Chris Blackwell is the Founder of Island Records and has been credited as “the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music”.
Through Island, Blackwell launched the careers of artists including Bob Marley and U2. He is also the Founder of music publisher Blue Mountain Music.
Chris Blackwell: Career beginnings
Born in the UK but growing up largely in Jamaica, Chris Blackwell’s earliest encounters with the music industry included selling records bought in New York at marked-up prices, and running a jukebox company, with 63 machines across the country.
Alongside radio and audio engineer Graeme Goodall, Chris Blackwell founded Island Records in 1958 with a start-up investment of $10,000 provided by his parents. The label’s first release came after Blackwell overheard a band led by blind pianist Lance Hayward, and asked if he could record them.
Blackwell moved Island to the UK in 1962, after realising they were selling more records there than in Jamaica. The following year, he invited 15-year-old Jamaican Millie Smalls to London to record a cover of My Boy Lollipop. Licensed to Fontana, it reached No.2 in the UK charts. At the same time, Blackwell discovered the Spencer Davis Group and Steve Winwood in Birmingham. In 1967, Paper Sun by Traffic, Steve Winwood’s new group, gave Island its first Top Five single.
Chris Blackwell: Selling to PolyGram and present day ventures
With continued success throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with artists including Bob Marley, Cat Stevens and U2, Chris Blackwell sold his stake in Island in 1989 to PolyGram, but remained Chief Executive of the label.
Blackwell left PolyGram in 1997, later commenting: “I never really had a job until I sold Island to PolyGram in 1989. It had gotten too corporate.”
Blackwell went on to form film company Palm Pictures and run a chain of boutique hotels in Miami and the Caribbean, including the Goldeneye estate, once the Jamaican home of Bond creator Ian Fleming.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
In 2008, Blackwell launched his own brand of rum.
Chris Blackwell: Personal philosophy
Speaking around Island Records’ 50th anniversary, Chris Blackwell discussed his approach to album artwork, which the label was known for in its early days: “I really believe that if people see something that looks good, subconsciously they’ll think maybe there’s something going on inside, on the record. There were times when somebody came out with a cover which was actually better than the record itself, so I’d have to send them back to remake the record. Melissa Etheridge was one. The sleeve for Catch A Fire, Bob Marley’s first album, was fantastic – it was a Zippo lighter, which opened.”
There were times when somebody came out with a cover which was actually better than the record itself, so I’d have to send them back to remake the record.
Chris Blackwell in 2009
Music Business Worldwide