For forty years CHRIS BLACKWELL has survived on killer instincts, killer bud and tough business tactics. Along the way, he's changed the course of pop music launching Bob Marley, Steve Winwood and U2. Now, at age sixty-one, he's starting all over again.
February 18, 1999
By FRED SCHRUERS
Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK
FOR CHRIS BLACKWELL, THE trip from the racing clock of the pop-culture marketplace to the quiet waters of his upbringing is about five minutes by jet ski. That's how long it takes to get to the bend in this tidal river, only half a mile from Orcabessa Bay, Jamaica. Here it feels like jungle, completely overhung by a canopy of trees full of chattering birds. Blackwell brings his jet ski to a stop and sits, sphinxlike, at once placid and alert. Somebody's coming down the root-strewn path that hides along the river.
Blackwell tilts his head in greeting as a Rasta - about six foot six, with a curiously fierce expression and tailed by his wife and young child - stops on the bank and stares at what he surely knows is the richest man in the parish. Blackwell is the chief provider in these parts. He has plans to revitalize the local economy and job market with a sprawling event complex at the mouth of this river, but his largess goes only so far. Sometimes, when it's clear he's about to be panhandled, he'll unfurl his empty pockets. It's a trick he learned from Bob Marley, the reggae hero who launched his career on Blackwell's Island Records. As the big dread fixes him with a gaze, Blackwell flashes a mild, expectant grin. Finally, the man spits out his entire speech: "Looking fish."
Blackwell smiles slowly. Right now he's pleased to be out of cell phone range - he carries as many as five of those pesky things - and in a place where life comes down to looking fish, a place he's called home since he was six months old. He needs to get back to the phones soon - the moves he makes in launching his new enterprise, Palm Pictures, are the most crucial in what constitutes Blackwell's second coming in the entertainment industry - but he appears content to drift on the river for now.
Since founding Island Records in 1959 (he sold it to PolyGram in '89), Blackwell has nurtured a whole generation of musicians, taking the hits where he found them but, more crucially, investing his own time (often at a studio console) and capital in bringing along the likes of Marley, Steve Winwood, Tom Waits and U2. You couldn't make him up in a novel: a sandal-clad, globe-trotting son of Jamaica's plantation aristocracy who has used almost mysterious means to bring the island's culture to the world marketplace. When Blackwell breezes into a conference room (though he prefers doing business on a beach), with him comes business savvy but also the unbuyable clout that derives from having demonstrably superior taste.
Blackwell is responsible for some of the most important music of the last forty years (he brought not just Bob Marley but reggae itself to a wide international audience), almost all of it bearing his personal stamp. What plays in the record business as fierce independence, Blackwell wears as sangfroid, even aloofness. He recalls with wry pride the days when he'd come to the States to buy up R&B records, then scratch the labels off and resell them at a markup to backwoods DJs and jukebox owners. He has used his street smarts and that aloofness well; every negotiation carries a subtext that this cool customer is ready to simply walk away from the table if the record game gets too silly. When he decided in November to back out of Island's deal with PolyGram - he was fed up with the mixture of corporate interference and apathy - the decision seemed willful. Now that PolyGram has been folded into the Seagram conglomerate, with much of its roster sent packing and Island relegated to stepchild status, it seems prescient. At sixty-one, Blackwell has parachuted out of this new world record-biz order to do what he does best: found a company that exploits his own visionary streak. Palm Pictures is a plank that will extend out of Blackwell's umbrella company, Island-life, which intertwines adventurous world music with indie movies and his chain of posh but rustic resorts.
It's a curiously personal business, right down to the feasibly autobiographical theme of his first film entry: James Toback's Black and White, about white kids' fascination with black culture. As if to ensure that he is still working the fringe, Blackwell is trusting in the emerging DVD (digital versatile disc) to carry his products into the marketplace. And even as he reinvents his business, Blackwell is struggling on the personal front: Mary Vinson, his wife of less than a year, is fighting a life-threatening battle with cancer. That specter has made Blackwell more relentlessly himself - workaholic, gambler, inspirational figure. Yes, he's been painfully shorn of the Island name. But the impresario seems eager to go forth in his new skin.
