Chris Blackwell publishes memoir
I have interviewed quite a number of people in my 30-plus years as a journalist. A few of them have been famous, but I’ve never been as expectant as at the prospect of interviewing Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
His memoirs have just been published. The Islander: My Life In Music And Beyond is fairly comprehensive, but I was determined to use my interview time to corroborate some stuff, and to find out about other things about which I was also curious. Thankfully, although he has recently made himself available to promote his book, I had a one-on-one with him and he was generous with his time as he spoke to me from his New York home.
I was particularly interested to hear his answer to this question: What do you think of being described as the man who made reggae a global pop music (genre)?
“Well,” he says, somewhat embarrassed. “I would never make a claim like that, because it grew from the work and the talent of all the people who wrote the songs, recorded the songs, promoted them - there are lots of people.
“I mean, especially in Jamaica itself, you know Coxsone, Duke Reid, all these guys, they started like that and they had these big sound-system boxes.”
His answer is not surprising for someone who does not have to prove himself, knowing that his place in the annals of reggae and international popular music is assured. Hence, he is keen to share the accolades with some of his early contemporaries in Jamaica.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of reggae would know the effort Blackwell made to break Bob Marley, by remixing and adding extra instrumentation (known as ‘sweetening’) on the Wailers’ first two 1973 Island albums, and the 1975 release of the London-recorded Live! album, which helped to project Bob Marley and the Wailers as an international recording act.
Although the answer may be found in his memoirs, I wanted a direct answer. So my question was: Why did Jimmy Cliff not attain the same global status as Bob Marley, (although) you signed Jimmy Cliff before Bob?
Again, perhaps like a seasoned politician, he answered my question the way he wanted to and I didn’t press further. It was a nice enough answer, (but) more importantly, I could see from his body language that Blackwell genuinely believed what he was saying:
“Let me tell you, Jimmy Cliff is amazing. He is amazing,” he repeats himself, perhaps for emphasis. “He is right up there with Bob. He really is. I mean when he came over (to England), he got into English rock music. He formed bands, and the bands that he formed, they themselves went off on their own and became successful after a bit.
“He was somebody who had great songwriting ability. Look at the songs he’s written. So I think, I’d say honestly, Jimmy Cliff is right up there with Bob, I really do. An amazing thing is this – Jimmy Cliff took Bob to Leslie Kong, who ran a record shop in Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff, you could almost say, or somebody could claim that he ‘discovered’ Bob. He took Bob to Leslie Kong, where he (Jimmy) had already made a record, because I was partners with Leslie Kong in Jamaica.”
Blackwell chuckles, when he thinks of the first Bob single, Judge Not, which he received from Kong in England in 1962. The artiste’s name was spelt Robert Morley, which was the name of a famous rotund English actor!
Somewhere in his book, Blackwell talks about a historical symmetry - in the 1950s, he was employed as an assistant to the governor of Jamaica Sir Hugh Foot, and then, in the 1970s, there he was employing Sir Hugh’s son, Bernard, as a minder for the Wailers!
So I introduced my own observation of symmetry – Blackwell ended up buying Goldeneye, Ian Fleming’s home in Jamaica where a younger Blackwell and his mother were frequent house guests. Then there was Bob, who ended up owning 56 Hope Road, which was the former home of Island Records in Jamaica. Blackwell proceeds to tell me part of the story.
“I tell you what happened,” he says, as if pulling me into a secret. “I gave that house to Bob, because I wanted to move him up from where he was up to uptown, and I wanted him to move, which was near where the governor lived.
“A lot of people objected that I was bringing, you know, Rastas up into the area and things like that. I had a hard time with it. But Bob looked after the house.”
Actually, says Blackwell, the deal was that Bob could keep the house for as long as he was signed to Island!
Of course, today, people love Bob Marley’s music, and indeed, if you call a Jamaican embassy, the hold music tends to be reggae or Bob Marley in particular. But there were purists who didn’t care for the sweetening that was put onto the Island international releases. When I put this to Blackwell, he’s upfront in his response.
Of The Wailers’ internationally released version of the Catch A Fire album, Blackwell says: “I felt the record was a great record ... I just felt it was something which widened the scope of reggae. Because it had elements in it which, before, reggae didn’t have so much and it was something that I had sort of suggested in a way, which was particularly bringing this guitarist from, you know, Muscle Shoals in Alabama. I felt that it needed to go into the direction that Catch A Fire (eventually) had. So, you know, it was not your regular solid reggae - it was something which was a little experiment that was what I was hoping for.”
I believe, with time, people have come to accept the music, the genius of Bob and call it if you will, the creative compromise that was needed to break him internationally. Bob Marley is still possibly the only global superstar that has come from the global south and conquered the western world and beyond, and Blackwell had no small helping hand in making that possible.
Blackwell’s memoirs provide a valuable historical document for persons who want to know the history of Jamaican popular music. It details Blackwell’s efforts from the 1950s, when he was supplying R&B records and he would go to America to buy for the emerging Jamaican sound-system operators and soon-to-be record producers like Coxsone and Reid. The memoirs track how the music changed from ska to rocksteady, then to reggae, and document the challenges of trying to break reggae, initially in Britain, then Scandinavia, before it found an audience elsewhere.
I’ll leave to another time stories of how Jamaican record producer Sonny Roberts, who operated his nascent Planetone label and recording studios in a house in the north-west London borough of Brent, introduced his Indian-Jamaican landlord Lee Gopthal to Blackwell, who ended up renting all the available rooms in the house as the Island business grew.
Kwaku is a historical musicologist and organiser of International Reggae Day London, UK which is observed on July 1.