BL16 - Page 39



PROFILE
“THE BUSINESS WAS
FULL OF MISFITS AND
MAVERICKS, AND
THAT’S WHAT WAS
GREAT ABOUT IT”
From fighting with Errol Flynn to making superstars out of
Bob Marley and U2, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell is
a true original. Now owning hotels in Jamaica and selling rum,
he talks to Jonathan Wingate about a life lived like no other
N
DAV I D Y E L L E N
Below: Chris Blackwell
today, aged 81
obody, least of all Chris Blackwell himself,
could have predicted what would happen when
he founded Island Records in 1959 with £1,000,
selling his wares from the back of his Mini
Cooper. Thirty years later he would sell the
independent label for £190 million.
Blackwell, now 81, introduced the world to reggae music
and made Bob Marley a superstar. He discovered an array of
legendary artists including Steve Winwood, John Martyn and
Grace Jones, and nurtured the idiosyncratic talents of Nick
Drake, Cat Stevens and Roxy Music. He signed U2 in 1980
when no other label would touch them,
and watched them conquer the world.
Columnist Nigel Dempster once
described Blackwell as “one of the Top
10 most attractive men on the planet”;
a tough and canny businessman, in the
music industry he is known simply as
‘The Croc’. Under him, Island was
known for combining commercial
success with real artistic integrity. He
embodied the independent spirit with
his belief in giving his musicians the
space and the freedom to develop in
their own way and reach their potential.
“Major labels have all these layers
that often put artists in a box that they
really don’t want to be in,” he says,
when we meet at Boisdale of Mayfair.
“If an artist wanted to do something
39
BOISDALELIFE .COM
SUMMER 2019
ISSUE 16
that I didn’t like, I’d say so, but
I wouldn’t stop it. The main thing was
the artist succeeding and doing what
they wanted to do. I signed artists on
instinct and my feel for people. If you
get a feeling that they are bright and
serious, then let them express
themselves. I think it worked for me,
and it definitely worked for the artists.”
These days, the man who brought
reggae to the world concentrates his
energy on a different Jamaican export:
rum. He launched Blackwell Rum a
decade ago, a return of sorts to his family
roots, and an early life that was like
something from an F. Scott Fitzgerald
novel. Born in London in 1937, he came
from a prosperous family who traded
in rum, sugar, coconuts and cattle, and
much of his childhood was spent in
Jamaica. There, his family would mingle
with the glamorous likes of Ian Fleming,
Noël Coward and Errol Flynn.
“When I was 18, I stole one of Errol’s
girlfriends,” he grins. “He was the only
person who has ever hit me in my life…
so far. I first met him in 1949, just when
my parents were breaking up. He
fancied my mum, so he was especially
nice to me. He used to allow me to go
on his yacht. When he arrived in
Jamaica, he was in really bad shape and
he was drinking a lot. He’d lived a
lifetime before he was 20.”
Throughout our conversation,
Blackwell drops a seemingly neverending procession of famous names
without even a hint of a clang. His





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