Chris Blackwell was a man of eclectic tastes.
He signed Bob Marley, Grace Jones, U2 and more. What was the common thread amongst these acts? Impeccable musical talent.
Chris Blackwell is the founder of Island Records and the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music.
He was born in London but largely grew up in Jamaica, where his mother had ancestral roots. With an initial investment of $1,000, he formed a record label in 1959, calling it Island (after the Alec Waugh novel Island in the Sun). Island debuted with a jazz album by Bermudan pianist Lance Haywood. In 1960 Blackwell began recording Jamaican popular music and scored a Number One hit on the island with Laurel Aitken’s “Little Sheila.” By 1962 the budding young record producer had issued two albums and twenty-six singles on his Island imprint. Blackwell formally incorporated Island Records that year, returning to England to oversee the business. He started having success in Britain with the niche market of Jamaican music.
His first major hit, which he licensed to the larger Phillips label, was “My Boy, Lollipop,” by Jamaican teenager Millie Small. He next signed the Spencer Davis Group, featuring singer Stevie Winwood, again licensing them to Phillips. After their breakup, Winwood formed an innovative new group, Traffic, which became Island’s first rock band. Moving from ethnic music to rock, Blackwell signed a spate of influential British groups to Island, including Free, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Robert Palmer, Cat Stevens and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Blackwell returned to Jamaican music in the early Seventies, placing Jimmy Cliff, whom he managed, in the lead role in the classic film The Harder They Come (1972) and signing Bob Marley to Island in 1971. Marley had already recorded for Jamaican labels, but Blackwell helped make a worldwide superstar of the reggae’s greatest talent. Bob Marley and the Wailers debuted on Island with Catch a Fire (1973). He remained on Island till his death from cancer in 1981, recording such classics as Natty Dread (1974) and Rastaman Vibration (1976) and developing a trusting friendship with Blackwell. During the Seventies, Island also signed such reggae masters as Toots and the Maytals, Third World, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear and Sly & Robbie. Blackwell kept his hand on the progressive pulse of rock, too. Such far-reaching artists as Roxy Music, Brian Eno, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, Nico, Marianne Faithfull and Richard and Linda Thompson have been among those on Island’s impressive artist roster. The label’s knack for ferreting out new talent and trends extended into the punk and New Wave era as well. In 1980 Island made one of its most significant finds with the signing of Irish rockers U2. Blackwell also brought the Cranberries, Melissa Etheridge and Tom Waits to Island. He also explored world music on Mango, an Island subsidiary, with such artists as African bandleader King Sunny Ade.
The secret of Island’s success resided with Blackwell’s keen eye for talent and insistence on quality control, which has meant keeping the label at a size he can manage. “The bigger labels are supermarkets,” he opined. “I like to think of Island as a very classy delicatessen.”
Blackwell sold his stake in Island in 1989 and resigned from the company in 1997. In the late Nineties he merged his Palm Pictures film company with Rykodisc to form a new entity, RykoPalm.
Inductee: Chris Blackwell (born June 22, 1937)