Updated: May 1
The most far-reaching element of Jamaica’s culture has been its music and it is through this element that Jamaica has succeeded ahead of most countries in exporting its culture around the world. Jamaica’s music touches more people around the world than any other aspect of the nation’s culture, a feat that would have been difficult to achieve without the contribution of one Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell. Chris Blackwell was born in Westminster, London, in 1937. His parents were considerably well off and lived in Jamaica where they made their money from rum, sugarcane, and their real estate holdings. At age 17 after being expelled from school in England, Blackwell returned to Jamaica with no plans and little direction.
In 1958, he reportedly had a near-death experience as a boating excursion he was on with two friends went horribly wrong when the vessel ran out of fuel and eventually drifted ashore along the island’s south coast. Blackwell figuring, he could search for help eventually came across a Rastafarian man (at the time Rastas were outcasts in Jamaica and feared as “black heart men”) but this Rasta man though, took Blackwell into his community, offering him food, water, and a place to rest. The encounter would set Blackwell on a remarkable path which he would pursue through music, with Jamaica at its center.
THE BIRTH OF ISLAND RECORDS He eventually began peddling records around the island to sound men including Duke Reid, Coxsone, the brothers Vincent and George of the King Edwards the Giant sound system as well as supplying his 63 juke boxes he had leased and littered across the island. The experience served him well as it brought him in contact with more everyday Jamaicans and even more, it provided him with the chance to learn what they were listening to. It taught him the value of the sound system and the sound man as the barometer for what songs people loved. Ultimately the thought occurred that he should make his own records. And he eventually did when he recorded the album “Lance Hayward at the Half Moon Hotel.” It was released on his newly formed Island Records label with address as Box 258, Jamaica West Indies. Chris Blackwell was 22 years of age at the time and in his own words this was what he knew he wanted to do for the rest of his life. ABUNDANCE OF TALENT Blackwell’s decision was timely as it coincided with a period of rapid change in the island’s music scene. For one, Stanley Motta had begun to commercially record people’s voices at his business establishment located Hanover Street in Kingston. Theophilus Beckford had recorded “Easy snapping,” a piano led joint that Coxsone kept as a special for his sound and which drew dance fans by the hundreds, and which also signaled that Jamaicans really loved the Jamaican artiste’s output. By then, other locals had started to record, their numbers swelled by the local talent contests. The confluence of circumstances provided a pool of talent from which Blackwell was able to snatch. Wilfred Jackie Edwards was the first grab Blackwell made, followed by Owen Gray, and Laurel Aitken. It was a period when Jamaican sound men were desperate for unique material to trounce each other as foreign records had run their course among the set owners. Moreover, the success of local talent shows meant that a ready and eager crop of newly minted talent eager to hear their voices on record. THE FIRST HITS Laurel Aitken’s “Boogie in My Bones” provided Blackwell with his first hit and like a magnet, Blackwell’s connections helped to anchor people like the Australian engineer Graeme Goodall, the Australian musicians known as the Caribs who played at the Glass Bucket Club into the Jamaican recording scene. Those connections similarly extended outwards and helped to push Aitken’s record into the British market. Island Record’s was strengthened with the addition of Goodall and Leslie Kong as shareholders, each holding 24% of the shares apiece. The company’s distribution capabilities and connections were used to push the output of several local artistes into Britain. Jimmy Cliff’s Hurricane Hattie, Bob Marley’s Judge Not, Wilfred Jackie Edwards, and Owen Gray. That recording artistes had the opportunity for their music to be taken overseas provided further impetus. Blackwell departed Jamaica’s shores just before the bells of Independence stopped sounding in 1962. PULLING STUMPS FOR ENGLAND There was a robust market for Jamaican music in the UK courtesy of the Windrush generation and Blackwell’s Island Records saw that imports far outstripped the number of copies being sold in Jamaica. In any event, the winds of Independence echoed the strong Jamaican persona that would push the country forward in the new post-colonial period. Things had changed dramatically, and Blackwell opted to apply what he had learned in Jamaica, in Britain. He left for London after Jamaica won its independence in 1962, believing that, as an Englishman, he was on “the wrong side of history”. He arrived at an opportune time as the British blues boom was just beginning. His first British hit though would come from a pair of white English women Lois Wilkinson and Andrea Simpson who he rechristened The Caravelles. The song was titled “You Don’t Have to Cry.” and it was distributed on Decca Records. According to Blackwell, “It was the whitest, fluffiest record I had ever been involved with. It lacked rhythm or punch, but it was sitting at #3 on the British charts in 1963, duplicating that position a year later in the US charts.”
FORTUNE AND FAVORS His next major hit would come from Jamaica where he still maintained links. Those links identified the precocious talent of 16-year-old Jamaican Millie Small. Her distinct, high-pitched voice had intrigued him on a song he heard back on the island, and he decided to use Millie’s voice on a Barbie Gaye song “My Boy Lollipop.” The song worked and sped to sales of over of over seven million copies. It marked the immediate take-off of Jamaican music not only in England but also across Europe and America. He would find similar success with Jimmy Cliff whom he reportedly backed in the cult film “The Harder They Come” which was credited with introducing Reggae Music to the British and North American audiences. When Cliff decided to sign with Colombia Records the decision opened a void in the Island Records’ lineup of artistes which included some of the biggest names and Blackwell reportedly reached out to the Wailers but was rebuffed by the group. His fortunes would shift dramatically however, when the group’s tour of the UK in 1970/71 fell apart and Marley approached Blackwell for assistance to get the group back home to Jamaica. According to reports, Blackwell provided the group with 4,000.00 pounds for which work on an album was promised. The result was the ground-breaking “Catch A Fire” album and the beginning of one of Reggae music’s biggest and most productive of relationships.
ISALND’S REGGAE LINE-UP Through Island, Blackwell introduced reggae to the broader world’s musical consciousness and was instrumental in creating Bob Marley’s breakthrough after deciding to market him as a rock star. He surmised the rhythm in the music should be a bit more rock, to reach that wide, college audience, and it worked. He went on to raise the music’s profile to higher levels by championing artists such as Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Third World, Inner Circle, Black Uhuru, Sly and Robbie, Luciano, and Buju Banton, as well as British reggae acts like Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
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