"We're going back to the beginning, when I used to scratch labels off records," he says, with a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "I have a chance to start again with a kind of clean slate."
WHEN IT'S TIME TO HEAD BACK OUT the river, Blackwell powers off, ducking branches and ripping a wake in the shallow brown water till he breaks free into the Caribbean, cresting waves and slapping through troughs, while his visitor lags behind - it's what U2 manager Paul McGuinness calls "trial by jet ski."
He turns toward shore and Goldeneye, the former Ian Fleming retreat where the James Bond books were spawned at a fan-shaped desk still sitting in the departed author's refurbished house. It's now one of Blackwell's many worldwide way stations - and yours, too, if you've got the thirty-five grand a week it rents for. What he calls Island Outpost includes seven hip hotels in Miami's South Beach and six retreats in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Few of the guests will be as determinedly barefoot as the man who wafts through with a slightly remote gaze, then disappears down a lane guarded only by a rickety gate and a hand-painted sign that reads "private."
Blackwell throttles around a coral reef and putters up to his private lodgings overlooking the bay. As architects and designers assemble in his airy white-painted shed of an office, Blackwell showers, slicks back his hair and, after a pause in which the scent of spliff wafts from his quarters, reports in his usual businesswear of T-shirt, shorts and sandals. His wave-running caper means that the meeting must be gracefully hurried through, and then, over ackee and jerk chicken, he lays out his vision for Palm Pictures.
"We're mainly about music," says Blackwell. "But the strange thing about the entertainment business is, nobody can really tell you what your plans are. .You don't know where the hits are going to come from." The company's name reflects its reliance on things visual, and though Palm's roster - including Sly and Robbie, Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin and Senegalese singer Baaba Maal is available on CD, each artist has eye candy planned for the DVD versions.
"With Palm," says Blackwell, as one of two cell phones he has laid out starts to vibrate and, ignored, discreetly crab itself across the table, "we've got a chance to try and see if we can make what we do really count."
The catalog of Bob Marley alone guarantees Blackwell's legacy, yet Marley arrived only in the middle of Island's history; what's left of the label will celebrate its fortieth anniversary this year. That history includes reggae artists Jimmy Cliff and Black Uhuru, folkies Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, hippie heroes Traffic, Free and Jethro Tull, chameleons like Robert Palmer and Winwood, and anthemic bands the Cranberries and U2. What Blackwell is up to this time is still being defined. But he made a symbolic start in launching Palm with an album of nimble, evocative guitar from Ranglin - the very artist he debuted with back in 1959.
Storied though his offbeat aesthetic is, Blackwell has never claimed to be adept at spotting every trend - "I missed punk," he admits. And Palm, not geared to buying up expensive free agents, will need luck and keen scouting to establish its musical turf. Meanwhile, Blackwell is by most estimates a good three years ahead of mass consumers' accepting DVD as the system of the future. And there's always a chance that that simply won't happen.
Few people are better suited to the challenge. The leonine young Blackwell has been replaced by a more sedate figure: The bushy shock of strawberry blond hair has thinned, the waist thickened just slightly (though he's as fit as a stevedore from wave running), and what's been called a skipper's squint - he doesn't rely on sunglasses - is deeply creased. Blackwell's PolyGram misadventure still piques. "I suppose I could be cast as the spoiled brat," he says, without buying the idea. Perhaps the union was doomed from the day in 1989 when he sold Island for $300 million while retaining his role as chairman of the company. "I think [PolyGram] was keen for my involvement, to help identify and sign some acts but really not so much run it. That was fine with me; I made a conscious attempt to avoid withdrawal symptoms." Still, he found himself stymied when he urged the corporation to acquire the music-on-TV network the Box and to buy a half-stake in Interscope Records. Both ideas were nixed. Meanwhile, recriminations shot back and forth between Blackwell and the corporate chiefs. It was "a miserable experience," he says. Relations with PolyGram honcho Alain Levy became what then executive vice president Hooman Majd calls "not a war ... but icy. The PolyGram top brass and Chris finally decided that a parting was best for everyone." The deal was severed in a flurry of faxes.
