In 1964, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, was granted a first-hand insight into the distorting power of fame. Escorting the 16-year-old Millie Small to her hardscrabble Kingston home at the end of an international tour to promote her six-million-selling hit single My Boy Lollipop, Blackwell watched in horror as the singer’s own mother received her daughter “as if she were now a stranger”. “Hello, Miss Millie,” she said, curtsying. The 26-year-old Blackwell “vowed then and there that I was finished with straight pop music and the idea of making and marketing stars. I didn’t want to be a pop Svengali.”
Instead, over the ensuing decades the Jamaican-Englishman turned the label he had founded in 1959 into a global force that struck an honourable working balance between financial viability and artistic worth. In fact, the depth and splendour of Island’s catalogue is such that the only area in which The Islander, the 84-year old’s compelling memoir, is deficient is in the impossible task of allotting space to the wide array of artists with whom he has worked. In 1970 alone, the label released albums by, among others, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, Free, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention. In time, its roster would include U2, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, Tom Waits and the B52s.
Amid the bare-knuckle hustle of the music industry, Blackwell followed his instincts. After convening a meeting with Tom Waits at which the singer said barely a word, Island Records agreed to release the already-recorded, and subsequently epochal, Swordfishtrombones LP without anyone at the label having heard it. In 1973, Blackwell gave Bob Marley – the artist with whom Island Records truly made its name – £4,000 to make his fifth album Catch a Fire, even though he had yet to sign a contract. Later, Blackwell’s memory of advising the then gravely ill Marley to cut an acoustic version of Redemption Song, the last track he would ever record, is genuinely moving. ‘Eyes shut, lost in the words, he sang a spare version to me as an audience of one,’ he recalls.
One catches the whiff of gaddish bohemia. As the child of wealthy parents, Blackwell kept company in Jamaica with Ian Fleming, Noel Coward and Errol Flynn, but he languished at his English boarding school, where he was a sickly, and appalling, student. Then, in 1962, he accepted Fleming’s offer of a job a location scout on the first James Bond film, Dr No, with Sean Connery and Ursula Andress. Blackwell brings these famous names into his story with dinner-table nonchalance. “Noel [Coward] had been Ian’s personal choice to play the nefarious title character in the film, but when the producers offered him the role, he sent a telegram that read simply: Dr No? NO. NO. NO.”
Blackwell’s head was turned by life on a film set. Unable to determine whether his future lay in the movie or the music business, he paid a Lebanese soothsayer to make the decision for him. Of all the revelations nestled within the The Islander’s 14 chapters, the most remarkable is that the careers of hundreds of artists were built on the words, “the cards don’t lie”.
I don’t think Chris Blackwell lies, either. Certainly, his breezy admission that, at the end of the 1970s, he would have preferred to sign Spandau Ballet rather than U2 would be a clanging mea culpa were it not for the fact that the Dubliners clearly think the world of him, all the same. In 1987, U2’s decision to convert many millions of dollars in unpaid royalties into a 10% stake in Island Records saved the overstretched company from certain bankruptcy. Blackwell makes no bones about having been cash poor; but unlike others in the music industry, he was never a crook. ‘I was helpless without the artists,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t a singer or a writer; it made no sense to rip them off.’ The line works because of the shrug with which it’s delivered.
A superior story from start to finish, The Islander permits access to a remarkable world, but without any self-aggrandising razzmatazz. And whereas most music memoirs written with the help of a ghost writer are merely rambling recollections typed up and thrown indiscriminately into print, it is to the credit of Blackwell’s collaborator, the veteran journalist Paul Morley, that this story is told with a disciplined coherence that plunges deep beneath the surface.
At one point, Tom Waits tells Blackwell that he has had “had a hit life”. The same is true of Chris Blackwell, but it is a mark of his tastefulness that he leaves it unsaid.
The Islander by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley is published by Bonnier at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books