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Observer senior writer—


MUCH has been written about Chris Blackwell’s role in making reggae an international force. Most of it has been complimentary, some views have been scathing.

Chris Blackwell

Chris Blackwell

The co-founder of Island Records, Blackwell’s stamp on Jamaican music is pivotal. That label had a hand in introducing ska, rocksteady, roots-reggae, and dancehall to a diverse audience.

Blackwell’s greatest achievement at Island was signing The Wailers, releasing two outstanding albums by the trio. He then unleashed their unofficial leader, Bob Marley, on the world.

Blackwell is seen by some as the last great music industry man. He came up in the era of Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, Clive Davis of Columbia Records, Berry Gordy at Motown, and Al Bell at Stax.

The know-how those men possessed helped make talented artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding legends.

The Wailers

The Wailers

Blackwell is synonymous with Marley’s remarkable rise in the 1970s. At a time when reggae was still an underground sound with sluggish sales, he ensured Marley had the support base critical to an artist’s success.

That included a proper booking agent, publicist, and competent management. This machinery guaranteed Marley was on par with the top pop acts of the period, even though his albums were not mega sellers.

Like Ertegun, Davis, Gordy, and Bell, Blackwell amassed a formidable catalogue that was worth a pretty penny once he decided to step away from the daily grind of the music business in the late 1980s.

Marley’s albums are a cornerstone of that catalogue. But there are also quality titles from The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, U2, Melissa Etheridge, Toots And The Maytals, Burning Spear, Third World, Aswad, Steel Pulse, Grace Jones, Black Uhuru and Chaka Demus and Pliers.

Burning Spear

Burning Spear

Blackwell was born in the United Kingdom to an Irish father and Jamaican mother. His maternal line, the Lindos, are Jamaican Jews who first came to Jamaica in the 17th century.

Along with Leslie Kong and Australian Graeme Goodall, Blackwell started Island in 1959. Moving to London three years later, he found a market hungry for music from Jamaica, with the influx of immigrants to the UK.

Island helped push songs like Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop to number two on the British national chart in 1964. He also exposed the songwriting talent of Jackie Edwards and skills of guitarist Ernie Ranglin.

Blackwell’s ties to reggae have not always been smooth. Marley’s former colleagues in The Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, are two of his biggest critics.

Millie Small

Millie Small

Tosh was particularly harsh, constantly referring to him as “Chris Whitewell”.

Blackwell went into the leisure industry after taking a break from music. He launched Island Outpost, a company that oversees quaint getaways like Jake’s in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth.

In the 1990s he launched Island Jamaica, which produced albums by Beenie Man (Blessed) and Luciano (Where There Is Life); in 1993, his Mango subsidiary released A ll She Wrote, a record-breaking album by Chaka Demus and Pliers.

In 2004, Chris Blackwell was awarded the Order of Jamaica by the Jamaican government for his contribution to Jamaican music.

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