"I don't think he would have been happy anywhere he didn't have complete control of his destiny," says longtime pal and music-biz mandarin Ahmet Ertegun. "He's a free spirit who doesn't like to be accountable to anybody else. He's an owner, and I don't think he's happy in a situation where he's just part of a corporate structure."
The PolyGram deal soured at the same time that Vinson was stricken with cancer. She and Blackwell had been a couple for several years, and her fabric designs are visible on furnishings throughout the Island Outpost empire. She's a handsome African-American woman whose quiet watchfulness amid strangers cloaks a very lively spirit. " Blackwell wouldn't tolerate anyone who didn't seek that particular independence," says his childhood friend John Pringle. "It was many, many years ago Blackwell said, 'Pring, I just met the most remarkable girl. I'm wild about her.' And that was Mary."
"I met her with Grace Jones," says Blackwell, laughing at the vision of the dignified Vinson with the tempestuous Jones. "Quiet little Grace and Proud Mary."
When U2 were commissioned to write the theme for the Bond film GoldenEye, the band turned to Blackwell's childhood and his profoundest romance for inspiration. "That song's lyric is about a white man and a black woman," says McGuinness. "It's actually about Chris." ("You'll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child," runs the song. "You'll never know how it feels to get so close and be denied.")
Ultimately, Blackwell wasn't denied. But he must have thought that some harsh gods were at work when the one woman he'd come to after a lifetime of restless bachelorhood was diagnosed with cancer. And though he has no use for anyone's pity, what was once an easy grin lately dawns more reluctantly. Despite, or very possibly because of, his wife's illness, he is working harder than ever. For Blackwell now, the difference between opportunities and problems is not substantial. Both represent work, and work beats brooding.
IN BLACKWELL'S OFFICE AT GOLDENEYE, hung discreetly on the memento-littered wall, is a picture signed by Errol Flynn ("To my pal Chris"). According to John Pringle - who notes, "Our families have been great friends going back a couple of hundred years" - Blackwell's mother, Blanche Lindo, was a great hostess and a femme fatale: "Errol Flynn was madly in love with her, and Ian Fleming was her great lover for many, many years." Now in her Eighties, Blanche has her own picturesque white cabin overlooking the bay at Goldeneye (Blackwell's father died a few years ago).
Chris Blackwell was born in London on June 22nd, 1937. His father, Middleton Joseph Blackwell, known as Blackie, was serving as an officer in the Irish Guards when he met Blanche Lindo. She was descended from Sephardic Jews who fled Portugal during the Inquisition, arriving in Jamaica around i680 to grow wealthy as merchants.
Chris was six months old when his parents brought him to Jamaica. He grew up sickly with bronchial asthma, roaming the house and grounds with the family's Jamaican staff as his companions - and missing plenty of school. "I couldn't read or write at eight," says Blackwell. A shy child, he was witness to a social scene that included Flynn, Fleming and Noel Coward "at great dinner parties where [his father] used to play Wagner and Strauss very loud." His parents were divorced when he was twelve, and Blackwell was sent to England's prestigious Harrow school. Though he was raised mostly by his mother and grandmother, he spent some memorable teenage summers with the remarried Blackie in Lake Forest, Illinois. During that time, the younger Blackwell often made the forty-mile trek to Chicago's South Side blues bars and the jazz lounge at the Sutherland Hotel. Blackwell liked the sophistication and the easy biracial intermingling of the jazz world. At age seventeen, he was publicly flogged and dismissed from Harrow for selling liquor and cigarettes to schoolmates. "Because I left without any qualifications whatsoever, I figured I had to live by my wits," he says. "That's why I have avoided any serious drugs all my life." He tried accounting, forsook that for gaming rooms and racetracks, and then returned to Jamaica in 1958. He toyed at real estate and taught waterskiing. For a time he was an aide to a Jamaican governor-general, and later he worked on the first James Bond film, Dr. No. But when he visited a fortuneteller, the tea leaves said he should be in business for himself.
