Recording industry legend Chris Blackwell talks about his stellar career in the new memoir, “Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond,” which he co-wrote with Paul Morley. His book contains memories of growing up between Jamaica and London, meeting celebrities like Ian Fleming and Errol Flynn, and first meeting Bob Marley and The Wailers and recording the classic album “Catch-a-Fire”.
Blackwell’s career began when he was expelled from a British school for bad behavior at the age of 17 in 1954. He returned to Jamaica, and after five years he had founded his recording label, Island Records, which recorded many musicians who had been ignored by the major labels. They included U2, Grace Jones, Steve Winwood, Nick Drake, Roxy Music and Cat Stevens. One of the most significant moments of his career, however, was a chance meeting with Marley and The Wailers in 1972, after which Blackwell decided to produce “Catch a Fire”.
The reunion was spurred by the Wailers’ desire to return home to Jamaica. Marley was in Sweden in 1971 to write music for a film starring singer Johnny Nash. At the end of the project, he only had enough money to travel from Stockholm to London. The other two Wailers, Bunny and Pete, were with him in London, and all three were trying to earn enough to get back to Kingston. Bunny Wailer had heard of someone named Blackwell distributing his records in the UK, and record producer Coxsone Dodd mentioned that Blackwell released his pre-reggae material in the 1960s. owed money from the cast.
While Blackwell was familiar with the Wailers, he was unfamiliar with their recordings. He knew they were one of Jamaica’s best vocal groups and had adapted their sound from ska as it evolved into rocksteady. By working with Lee “Scratch” Perry, they had developed a harder, darker side to their music, and Blackwell was fond of the work from the group’s collaborations in 1970 and 1971. Jamaican radio did not play their music, however; The Wailers didn’t play the games of the recording industry, Blackwell writes.
He was impressed with their attitude when they came to his office, unannounced, and waited to see what he would offer. Blackwell writes that they were “immediately something else”. They radiated power and composure, especially Marley, who was handsome and charismatic, according to Blackwell. He writes that he thought, “This is the real thing.” He shocked and angered the three musicians when he said their music would never be played on radio in the United States in its current form. He told them they had to come out as black rock artists, but that didn’t mean selling out or losing their identity. Blackwell noted that Marley was intrigued because he understood that black Jamaican music was constantly changing and evolving.
Since Blackwell had never seen the Wailers perform, he asked if they were good at live gigs. Marley replied, “We’re great,” and Blackwell was convinced. When they asked him for £4,000 to make an album, he agreed on the spot, without asking them to sign anything. He was ready to take a risk on them right away. He said it seemed like the right thing to do, and the result was “Catch a Fire”.