded his former competitors to let him release and distribute their records in Britain, with growing success. When in the mid- 60s British rock and folk music started to take off, Island was in a prime position to react. With its distinctive palm tree logo, Island Records became the 70s indie label to admire.
Others were to follow in Island’s footsteps, none of them as enterprising, daring or incorruptible as Island under Blackwell. In 1998, Blackwell sold Island Records to start a different venture. Today, the 72-year-old is generously giving his time to the marketing dream that is the 50th anniversary of Island for its new owners.
Sublime: I couldn't resist the temptation to bring along the oldest Island Records in my collection, an album by Byron Lee and one by Mille and Jackie Edwards. Do you remember these?
That’s so funny. This [a beautiful woman pictured on the Byron Lee sleeve] is my old girlfriend, Esther Anderson. She also took a very famous picture of Bob Byron, who died last year. Wow, this is the fifth album we put out in England.
S: Do you have a copy of all your stuff?
No. I’m not a collector. I wish I had been, now. But I was always looking forward, and never really collected stuff as I went along.
S: Did you have a sens of history while you were making all these albums?
Never. I was always thinking of whatever I was working on at the time. You do something, and then you’re working on something else, and then you’re working on something else again. There’s always something new you want to get happening. That’s always been my thinking. It’s just that this time I’m on pause for a bit now, with this Island 50th, where I’m looking back because of the celebration. Normally I’m looking forward.
S: How does that feel, this looking back business?
I’m really enjoying it. Now, as I’m forced to look back, in a way I feel great about it. It seems like a large body of work, and I feel proud of it.
S: Doesn’t it feel a bit odd, having another owner celebrating the anniversary and putting on the laurels you earned?
I’m glad that at least they’ve kept the name. There have been so many great labels that have disappeared. A&M has disappeared, Stax. Some great labels, ones I wanted to emulate like King Records, Imperial Records. They don’t exist any more. I’m thrilled that Island has survived. In England at least, they’ve maintained a kind of a culture. It can’t ever be the same as it was. When something is independently owned, it has a different kind of spirit; the whole thing works differently. But they’re signing some very interesting things. If I still owned Island, I would love to have signed Amy Winehouse. She epitomises a kind of Island act.
S: What started you off?
I was a music fan. I loved music. I loved being around musicians, I loved good musicianship. To have the opportunity to be able to say to someone, ‘I’d like to make a record with you,’ and for them to say yes was really exciting for me. When I took them into the studio and they’d do a couple of takes and asked me what I thought, I became part of it. I’d gone from being on the outside to being on the inside. I was in heaven, and I stayed that way pretty much all the time.
S: You had one over prettymuch everyone else in the British music business – You knew Jamaican music from the inside out. Did you feel a bit like a preacher, teaching reggae to the Brits?
At first, from 1962 to 1965, the Brits didn’t buy reggae at all, only the Jamaicans. In the evenings I’d play my records for friends, and they really loved them because they’d never heard anything like it before. Most popular was a record called ‘We’ll Meet’ by Roy & Millie. This little girl comes on in the second verse of the song with a very high-pitched, funny voice, and everyone said, ‘I’ve got to have that record.’ That encouraged me to bring Millie over to England to see if I could make a record with her here because her voice was so distinctive. The result was a single, ‘My Boy Lollipop’, which was very successful.
S: That's an understatement. Who picked the song?
‘My Boy Lollipop’ had first been released around 1957. I would go to New York now and again and buy records and sell them to the sound- system guys in Jamaica. One of these records was the original version of ‘My Boy Lollipop’. I’d make a copy of each record on a reel-to-reel tape, and when I brought Millie over to England I found this tape. It was really lucky.
S: How did your conversation to rock come about?
Rock itself was interesting. What I was never really into was straightforward pop. When it first emerged, rock was the antithesis of pop. In pop you never really talked about the musicianship, but when rock came in it had guitarists and a lot of instrumentation. It was a different approach. The songs were longer. It was anti-pop, in a sense. People didn’t really wear costumes on stage – they just went on in whatever clothes they were wearing. I responded very strongly to that. It was great to hear Steve Winwood, for example. He was an incredible musician, and that was hugely important to me.
S: Was it frustrating to see that you had all these fantastic rock bands, free, spooky tooth, mott the hoople, But the real rock money was being made elsewhere, with Led Zeppelin, for instance?
No, never. Believe it or not, I was never chasing after big hits. I was after a different, original type of talent that I felt I could work with long term. That was always my interest. It was especially my interest after Millie and ‘My Boy Lollipop’. That was the record that got my foot in the door of the music business. Without that, who knows what would have happened. But there was no great satisfaction. I felt I’d done a good job, but I wasn’t able to sustain that with Millie. I felt very bad about what happened with her, she had such a big hit and became a big star, but wasn’t able to sustain it.
S: Did she take it badly?
There was clearly disappointment at being on the front of every newspaper with The Beatles, as she was, and then being pretty much disregarded. I felt bad about that.
S: How important was it to the making of such a rich tapestry of music in the 60s that the managers and promoters were all learning and improvising as much as the musicians?
