Chris Blackwell is the founder of Island Records, one of the greatest independent record labels in musical history, and the owner of Ian Fleming's former Jamaican home, Goldeneye. He talks to Rosie Paterson about how he's still working aged 83, and the records he'd still like to produce.
Chris Blackwell has spent the majority of his life on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, but when he likely wanted to be there most — during the coronavirus pandemic — he found himself stuck in New York, US. Thankfully, he found his imposed five month residency quite fun: ‘It was a bit strange. There were no sirens, no police car sounds, no loud trucks and no bus noises. I was in lockdown very close to Central Park. When the weather was nice we could go out with our masks on, sit around and enjoy sandwiches. It was not a terrible experience for me, it was an interesting one.’
Back in his beachside office, Blackwell — who celebrated his 83rd birthday in June — spends his time working on a variety of documentary programmes he’s involved in, or on a new record idea (he prefers vinyl). He’s keen to release a series of compilation albums, featuring artists he worked with during his Island Record days.
He founded the legendary recording company in 1959 and subsequently forged the careers of Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Etta James, U2, Nirvana… the list goes on. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — into which Blackwell was inducted in 2001, went as far to state that he is: ‘the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music.’
Once can only assume that such an album would instantly top the charts.
In the 1970s, he purchased Goldeneye, Ian Fleming’s Jamaican house and estate, and the place where he wrote all of the James Bond novels.
‘My mother asked me to buy it,’ explains Blackwell. ‘It had been kept for Ian Fleming’s son, but sadly he passed away so the house and the property came on the market [it was initially bought by Marley, who then put it back up for sale a year later].
‘My mother used to swim there all the time and she rang me and asked me if I would buy it. And as a dutiful son, I bought it.’
Parts of the first James Bond film, along with subsequent sequels, were shot in Jamaica and near the estate — with the help of Blackwell, who worked as a location scout. In No Time to Die — the 25th iteration — Blackwell was called upon again by the production team, an opportunity he relished.
Come April 2021, when the film is (finally) released, eagle-eyed viewers might just happen to spot a bottle of Blackwell’s own-brand rum (distilled on the island) in James Bond’s house.
In the ensuing decade, Blackwell bought up parts of the land surrounding the estate, before opening it as a small hotel in the late 1980’s. Under Fleming’s ownership, visitors included Lucien Freud, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Princess Margaret; under Blackwell’s, Michael Caine, Pierce Brosnan and Kate Moss have all stayed. Sting wrote Every Breath You Take at Fleming’s desk.
It took a not-inconsiderable amount of dedication, creativity and sheer guts for Blackwell to get to where he is today. Following a lacklustre performance in school, he settled in Jamaica, and started a motor scooter rental company and worked as a water ski instructor, in Jamaica. One night, he came across a band, visiting from Bermuda, liked what he heard and asked he could record them. At that point in time, he knew nothing about recording and had never stepped foot in a recording studio.
‘I rented a Volkswagen van and the band and I drove into Kingston. They went into the studio and I went into the control room — which means you are supposed to be in control, but I had no experience,’ he says.
‘The band played the first take and they all looked up at me, but I really had no idea what to say. The lead player, Lance Hayward, said, “shall I play it again?” So he rescued me from my inability to respond to them. So I just replied, “yes, please do.” From that moment on, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.’
At first, the producer struggled to get his acts’ songs played on the radio, so he invested in 63 jukeboxes, which he loaded the tracks on to and covered the island with.
Soon after, he was travelling to Italy with the aforementioned Bob Marley, to watch him play for 100,000 people in a stadium lit by cigarette lighters, held aloft by the crowd.
He describes Jamaica as a ‘blessed island’, and a huge source of inspiration. ‘It has everything going for it, from agriculture to beaches and the mountains, but most of all, the people are really extraordinary. They have had tough times in their lives, but they are great people. I love Jamaica. This country is definitely the place I love most in the world.’
Interestingly, Blackwell’s first hit record — 1965’s Keep on Running by Steve Windwood — was penned by a Jamaican songwriter who had helped him deliver physical records to music stores in the early days of his career.
At the time, Blackwell was working in London, England, so he had the songwriter flown to England, to join him. There he noticed an increasing interest in American Black music (especially from Chicago), which people would listen to via the offshore pirate radio station, Radio Caroline.
‘It is interesting to hear them [the songs he recorded] now, 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years on from when they were recorded.’
Go to office uniform
I have never worn any uniform, especially in Jamaica!
Messy or tidy desk?
I do not play music while I am working.
The best piece of career advice you’ve ever had?
Keep your word.
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