Blackwell sneaked in the back door of the record business with the Rangun record and a single, "Little Sheila," by Laurel Aitken, that went to Number One in Jamaica. By 1962 he'd put out twenty-six singles and set up a Kingston office. But local producers were still outscoring him, and soon he headed for London, where he made the rounds of the city's poverty-ridden West Indian enclaves, servicing jukeboxes, clubs and small record shops from the back of his Mini Cooper. After hearing Millie Small's candy-coated screech on a hit single, Blackwell put her in a studio with Ranglin to recut the pop hit "My Boy Lollipop"; it sold 6 million copies. Producer Joe Boyd tells the story of Blackwell returning with Millie from a world tour; he watched her mother come to the door of the family's humble Kingston home, back away and bow. "At that point," says Boyd, echoing Blackwell's embarrassment, "Chris realized he wasn't a genius but an idiot."
He would bring his next discovery along very carefully. In 1964, on a trip to do a Birmingham TV spot with Millie, he went to a hail where the fifteen-year-old Stevie Winwood was singing in the Spencer Davis Group. "I had never seen anything quite like it," says Blackwell.
STEVE WINWOOD'S LIMBER-VOICED R&B stylings brought successive hits in 1966 with "Keep on Running" and "Gimme Some Lovin'." But around 1967, singles-driven sales were giving way to "album rock" - Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin. A few quick ticks through Blackwell's roster - Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Roxy Music - show how central Island and its ethos were to the era. Blackwell's keen ears were matched with great instincts for building bands. "When Island started, it was a niche company, and the artists we had were mainly rejects," he says. He learned a lesson then that he's still heeding today: "As an independent, you've got to carve your own unique point of view. Then hopefully you refine, develop and expand it."
Island did not neglect its Jamaican roots, and the film The Harder They Come, along with its soundtrack, became a pop classic. But the film's star, Jimmy Cliff, turned Muslim: "Right after Harder, he looked like a rebel hero," says Blackwell, "and the next album, he looked like - a hotel waiter." Blackwell found his new rebel on the historic day in 1971 when Bob Marley, broke after a dismal Scandinavian tour, walked into Blackwell's London office. Blackwell sensed Marley's hunger, and they struck a deal. In those days in Jamaica, recalls Joe Boyd, their arrangement was rare. Typically, he says, "you had to make a single in three hours. And for Chris to go to the Wailers and say, 'Here's a plane ticket to Nassau; just go hang out there as long as you like, make a record …' is just one of the great visionary moments in the annals of running a record label."
"Suddenly [Marley] was filling a space," Blackwell recalls of the resulting Catch a Fire, "a space you didn't even realize was there until he was in it." Even now, eighteen years after his death, Marley's greatest-hits album sells more than 10,000 copies in an average week in the U.S. Blackwell says he thinks about Marley's demise - the result of cancer linked, Blackwell believes, to a long-neglected toe infection - every day. "It's a continuing sadness. When that toe thing happened, he was advised in England to go have it amputated. I forgot about the toe thing. Everybody forgot about it."
Marley refused to make a will; this resulted in years of lawsuits and strife between his wife, Rita, his children with her and with other women, and various labels, publishers and claimants. Now, after years of simmering conflicts, Blackwell has a subsidiary called Blue Mountain Music that looks after the key rights to Marley's legacy, and Rita's lawyers assert that she's happy with Blackwell's stewardship. "So much - everything - is communication," says Blackwell of the delicate, ongoing treaty.