It was absolutely crucial. Everybody was learning on the hop, and a new business was being created as we went along. It was an incredibly exciting time. You were breaking new ground. It was very jazz, very improvisational. I’ve always been a jazz person, in my head and in the way I feel. I sold Island Records because in the end the jazz had gone out of it, for want of a better word. By then it was all very structured and corporate with people worried about their titles and that kind of thing, which didn’t interest me at all.
S: A lot of other labels followed in the wake of island, and every major label had an indie label such as Vertigo and Dawn. What did you have that those companies didn’t have?
We were real. They weren’t real. When a large corporation has a so-called independent label it very rarely has a chance of doing anything. You can’t imbue a label with an independent culture when in reality it reports to their board of directors, who’re mostly interested in their quarterly figures.
S: As a man who grew up with vinyl, how do you get on with mp3 and downloading?
Mp3 is just a very inferior sound reproduction. It’s much more inferior than the cassette was, and people used to complain about cassettes in the old days. The way people store and consume music is totally different now, and that’s the way it will be in the future. What I’m waiting for, and it’s just around the corner, is the moment when the files are all uncompressed and they sell the music for a lot less than they’re selling it for now. Once it’s possible to find anything you want, and be able to download it for free, you can’t then ask for a dollar a track, which is what they were selling a regular song for before. When that time comes, I think the record business will take off again, and if it’s not compressed the sound will be great.
S: How do you envisage artists surviving financially?
Artists will survive on record sales. It will be similar to how it was in old days, when a Duke Ellington or a Count Basie would hope to get a hit because they’d then get $1,000 or $2,000 more a night for their shows. It’s going to be much more orientated towards personal appearances. When they reduce the price and make the quality better, I think it will be possible to sell many millions of records because it will be so inexpensive to pick the music up.
S: I imagine the first demo handed in by free back then would have been pretty interesting.
It wasn’t a demo. I was never into demos. I made a decision to sign an artist and then let them record what they wanted to record. That was always my policy. It’s a very different policy to what exists now. I was more in the artist business than the record business. I was interested in signing an artist and building and developing their career. The records would be milestones in that career. Certainly you were looking for the best record, for something that could jump out and become a hit, provided this hit was in the spirit and style of that artist. You didn’t want a hit that didn’t represent them because you’d go off course.
S: I know there was an island sub-label called Antilles, which released the occasional jazz record. But since you’re such a jazz fan, why did Island not release more jazz?
I always thought that, in the 60s, when rock came in and brought with it great musicianship, that had a lot to do with the demise of jazz. There they were, these rock musicians who had, in a way, become pop stars, and who people could see on TV or live, and talk about their incredible guitar solos or amazing keyboard solos. That was a more popular kind of music, the songs were more structured. Jazz lost its importance. When jazz was at its most important it was the only genre where you could hear musicianship other than classical music. You couldn’t hear it in pop, but you could hear great music played by the jazz masters. That was my theory. I couldn’t find anything that got me that excited. My favourite artists in jazz were Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, then right back to Jellyroll Morton and Louis Armstrong. I couldn’t find anything that was different, and some of the things that were trying to be different I didn’t really like.
S: Another risky step you took was to introduce African music to the UK, at a time wHen tHe laBel world music was still far off. The only place in London to buy music from Africa was an electrical goods store in Tottenham Court Road.
To me it wasn’t a risky step. Again, I was not expecting to sell a million copies. I wanted to record something really good that would stand the test of time. If it’s really good, then you will do your best to try to widen its market. But the main thing is to say, ‘OK, this will sell maybe 50,000 copies in the first year.’ Then you relate the cost of the album to what you think you can generate from the 50,000. I would never think I had to make profit from it; I would look to recover my investment. I always thought like that, which was not the best way of thinking from a business point of view. If I wanted to record somebody, I did because I felt they were really interesting and talented. My first consideration was, ‘Do I feel I can support this?’ I would never think, ‘This will go to the top of the charts and sell a million records.’
S: Yet this was something you did very well, releasing interesting music that ended up at the top of the charts.
I know! Island was able to create a credible brand, especially from 1968 until 1975, when people would think, ‘If it’s on Island, let me hear it, it’s probably good.’ That was something I wanted to emulate. When I went to New York and bought records, scratched the labels off and sold them to the sound- system guys, if I came across an Atlantic record I’d immediately pick it up and listen to it. If I didn’t like it I’d doubt my own taste. I remember thinking, that’s the reason to have a label. It’s a filter system, in some way. Hopefully you create something where there’s credibility that people will follow because they feel they’re not going to be disappointed. We had that for a while.
S: It begs the obvious question which half-dozen or so Island Records stand out for you, in terms of the artist?
Ones that immediately spring to mind are Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens, Exodus by Bob Marley, and maybe another, Catch A Fire. That was the start of something new, moving reggae into a rock sensibility. Then Joshua Tree, U2, Broken English, Marianne Faithfull and Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, for sure. Solid Air by John Martyn and Juju Music by King Sunny Ade. I hate being asked that question – I always forget to mention something that later I remember and think, ‘I can’t believe I left that out!’