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they’ve got their boss to please. But I was
always doing my own thing.”
And Blackwell’s artist-friendly
approach ensured Island’s signings
were fiercely loyal. “I can’t sing,”
Blackwell laughs, “so of course I looked
after the artists. I’m a fan of talent, so
I was always supportive of them if I
really believed in them. They were
loyal to me because I cared about them
and I was honest with them.”
f his own music tastes, Blackwell
is candid. “I was really a jazz
fan, not a pop person. With
jazz, you’re leaving the musicians to do
what they do, because it’s something
that hasn’t been done before.”
Blackwell recalls his friendship in
the Sixties with Miles Davis. “He put
the ‘c’ in ‘cool’. For some reason, he
took a liking to me. I once asked Miles,
‘Why do you play so many bad notes?’
Trumpeters like Bix Beiderbecke or
Louis Armstrong always played clean.
He said he liked to play what was in
his head rather than what he knew he
could play. I thought to myself, ‘That’s
true jazz.’”
In the late Sixties the label entered
a new phase, enjoying global success
with rock bands such as Free; King
Crimson and Emerson; Lake & Palmer;
and folk artists including John Martyn,
Nick Drake and Fairport Convention.
Yet it is with reggae music that
Blackwell’s name will forever be most
associated. Island Records championed
Toots & the Maytals; Sly & Robbie;
Black Uhuru; and numerous other
reggae greats, but Blackwell’s most
famous signing was, of course, Bob
Marley & The Wailers.
Blackwell had been focused on
breaking Jimmy Cliff, but the singer
“I immediately
knew Bob Marley
was something
special. He had an
aura about him,
but not a conscious
one. He was just
a natural”
Blackwell at a Bob
Marley concert at
Crystal Palace, 1980
left to join EMI. Just one week later, he
met Bob Marley for the first time.
“I immediately knew that he was
something very special,” he says now.
“I always go on feel and I just felt it. He
had an aura about him, but not a
conscious one. He was just a natural.”
Blackwell gave Marley an advance of
£4,000 to record the Wailers’ first Island
album, Catch A Fire, hiring London’s
finest session players to broaden the
appeal to a white rock audience.
Crossover success took time, but
Blackwell’s investment was ultimately
repaid spectacularly. Blackwell still
takes palpable pride in discovering how
far Marley’s fame spread.
“I was recently in a health retreat in
India, and I was getting a massage from
a Tibetan. He asked where I was from,
and I said Jamaica. He just said:
‘Jamaica? Bob Marley!’” Blackwell says.
“I can’t explain it, but it’s unbelievable
how his music has touched everywhere
in the world, even in places with totally
different cultures and languages.”
Despite the astonishing success he
enjoyed with Marley, both as producer
and record company boss, Blackwell
characteristically insisted on staying
out of the spotlight. “On the first or
second time we met, I told him that we
would never have our picture taken
together. There really is only one
picture that people have ever seen,
which a girlfriend of mine took after
we’d flown back from Brazil.”
In 1976 Blackwell bought Goldeneye,
the estate in the small Jamaican town
of Oracabessa where Ian Fleming lived
and wrote his James Bond novels. After
selling Island Records, it became the
launchpad for Island Outpost, a group
of exclusive boutique hotels.
His next entrepreneurial venture was
the very first to carry his name:
Blackwell Rum, launched a decade ago.
“I really wasn’t sure about doing it at
first, because I promote other people.
But I agreed to do it as long as it was
made by Wray & Nephew, the company
that my grandfather originally owned.
So it has a story in the sense that I was
rooted in this.”
Inevitably, even the rum arrived into
the world with a sprinkling of some
serendipitous stardust. “As I was tasting
the samples, Grace Jones walked into
my little bar with three other girls,”
Blackwell remembers. “And they all
picked the same one. As you can
imagine, it’s impossible to argue with
Grace,” he laughs, as he pours out
a couple of generous measures, “so
I went with her choice.”

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