Blackwell shepherded Winwood through landmark Traffic records like 1970's John Barleycorn Must Die and what Winwood admits was a "wishy-washy" early solo career. But by the time Winwood was due to sign a new deal, Blackwell recalls, "Our relationship had deteriorated…I'd been looking after him from when he was fifteen, so it's almost like somebody wanting to get out from under their parent." When Winwood wanted to tour with Traffic band mate Jim Capaldi, Blackwell gave him back the band's name - for a price. Even Spencer Davis, who worked in A&R for Blackwell, has said, "The man's a cobra." In fact, few can claim to have gotten the best of Blackwell in a business deal.
A HANDFUL OF BLACKWELL'S Islandlife lieutenants have gathered at the mountaintop Island Outpost retreat known as Strawberry Hill. It's a mountain aerie, staffed by locals from the village of Redlight and now a luxurious inn and spa. When a helicopter carrying Blackwell comes chattering up the valley, they begin assembling in the great house Marley used to borrow for trysts. The afternoon is spent amid documents and laptops; as dusk falls, Blackwell paces the lawn with his cell phone. Finally, as Kingston's lights blink on below, he sits to talk. The phones - one colleague says he tracks his boss with "twenty-seven land lines, five mobiles and the tail number of the plane" - are mute. He seems a touch fatigued, his gently modulated tones in some danger of being drowned out by crickets in the warm night.
Just a week ago, Blackwell was visited here by the extended family he's still discovering - a five-year-old son, named after him, who lives with a former lover in Los Angeles and a grandson, age nine, born to the thirty-two-year-old woman who is a result of a long-ago liaison with an Asian girlfriend. The son in Los Angeles was born "about the same time, in 1992, that I got firm proof [via biological testing] of the fact that this young lady was my daughter. So from having no children as far as I knew, suddenly there was a little boy and a daughter and a grandson." The face that some have compared to Errol Flynn's almost succumbs to grandfatherliness.
"I have never seen him so carried away by family," says Pringle. Family, of course, includes Mary, and while Blackwell says starting his new company means he'll have to be "very much in transit," his unspoken agenda is to be near Mary and the elite New York doctors she needs. "Unfortunately," says Blackwell, wearily rubbing his cheekbones, "you don't get OK from her kind of illness. It comes and goes. She was in very bad shape a year and a half ago and she came out of it, sort of a miracle, really. But, you know, it hides, then comes back around again."
The private jet that would let him enjoy his ocean-hopping life won't be graced by his wife as often as he'd like. But he's a born itinerant: " I have always been a kind of a loner, you know, a bit of an outsider, so I can go anywhere. I'm still kind of comfortable everywhere. I don't live the life of somebody who figures out who they are going to have lunch, drinks and dinner with, going to cocktail parties and the theater. I just like building things, making things, causing things to happen and chasing ideas I'm excited about."
Tonight, Blackwell will host a table of fourteen: European staffers, Jamaican friends and New York musician Bill Laswell, fresh from a Cuban jaunt. But Mary, he now hears from an aide, won't be at dinner; she's eaten something and retired for the night. He stands now, stretching and quietly readying himself for the sociable meal. His features are composed in that Blackwellian mask that bespeaks both warmth and a certain ultimate remoteness. "In a strange way," John Pringle says, "Blackwell, in his jeans with a tear in the leg and an old T-shirt, has always been a very, very glamorous man."
He's the lead man in a considerable business empire, but he's got more distraction than most. Can Blackwell weather it all? As the crickets stay busy in the background, he answers evenly: "You adjust, deal with whatever you have to go through at any time. Human beings are very adaptable. I believe you have to play the cards you're dealt as well as you can play them. You can't just throw in the hand."
Contributing editor Fred Schruers interviewed Master P in RS 798